The Benefits and Risks of Human Performance Modification for the US Military

Photo Credit: StoriesbyWilliams (blog)

By: Nicole Magney, Columnist

The concept of human performance modifications—enhancements or degradations to the human body to affect either physical or physiological performance—as it relates to US military personnel’s ability to wage war is not new. In fact, some argue that American soldiers have been using human enhancement since the Revolutionary War when they inoculated themselves against smallpox. As exponential technological advancements make the development of more complex and innovative human performance modifications more prevalent, the US military has an obligation to not only pursue modification avenues that might protect and save soldiers’ lives and improve their mission effectiveness, but also understand the short and long-term risks and effects of these developments on soldiers.

To some, advances in unmanned technologies indicate the decline of human soldiers’ importance to wartime operations. However, despite the inevitability of advancements in unmanned technologies, human to human and human to machine interactions will remain critical to US military effectiveness, in light of human intuition and ability to solve abstract problems through reasoning.[i] The continued necessity of humans in military operations means efforts to modify and enhance human performance will be vital to ensure US soldiers’ effectiveness. As a result of the exponential growth of research developments in this field over the last couple decades, including advances in genome and neural research, some experts predict that advancements over the next twenty-five years in the human performance modification field will have at least as much impact on US military operations as the computer and internet have today, if not more.[ii]

In recognition of the potential operational benefits of human performance modification, the US military and most advanced militaries around the globe are actively conducting high-level research and development on the topic. In the United States, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is tasked solely with investing in “breakthrough technologies for national security,” including efforts to explore human performance modifications and enhancements.[iii]

In 2013, the Obama administration introduced the Brain Initiative, which tasked DARPA with exploring several avenues of neural modifications. While some of these programs focus on modifications that seek to return a soldier to a baseline level of performance—for example, by creating implantable neural-interface systems that allow an amputee to feel natural sensations with prosthetic limbs—others focus on enhancing human performance beyond the baseline.[iv] For example, DARPA is currently researching Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT), which would allow soldiers to “advance the pace and effectiveness of a specific kind of learning—cognitive skills training—through the precise activation of peripheral nerves that can in turn promote and strengthen neuronal connections in the brain.”[v]

While the above projects and many like them remain in the research and development phases for now, the US military has actively deployed performance enhancement drugs to its soldiers for years, including caffeine, amphetamines, and the drug modafanil, which diminishes the effects of sleep-deprivation. The US military’s research on modafanil began in 1989 as a possible method for increasing pilots’ alertness during long flight missions. It was consistently distributed to Air Force pilots during US operations in Iraq in 2003 and is now coupled with a regimen of hypnotics to allow soldiers to sleep and re-alert themselves essentially on command.[vi] Not only has modafanil proved effective at making pilots more alert during long missions, it has also allowed those who take it a shorter recovery sleep time than those who do not.[vii]

The short-term benefits of the drug have been monumental in diminishing fatigue and the critical and sometimes deadly effects that fatigue has on mission effectiveness. While modafanil has proved its usefulness, and perhaps necessity, to the modern warfighter, little research appears to have been done thus far on its long-term effects on the soldiers’ health beyond the risks associated with prolonged sleep deprivation.[viii] While this may not prove to be of consequence with regards to modafanil use specifically, this general lack of research on long-term effects points to a larger ethical concern and risk as modifications become increasingly more complex and invasive.

Ethical concerns that surround the research and use of human performance modifications for military purposes tend to fall under two broad categories: those that revolve around the safety of soldiers themselves, and those that deal with the risk for changing the nature of warfare itself. The latter, while a worthwhile topic for exploration, is outside the scope of this column. However, the ethical concerns regarding the individual soldier who may undergo modification to increase his or her effectiveness are equally important. As research develops, questions arise regarding a soldier’s right to choose to use an enhancement or modification or not. In addition, policymakers must address whether modifications need to be reversible once a soldier returns home from war. If certain modifications are not reversible, what are the possible effects that this would have on a society in which ‘enhanced’ soldiers now live as civilians?[ix] Of course, the answers to these questions will differ significantly depending on the modification under discussion. However, the US military would benefit from addressing these concerns broadly now, before more complex enhancements and modifications become commonplace among soldiers.

The continued research and development of human performance modifications is critical for maintaining and enhancing the US military’s operational effectiveness and dominance. In fact, some argue that there is an “ethical imperative” to employing human performance modifications in the military to the extent that modifications will save American lives.[x] Research on modifications and enhancements have become a new type of “arms race” that will only increase in complexity over the coming decades.[xi] Therefore, the benefits of continued efforts to develop human performance modifications as a whole outweigh the possible risks. However, US military leaders and policymakers should take steps now to address some of the more pressing ethical concerns and risks regarding how enhancement may affect soldiers in both the shorter and longer terms, as these questions will affect not only military effectiveness, but the lives of soldiers and society writ large as well.

[i] Andrew Herr, “Far Future Advances in Human Performance Augmentation” (presentation at U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Mad Scientist Conference, October 27, 2015), 5:08,

[ii] Ibid., 11:10.

[iii] “About DARPA,” Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency,

[iv] Douglas Weber, “Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX),” Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency,; for more information on DARPA’s human performance modification projects related to the Brain Initiative, please see:

[v] Douglas Weber, “Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT),” Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency,

[vi] William Saletan, “The War on Sleep,” Slate, May 29, 2013, accessed November 11, 2016,

[vii] LTC Daniel S. Moran et al., “Psychostimulants and Military Operations,” Military Medicine 172 (April 2007): 386.

[viii] David Cox, “Is Modafinil Safe in the Long Term?” Guardian, May 31, 2013, accessed November 14, 2016,; for information regarding the limited research that has been done on the effects of modafinil and the prolonged sleep deprivation that it may encourage, please see: Dongsoo Kim, “Practical Use and Risk of Modafinil, a Novel Waking Drug,” Environ Health Toxical 27 (2012).

[ix] Patrick Lin et al., “Enhanced Warfighters: Risks, Ethics, and Policy,” Prepared for The Greeenwall Foundation, January 1, 2013, accessed November 7, 2016: 9-10.

[x] Herr, 32:20.

[xi] Saletan.

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