by J.R. Dunn

Combat drugs are far from unknown in SF. Usually they take the form of a “kamikaze” or “berserker” drug that causes infantrymen (always infantry, never armor or aviation or other operational specialties) to run amok in the face of the enemy and cut down anything that moves. The protagonist is commonly tormented by nightmares filled with half-remembered visions of inhuman crimes. It gets worse with each mission. He begins to fall apart… (Fill in ending here).

This, of course, is nonsense, written from the point of view that warfare is nothing more than organized murder carried out by maniacs. As dangerous, destructive, and regrettable as war may be, it remains, as Clausewitz never ceased to point out, a rational enterprise. Demented behavior is as unacceptable in combat as in any other circumstance. Murder during wartime is a crime, and is punished as such when discovered, as in the case of the Nazi war criminals or the “rogue platoon” in Afghanistan1. A drug that encouraged irrational behavior would be the last thing anyone would want on a battlefield. (This, by the way, is why the LSD experiments carried out at the Edgewood Arsenal in the 1950s never went anywhere2. LSD sprayed on an enemy would leave most of them laid back and grooving, as the experimenters hoped. But there was that small percentage that would have bad trips and then acted out. Bummer, man -- not at all recommended when they might be in control of, say, nuclear weapons.)

Further objections are revealed by the adage “heroes get people killed.” Modern commanders do not like berserkers or kamikazes; neither did Vikings. See Egil's Saga. Neither embodies the qualities required of a soldier on the millennial battlefield: coolness under fire, alertness and a clear head, the ability to follow orders and yet display initiative when called upon. In the final analysis, war is too important to be left to the wild men.

This is not to discount the use of drugs in combat, but to suggest that they will be something quite different from the way they’ve commonly been depicted in fiction. Rather than trigger atavistic R-complex frenzies, military drugs would increase endurance, focus attention and concentration, and modulate fears and other forms of emotional turbulence. Simply put, drugs will be utilized to enhance the effectiveness of good soldiering, to hone, support, and augment the basic military virtues.

What kind of drugs would these be? The best way to answer that is to discover what type of drugs the troops use now. Drugs have always been common in the military. The cup of Navy joe, heavy on the sugar and with enough caffeine to stun a horse, certainly qualifies as a drug, as does the tot of rum doled out to British troops and sailors before battle. Infinitely rebrewed coffee worked to increase alertness and energy, while rum instilled courage (though not recklessness) and calmed fluttering hearts.

While times have changed, need has not. Today’s soldiers dose themselves with a variety of drugs of far greater potency than caffeine and alcohol, and for many of the same reasons. Drugs commonly used by troops include:

  • Amphetamines. To increase alertness and levels of endurance, and reduce the need for sleep.
  • Steroids. For the same purpose as any civilian weightlifter – to quickly build muscle mass. But for soldiers, the critical factor is speed in combat situations, when a delay of half a second can mark the difference between life and death.
  • Smart drugs. Soldiers have adapted various types of cognitive enhancers not only to increase analytical abilities but to help focus attention and improve pattern recognition, both invaluable in the combat environment.


Amphetamines, as anyone who has seen the Val Kilmer film The Salton Sea is well aware, have a lengthy military history. Although discovered late in the 19th century, decades passed before the drug’s stimulative properties were recognized. Pervitin, the first commercial methamphetamine, developed by the pharmaceutical firm Temmler, went on the market in Germany in 19383. Pervitin came to the attention of Otto Ranke, director of the Institute for General and Defense Physiology at Berlin's Academy of Military Medicine, who cleared it for use by the Wehrmacht.

Sleeplessness, along with ensuing exhaustion, was a longstanding military problem made worse by the mechanization of armed forces. A recent study carried out by the US Army discovered that missing over two nights sleep left Army Rangers and Navy SEALs in worse condition as regards alertness, reaction times, and problem-solving than if they were legally drunk. Errors multiplied, misunderstandings grew rampant, and irritability and belligerence became the norm.

Pervitin was tested on drivers and other personnel with good results during the Polish campaign of 1939. Preparations for the invasion of France in 1940 saw more than 35 million tablets issued to German military personnel. It might not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that the Blitzkrieg owed some of its lightning-fast execution to being carried out by an army on speed.

While Pervitin and associated amphetamines were banned as narcotics throughout the Reich in 1941, shipments to the front continued. It wasn’t at all uncommon for troops to ask family members to send extra supplies in frontline care packages.

In March 1944 Vice-Admiral Hellmuth Heye asked the German pharma industry to produce a drug "that can keep soldiers ready for battle when they are asked to continue fighting beyond a period considered normal, while at the same time boosting their self-esteem." The industry responded with D-IX, a pill consisting of five milligrams of cocaine, three milligrams of Pervitin, and five milligrams of a morphine derivative4. The pill was tested on concentration-camp inmates at Sachsenhausen, who were forced to run on circular courses while wearing heavy backpacks. Many ran for hours before they collapsed. Although D-IX was approved, the war ended before it had an opportunity to transform the surviving males of Germany into demented scarecrows strung out three distinct ways.

Amphetamines were also employed by the British (Montgomery had them issued to his famed 8th Army) and the Japanese, who distributed large amounts both to military personnel and civilian factory workers. (“That's why it took an A-bomb to stop 'em,” Kilmer’s character explains in Salton Sea.)

American wartime use of speed was limited. Amphetamines were issued before the Normandy invasion to enable the first waves to fight until they could be relieved. Amphetamine use was formalized with the introduction of Dexedrine during the postwar period. These were well-suited for the lengthy alert patrols characteristic of Cold War air operations. Use expanded during the Vietnam War, when members of all services began utilizing dexies to battle fatigue and increase alertness – both desirable in what was in large part a guerilla conflict. Antiwar critics accused the military of using amphetamines as a “berserker” drug, forcing heavy doses on combat troops that supposedly led to atrocities against helpless villagers and enemy POWs. (This was the basis of a truly lousy war novel by Nicholas Proffitt, The Embassy House, in which CIA agents take speed to rev themselves up to commit war crimes).

For want of anything better, amphetamines have remained in the military pharmacopeia. They again achieved notoriety with the War on Terror. On April 16, 2002, Major Harry Schmidt and Major William Umbach, two USAF F-16 pilots operating over Afghanistan, bombed a Canadian infantry unit in error, killing four soldiers and wounding eight others5. It was reported that both pilots were taking “go pills” under a form of duress – while use was voluntary, refusal to accept the drugs could affect promotion. Neither accusation was true. Although both pilots had complained about exhaustion, they were not on speed during the ill-fated mission.

The USAF quickly assured the public that amphetamine use was voluntary and that all personnel understood the possible drawbacks and side effects. But all the same, it was disquieting to learn that US pilots, among the most highly trained of all military personnel and commanding $20-30 million aircraft, were subjecting themselves to regimens of “go pills” to fly missions followed by “no-go” sedatives in order to sleep, with yet another dose of dexys to kick off the next day. (During my misspent youth it was widely understood that anyone on such a pharmaceutical roller-coaster was in serious danger of a complete breakdown.) Do better solutions exist?


As opposed to amphetamines, anabolic steroid use in the military is unofficial and soldier-driven. Steroid abuse has been rampant among professional athletes for decades, afflicting almost every sport from weightlifting to bicycle racing. The baseball scandal that tarnished such figures as Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire is too well known to go into.

The goal among the troops was identical to that of athletes: to build as much muscle mass as quickly as possible. The purpose differed slightly. Rather than simple brute strength, soldiers who juiced were seeking greater endurance, improved stamina, and above all, faster response times in combat. The Army encourages exercise to build muscle tissue. Many soldiers lifted weights, ran extra laps, and worked out while wearing armor. So it’s understandable that some troopers would move on to steroids such as Decadrol, Anadrol and Winstrol, widely used, easily available, and priced as low as two to five-hundred dollars for an eight-week supply.

While steroid use is not accepted in the military, it is not a criminal act. Steroids are not tested for like pot and narcotics. (A major reason is the cost – testing for steroids costs $250 up per individual as compared to less than $10 for narcotics.) But it’s difficult to see how officers could overlook the fact that their men were bulking up to Conan-like proportions in a matter of weeks. It’s easy to suspect that a blind eye was being turned. While the Army estimates that 2 percent of its personnel use steroids, the number is probably much higher.

Physicians consider it impossible to use steroids safely as part of a muscle-building regimen. The long-term results can be serious (we all remember Arnold’s heart surgery). Short-term side effects include irritability, mood swings, and personality changes. A number of soldiers ceased using steroids for those reasons. Others continued even to the point of having new supplies shipped to them in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The problem went public in 2009 in a scandal involving the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in northwest Washington state6. Seattle police stumbled across steroid use by the unit’s personnel while investigating an unrelated matter and notified Army investigators. A substantial subculture of steroid users was uncovered, with two officers and ten enlisted men admitting to using the drugs. All twelve suffered disciplinary action, including orders to remain in the U.S. when their regiment deployed to Afghanistan.

Steroid use by soldiers is the farthest thing in the world from recreational drug use. Troops have turned to juicing, dangerous as it can be, not for frivolous or narcissistic purposes but to make themselves better soldiers and increase their chances of surviving combat. Is there a legitimate and safe alternative for anabolic steroids? 


“Smart drugs” or “cognitive enhancers” are almost completely unknown territory. Use of such drugs is off-label and untested, and their effects are largely anecdotal. Yet “cosmetic neurology” (so termed by Dr. Anjan Chatterjee of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience ) has become a widespread phenomenon, with users found in academia, the sciences, and every other field involving intellectual effort. It was probably inevitable that they would turn up in the military.

Smart drugs don’t increase intelligence as much as they boost analytical abilities, focus concentration, and enhance memory. They include prescription stimulants such as Ritalin, Adderall, and Provigil, commonly used to treat ADHD or narcolepsy, beta blockers such as Inderal and Lopressor, prescribed to improve heart function, and over-the-counter supplements, the so-called nootropics such as Piracetam.

The stimulants appear to work by blocking the action of transport molecules that clear the brain of hormones such as dopamine and norepinephrine. Hormone levels build up, reducing impulsiveness and increasing alertness and concentration. Beta blockers lessen the effect of adrenaline on the heart, reducing symptoms of anxiety and stress. As for nootropics, few formal studies of these compounds are available. It’s anybody’s guess how they work.

Smart drug use has exploded in recent decades. They are popular among college students, particularly around exam time, when enhanced concentration is more precious than gold or rubies. On some campuses, as many as a quarter of the student body has used smart drugs. (One expert, NYU neuroscientist Paul Glimcher, puts the number as high as 60 percent.) Beta blockers were a favorite of athletes in sports demanding intense concentration such as shooting and archery. (Like steroids, they have been banned by the International Olympic Committee.) Classical musicians also found them of value in concentrating on difficult passages as well as easing the anxiety of public performance. Scientists have gone for them in a big way – in 2008, the premier scientific journal Nature published a poll revealing that 20 percent of working scientists had used such drugs. In December 2008, the magazine published a signed piece in which six scientists (along with Philip Campbell, Nature’s editor) recommended smart drugs for anyone involved in intellectual work7.

It’s not difficult to see how such drugs would assist the soldier. Enhanced concentration would aid in pattern recognition, a crucial consideration on the contemporary battlefield, particularly as involves insurrections and guerilla warfare. Control of anxiety speaks for itself – the value of a drug that blunts the terror of combat without adverse effects on the intellect is clear.

Cognitive use of these drugs is all off-label. Research into their effectiveness and the potential side-effects has scarcely begun. (At least as far as public knowledge goes.) While the FDA has considered use of beta blockers as anti-anxiety medication, no decision has yet been made.

Although smart drugs are legal, soldiers are understandably reluctant to discuss their use. But we need to know how they have been exploited in combat and what the results have been. Have lives been saved when a soldier’s enhanced concentration detected an IED or signs of an ambush? Has greater control of anxiety and fear helped overcome the pressures of combat? We require informed testimony by experienced soldiers so that rational judgments concerning these drugs can be made.


Ready or not, the supersoldier is on his way, if he has not, in fact, already arrived. A sensible military response would not restrict private efforts but assure scientific support in hopes of getting useful results. Dr. Glimcher is among several scientists who have strongly recommended increased military research into cognitive enhancers and sleep-modulation drugs. (His particular concern is that other nations may have already stolen a march on such research. This is a distinct possibility, particularly as involves nondemocratic states which, like the Nazis, would not hesitate to break human subjects in drug experiments.)

Unsurprisingly, the Defense Department’s mad hatters, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has been deeply involved in combat-related drug research. In fact, DARPA being DARPA, its scientists formulated something of a master plan to raise combat performance to new and unprecedented levels. The "Metabolically Dominant Soldier" program devoted $3 billion to applying all relevant aspects of biotechnology, cybernetics, neuroscience, and pharmacology to enhancing the abilities of the infantryman8. DARPA was unusually open about the program and its goals. Media coverage was detailed and thorough, giving the public a close look at DARPA’s previously shrouded activities.

For several years, projects under the MDS umbrella progressed without hindrance. But disquiet among government officials grew to match the level of media coverage. DARPA had unknowingly stumbled over several psychological tripwires. The Island of Dr. Moreau aspects of the research, the Herrenvolk-style terminology, the failure to openly address public fears and ethical issues troubled a number of officials. Public sensitivity to questions involving human experimentation was particularly high due to recent controversies involving embryonic stem cells and the activities of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a freelance euthanasist with schemes for experiments on terminally-ill patients that to the layman sounded little different from DARPA’s proposals. Under the circumstances, a political backlash was perhaps inevitable. (While some commentators have put the blame on President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, the timing makes this unlikely. The Council was most active in the 2003 -2004 period, four years before DARPA’s troubles began, and never directly examined any of DARPA’s work.)

DARPA responded quickly, dropping the Wagnerian program names. "Metabolically Dominant Soldier” became "Peak Soldier Performance"; "Persistence in Combat” became “Soldier Self-Care”; “Augmented Cognition” became “Improving Warfighter Information Intake Under Stress”. (Though it’s still referred to as “Aug-Cog” to this day.) Some research efforts were dropped completely (e.g., a program to assure casualty survival after two-thirds blood loss). Other researchers were told to cut ties with the media. DARPA had suffered its first media blowback. The agency handled it well. There were no Congressional inquiries, no bloodcurdling CNN or PBS documentaries, no hysterical interventions from the upper reaches of government. But DARPA had been stung, and it returned to what it knew best, with the curtain of secrecy dropping once again.

DARPA’s sleep programs were among those that continued unaffected. DARPA’s goal was simple: to negate sleep as a factor in operations. "The capability to resist the mental and physiological effects of sleep deprivation will fundamentally change current military concepts of operational tempo and contemporary orders of battle for the military services… the capability to operate effectively, without sleep, is no less than a 21st Century revolution in military affairs.” DARPA’s research was aimed at stretching the duration of uninterrupted, useful wakefulness to a full seven days.

How have they done so far? DARPA programs have already discovered a number of drugs that may well replace amphetamines in the battle against sleep. The first of these we have already encountered as a smart drug – Provigil (modafinil)9. Manufactured by Cephalon, a Pennsylvania drug firm, Provigil was approved by the FDA as a treatment for narcolepsy in 1998. Soon afterward it was being tested at the Army’s Aeromedical Research Laboratory.

As is the case with most of these new drugs, it’s not at all clear how Provigil works. Its activity appears to be centered in the thalamus, the hippocampus, and the amygdala, with little involvement with sleep mediators or receptors. Provigil’s effects are localized rather than stimulating the entire central nervous system like the amphetamines. Progvigil users experience no “buzz” or uncontrollable impulses. Individuals on Provigil work calmly and efficiently for periods of up to 85 hours without requiring sleep. While some side effects are evident, including irritability, headaches, nervousness, and gastric upset, they remain minor.

The French Foreign Legion has used Provigil in combat, and the UK press reports the same of the British armed forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. While nobody’s talking, there’s little doubt that Provigil has seen at least limited use with US forces.

Another family of stimulants under study is the Ampakines, manufactured by Cortex Pharmaceutical10. The Ampakines boost the neurotransmitter action of AMPA glutamates, making synapses act more efficiently. Along with prolonging wakefulness, Ampakines enhance concentration and improve memory. (Ampakines have been offered as an explanation for the activity of a number of cognitive enhancers, including several nootropics.) Ampakines have few side effects and do not cause insomnia. Like Provigil, adaptation of this drug would comprise something of a twofer – a stimulant along with a smart drug.

But perhaps the key formulation is not a stimulant at all but a neural peptide, orexin A, intimately involved in the nature of sleep itself11. Orexin A evidently acts as the modulator for the circadian and metabolic systems that govern the necessity for sleep. This would make it the key element in the sleep-wake cycle. Monkeys deprived of sleep for thirty-six hours and dosed with orexin A showed no signs of sleep deprivation whatsoever when given cognitive tests. PET scans also showed their brains to be in fully wakeful configuration. With orexin, DARPA scientists may have found the key to the gates of sleep. (And perhaps even more than that. Recent research suggests the orexin deficits, possibly caused by lack of sleep, lead to a buildup of amyloid-β proteins in neural cells characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. Drops in levels of orexin may well prove to be a trigger for senile dementia.)

A nonpharmaceutical method of beating sleep involves “Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation” (TMS). Researchers at Columbia University have developed a system which senses when a soldier is beginning to fall out and then zaps the sleep centers with a precisely tuned magnetic pulse. This reinvigorates the subject with no apparent side effects. A similar system manufactured by a Korean company is already being sold to help travelers beat jet lag.

Other research programs are investigating how certain animals can go without sleep for extended periods without obvious ill effects. A DARPA-funded research group at the University of Wisconsin, Madison led by Ruth Benca has investigated how birds can survive vast migrations on next to no rest. The white-crested sparrow flies nearly 2,700 miles between California and Alaska twice yearly. When not flying, they are foraging for food. They have scarcely any time for sleep, so they don’t bother, typically getting less than a third of their normal allotment. They can evidently go for up to a week (DARPA’s target) with no sleep at all. If the biochemistry behind this attribute can be identified and applied to humans, DARPA can declare total victory.

In a few more years, the military revolution of full wakefulness may well be a reality. From there it will inevitably filter into civilian life, with perhaps an even greater impact. Regular sleep may become something only troglodytes waste time on, with fast-track humanity living in 48-hour or even longer increments. Life will become more of a marathon than it is already. You can wake me when it’s over.


DARPA’s efforts to replace steroids are almost as well developed as its sleep program.

One drug that has caused considerable excitement is the “exercise pill” so called, a synthetic compound that by means of mimicking fat triggers PPAR-d (peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor delta), the gene that regulates fatty acid oxidation. A dose of the compound results in fats being burned at the same rate as during exercise.

Salk Institute researcher Dr. Ronald M. Evans had developed a strain of mice with the PPAR-d gene continuously activated, rendering them resistant to weight gain and with double the physical endurance of ordinary mouse strains. From there he went on to develop the “exercise pill.” Unfortunately, mice given the drug did not develop the same levels of endurance. So the new drug was not an exercise pill at all, but merely a fat-burner, which might be enough to wreck the dieting industry, but represents no useful replacement for steroids.

DARPA developed a nonpharma replacement, the Glove, a device that created quite a public stir before slipping back into the mists of secrecy. For decades, conventional wisdom held that muscle tissue tires as it uses up available sugars. The Glove’s developers discovered that the problem was actually a buildup of heat that could not be shed fast enough metabolically. The Glove provided a method of rapidly lowering body temperature. After the device is sealed at the wrist, a vacuum pulls blood toward the skin where it is cooled by the Glove’s cold inner surface. The cooled blood rushes through the body, lowering the core temperature. “After five minutes,” reported one subject. “I feel rejuvenated.”

Using the Glove allows workouts to be stretched almost without limit. Over several weeks program subjects bulked up to a point comparable to that achieved with steroids. Football trainers at Stanford (researcher Dennis Grahn’s home institution) began using the Glove on overheated players. Special Operations Command evaluated it as well, although the results are not available.

The Glove can also heat the metabolism. During WWII, one of the horrors of the European air war was the danger of ditching or bailing out over the North Sea, which is dangerously cold even in summer. Rescue crews recovered many aircrew dead of hypothermia after only a short period in the water. With the Glove in heating mode (along with matching boots that have also been developed) such an outcome need never again occur in subarctic waters.

Selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMs) are drugs that work similarly to steroids without ill effects12. SARMs can be formulated to bind only to steroid receptors on specific types of tissue, such as muscles, while having no effect on other organs. Muscle buildup can be gained without the ravages of steroids. One variety, ostarine, was thoroughly tested on elderly subjects suffering various forms of muscular weakness. Ostarine evidently works by supplementing an individuals’ natural level of testosterone. While the increase in muscle tissue was only a few percent, strength increased all out of proportion, with a plus 15 percent increase in speed and a plus 25 percent increase in power during stair climbing exercises.

While “SARMs” are available on the Net (largely from sources in Mexico and Hong Kong), purchasers should be advised that human clinical trials are not yet complete and that the real stuff is not on the market.

Myostatins are proteins that limit the growth of muscle tissue. Individuals born without the myostatin gene display unusual muscular strength from the age of a few weeks into adulthood with no apparent ill effects. Such individuals are extraordinarily strong, have little body fat, and extremely healthy appetites. Considerable research has gone into the development of myostatin inhibitors, which could double the muscular strength of the average individual13. Such drugs could also prove a lifesaver for people suffering conditions such as muscular dystrophy.

Research programs have eliminated several candidates while suggesting more promising approaches. Commercial myostatin preparations claiming inhibitory effects are available, including one promoted by no less than Wayne Gretzky. The jury remains out where these are concerned.

Mitochondria are the cell’s energy sources, converting sugars into metabolically useful compounds such as ATP. Mitochondria numbers are closely correlated with performance, strength, and age. Increasing the number and efficiency of mitochondria would help “extend the time that soldiers remain fit for duty, boost soldier physical and performance capabilities, and expand the age range of suitable recruits. It would also eliminate the current dichotomy of the ideal soldier being optimized both for youth (high performance capabilities) and experience.”

Those last sentences refer to what amounts to a form of rejuvenation, in which revitalized mitochondria would restore aging individuals to the same energy levels they enjoyed in their 20s. (The downside is that the treatment would do little or nothing for individuals actually in their 20s, whose metabolism is already at optimum.)

One method of achieving these results would be to enable mitochondria to feed on fats rather than sugars. Several programs are seeking to bring this about. One involves a FRS (Free Radical Scavenger) drink mixing flavonoids, green tea, and B vitamins. Tests involving competitive cyclists have shown a consistent 3 percent increase in performance over a 30 km course. Not quite rejuvenation, but you have to start somewhere.

The future soldier will have a choice of replacements for crude and dangerous steroids – not only to build muscle mass, but to enhance performance in numerous other ways, including increased stamina, cellular energy, and the all-important factor of speed (burst speeds attainable through increased muscle fiber strength are estimated at 45 mph, the equivalent of 100 yards in 5 seconds). Spinoffs from these programs will offer life-saving assistance to sufferers from muscular and related nervous-system diseases, such as muscular dystrophy and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). If DARPA could overcome its largely self-imposed publicity-shyness as regards these programs, we would have a much clearer picture as to where they stand and what we can expect.


Smart drugs are probably the murkiest of DARPA drug research topics. There can be little doubt that cognitive enhancers are a critical (and perhaps even urgent) subject for research. But DARPA’s legendary curtain of secrecy is at its most opaque regarding smart drugs. (This is quite understandable considering the bitter legacy of the Edgewood Arsenal experiments of the 1950s. A number of psychoactive compounds such as LSD, THC, and PCP – known today as “angel dust” – were tested at the arsenal. While nowhere near as inhuman as later comments make it appear – the program was in no way comparable to Nazi concentration-camp experiments – several test subjects suffered psychological damage that dogged them the rest of their lives. Any test program involving cerebrally-active drugs will occur in the shadow of the Edgewood experiments.)

By this time DARPA has tested all of the available cognitive enhancers and possibly has established how they work. The basic research has been done, the drugs evaluated and categorized. Their effectiveness, availability, side effects, and possible dangers are known quantities. If there exists a compound that enables a trooper to outthink a Cray supercomputer while hanging by his feet from a tree, DARPA knows about it.

It’s quite likely that DARPA researchers have isolated compounds that work better than those now utilized by the public, perhaps from completely different chemical families.

From this point there are several alternate developmental pathways. One might involve drug cocktails, combining the most effective drugs of different types for optimum performance in the field. One variety might have superior effects on concentration, while another might best assist pattern recognition, and a third prove useful in supporting memory. It’s likely that formulas would vary with military specialty. A compound that works best for a soldier at the front might be less suitable for someone working the computer screens at the rear. Drugs could in effect be fine-tuned to match the task at hand.

Another method would involve selecting which mental attribute you’d wish to augment and then choosing the most suitable drugs to accomplish this. One of the cognitive abilities that most interests contemporary neuroscientists is brain executive function. Executive function is the king of mental abilities, among the highest all of mental functions. It is the coordinating faculty that manipulates information in a controlled way, selecting and collating data, whether sensory, experiential, or logical, and using it to plan and carry out appropriate responses. Like consciousness itself, executive function is amorphous and not limited to a single brain center. It operates on many levels, not simply the frontal lobes as was once believed. It comprises a large proportion of what we refer to as “thinking.”

A drug that could streamline and support executive function in healthy, normal individuals is as close to a “genius pill” as we are likely to get. Such a compound would enhance selection of data, including rating its value and ascertaining its relevance to the situation at hand, increase recognition of patterns, and formulate responses more quickly and efficiently. Executive function is often compared to the role of an orchestral conductor, pulling together, coordinating, and expressing the entire range of mental abilities much as a conductor on the podium does. An executive function enhancer would in effect turn an everyday conductor into a Toscanini.

Executive function deficits are often found in disorders such as ADHD. Ritalin and Adderall act to restore at least some of the capability of executive function is these cases. But such drugs do not have the same effect on healthy individuals. Whatever its other effects, a dose of Ritalin does nothing to boost executive function in the neurologically unimpaired. What is required is either a new drug or a mixture that would provide a useful stimulus. It is unlikely that DARPA has overlooked this factor.

The same is probably true of convergent technologies14. Many technologies apart from pharmacology are being researched for cognitive applications, including information technology, biotech, psychology, and the neurosciences. Applied together, they could reveal synergistic effects far greater than might be evident individually.

For instance, smart drugs could be utilized with other technologies. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) is not only effective in inhibiting sleep; in exciting the cortex it encourages larger numbers of synapses to form, increasing learning ability. If used in conjunction with drugs, TMS might become a valuable training tool.

Advanced games (in fact, all sorts of games, advanced or not – there’s a reason children are fascinated by games of all kinds) have been demonstrated to enhance cognitive abilities. Utilizing drugs that increase concentration and focus such as Adderall or Provigil in conjunction with training games would very likely pay dividends as regards troop training. (It's probable that different drugs -- both in dosage and formulation -- will be used in training as opposed to combat. Cognitive scientists make a distinction between “crystallized intelligence” – the type of intelligence used in memorization and rote learning, and “fluid intelligence,” the type used in real-world problem-solving. Trainees utilizing crystallized intelligence will need compounds that promote concentration and memory, as opposed to the analytical and pattern-recognition varieties required for the fluid environment of combat.)

This brings us up against “AugCog,” Augmented Cognition, the suite of DARPA programs devoted to enhancing the brain-machine interface15. This field covers everything from improved computer ergonomics and more effective programs to full neurological access to cybernetic systems. According to DARPA’s description: “The AugCog Program has developed technologies to mitigate sensory or cognitive overload and restore operational effectiveness by extending the information management capacity of the warfighter. This is accomplished through closed-loop computational systems that adapt to the state of the warfighter and thereby significantly improve performance.”

Drugs will no doubt play a significant role in this effort. As for actual projects, the secrecy here is even thicker than in other fields. The one thing we can say with certainty is that eventually, in not too distant a framework, Private Mnemonic will be reporting for duty.

A number of other drugs with military applications are also under development by DARPA. These include:

PAIN VACCINES – Pain, it turns out, has two neurological components: the original shock that warns you that damage has occurred travels by one nerve pathway. The second, long-term – and far more intense -- component is caused by inflammation and utilizes a different neurological path. Rinat Neuroscience, a subsidiary of Pfizer, has developed a drug that can block the second neurological pathway within ten seconds of injection by inhibiting the activity of nerve growth factor. It doesn’t dull the initial warning shock, only the lingering, and most agonizing, latter component. What’s more, it would last up to thirty days, and have the same effect on any further wounds. Animal testing has evidently been completed. Think about your last root canal – and then think about this.

SUSPENDED ANIMATION – A DARPA-funded program has discovered what appears to be a viable form of suspended animation – at least for the short term. Giving test animals a whiff of hydrogen sulfide put them under, with no breathing, no heartbeat, and no brain activity, for up to 24 hours with no apparent ill effects. Such a formulation could be a lifesaver for badly wounded troops, who could remain under until they were evacuated from the battlefield and their wounds treated. Unfortunately, the suspended animation program was cancelled as one of those too problematic to be carried through.


What would the effect of such drugs be on actual combat operations? Lieutenant General James Amos of the Marine Corps has speculated that drug-enhanced troops at squad to platoon level (in the U.S. military, a squad consists of nine men, a platoon of forty) could take and hold a city of 100,000 or more. Is this within the realm of possibility?

Operational tempo, the speed at which operations are carried out in relation to events in the battlespace, is one of the most important elements of warfare in the millennial era. It was formalized by master strategist John Boyd in his “decision cycle,” also known as the OODA cycle (Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action): the key to military success is to act first, and continue acting, faster than your opponent can meaningfully react. In short order, he will lose control of the train of events, become overwhelmed, and at last collapse in confusion. Retreat or surrender inevitably follow. Maintaining a ferocious operational tempo was the secret behind Sherman’s march to the sea, the Blitzkrieg, and the Coalition victory over Saddam Hussein’s armies. (And for that matter, the victories of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.) How would the new combat drugs affect the Boyd strategy?

One unavoidable limitation to maintaining a consistent operational tempo is the sleep-wake cycle. For millennia, the arrival of darkness marked the end of hostilities, for the very natural reason that troops had to rest. (Occasional exceptions occurred, such as Spotsylvania Courthouse [May 7-19, 1864], where the fighting went on uninterrupted for 24 hours)16.

Night operations were difficult in any case, though some generals, such as Terry de la Mesa Allen specialized in them with considerable success17. The appearance of advanced sensor gear late in the last century revolutionized night operations. In Iraq, where the Coalition forces “owned the night,” attacks continued after Iraqi forces shut down under darkness. The Coalition quickly “got inside” the Iraqi decision cycle, with total rout ensuing shortly thereafter.

Now add military forces that simply don’t stop at nightfall. That advance continuously, whether in darkness or daylight. To whom warfare is truly a 24/7 proposition. There is no way an opponent could resist such a force. The operational tempo would go hyperbolic, outpacing the very comprehension of opposing commanders. We can foresee futile attempts to match an augmented force by supplying amphetamines to opposition troops or otherwise manipulating the sleep-wake cycle. Such desperate efforts would only bring on defeat all the sooner.

And this is not to factor in the increased strength and mental abilities of drug-enhanced troops. The effects of these in combination would be synergistic, with results impossible to anticipate with any degree of certainty. (There will also be limitations, both physical and psychological, that we know nothing about. We can be certain that such troops could not continue week after week – even a week without rest would be pushing it. These future campaigns would be both short and decisive.) Add expected advances in weaponry, drone technology, sensors, and cybernetics, and it is clear that such an army, for the short period before enemy forces catch up, would be invincible.

Drug enhancement comprises a style of warfare perfectly adapted to the coming decades when the United States will be in relative decline compared to its competitors in the international arena. Due to expense and lack of resources, the U.S. will be incapable of fielding the vast expeditionary forces that we have become used to in the past century and which liberated Europe, the Southern Pacific, South Korea, Kuwait, and Iraq. American military activity in the first half of the 21st century will be limited to small forces involved in quick campaigns. An enhanced army will assure that the U.S. can continue to meet its security goals and obligations. DARPA funding, often ridiculed in the popular press (“DARPA builds robot mule with no head”), may well turn out to be some of the smartest investments we’ve made in recent years.


Drug use inevitably raises ethical questions, particularly as regards enlisted soldiers, who are under orders and not in full command of their personal liberties. The Edgewood Arsenal controversy remains ablaze even after fifty years, and should forever stand as an example of how things ought not to be done.

Some commentators have suggested that the entire concept of combat drugs is an effort to create a zombie army of roboticized troops doped to the gills and manipulated like figures on a game board. (Either that or dosed with the old reliable, the berserker drug.) But as we have seen, it’s the soldiers themselves who pioneered these efforts. Anyone who knows active soldiers is well aware of how proud they are of their skills and prowess. The purpose of the combat drugs under development by DARPA and the pharma industry is to enable them to utilize those skills at the highest levels of performance. The result will be shorter wars, more decisive victories, and more kids coming home alive after it’s over.

The truly ethical position here would be to act as swiftly as we can to replace amphetamines that are habituating and psychologically dubious, steroids with serious side effects, and nootropics of unknown properties with new formulations that are proven, effective, and safe. We pay top dollar to assure that our troops are fitted out with the latest in weaponry and equipment, and are furious when this proves not to be the case. Can we do any less where drugs are concerned?

Another point that shouldn’t be overlooked is that these drugs will be truly useful only to democratic armies. It’s unlikely that tyrannies of any sort whether left or right will care for pharmaceuticals whose chief benefit is clearer and more incisive thinking. A dictator’s army given such treatment would be likely to either desert or turn around and attack the capitol. In many decadent cultures, among them the later Romans and the Ottomans, rulers took to executing successful generals lest they get ideas. In the case of cognitive drugs, this problem would involve an entire army. Like many technologies, smart drugs are tools best suited to democracies.

At this point it appears that combat drugs are nothing to be afraid of. There will be unforeseen problems and complications, as there always are. But they are unlikely to be insurmountable. While they will inevitably change our conception of warfare, periodic transformations of war have turned out to be a feature of the contemporary world. But above all the upcoming pharma-based military revolution will save lives, lower the cost of military defense, and help us reach our national security goals in the difficult years that lie ahead.



Copyright © 2012 by J.R. Dunn