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How to Be All That You Can Be: A Look at the Pentagon’s Five Step Plan For Making Iron Man Real

Peter W. Singer



Jim Rhodes: You’re not a soldier.
Tony Stark: Damn right I’m not. I’m an army.
Iron Man

“The human being is almost singularly pathetic. We lack claws, sport tiny little teeth, and are covered with thin, delicate skin. Most of us can’t even walk outside barefoot.”[1] Roboticist Daniel Wilson is pointing to a singular riddle of humankind’s place on the planet. We are one of the weaker species physically and yet we sit at top of the food chain. The reason is our technology. A saber tooth tiger may be able to chew us to bits, but once that first cave man learned to shake a stick, its time was over. Today, we could literally bomb that tiger back into the Stone Age, that is, if it hadn’t already been made extinct by our stick-wielding ancestors.

And yet, while we have exponentially gone from stick to nuclear bombs in our destructive power, our human bodies aren’t any stronger, faster, better protected, or even that much smarter. About the only things that have even moderately changed about us are our waist sizes and hair to body ratio.

Technology again offers the lure, however, of solving for this weakness of the human body, an idea frequently played with in science fiction. Iron Man is the Marvel comicbook series in which Tony Stark, a playboy industrialist, dons a technologic suit of powered armor. The suit gives him superhuman strength, virtual invulnerability, the ability to fly, and packs an array of weapons. In the comic books, Iron Man uses his suit to battle the communists, a Chinese warlord, Godzilla, and the Incredible Hulk. In the new movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow, Iron Man takes on our 21st century versions of arch-villiany: terrorists and an evil CEO.

But Iron Man is no mere fiction. Overcoming our human body’s weakness via technology is a vision into which the Pentagon is today investing literally billions of dollars. As former Air Force Chief of Staff General John Jumper describes, “We must give the individual soldier the same capabilities of stealth and standoff that fighter planes have. We must look at the soldier as the system.”[2] And such dreams of creating technology enhanced supersoldiers are not too far off. What follows is a look at the process of turning Iron Man from science fiction into military reality.

Step I: Get Off The Shelf Gear

The first step in making real such comic book dreams is a program called Land Warrior. In the late 1980s, the Pentagon began to notice that civilians were not only using computers more and more, but increasingly carrying them on their bodies (in the form of cell phones, PDAs, etc.). Starting in 1991, the Army began to explore how it could use such commercial technologies to turn the infantry soldier into a complete weapons system (as opposed to a soldier carrying various weapons). The plan of the Land Warrior was to link together on the solder’s body various small computers, sensors, and equipment that could be bought off the shelf.

The Land Warrior set included a number of components. It had a rifle that mounted a thermal vision sight, video camera, and laser rangefinder/digital compass. This allowed the soldier not only to fight at night and in bad weather, but also use their rifle to beam back what they were seeing to their squad mates and commanders. It had a helmet that carried a sensor display, essentially an eye piece like a monocle that they could flip down and see what the sensors on their rifle’s was seeing, allowing them to shoot around corners as well as download such things as a satellite map of where they were. It had updated body armor that was lighter but more protective (the Army’s new Interceptor gear came from the program) and a GPS for navigation. Linking everything together was an Intel processor that operates on Microsoft Windows, just like most every office drone uses. The soldier controlled everything using a tiny control unit, akin to a computer mouse, that could be attached to a soldier’s belt, forearm, or even gun.

The gear added all sorts of pluses to the fight. As one soldier described, “When a patrol is moving from A to B right now, they would have to stop and take out a map and check it with a GPS devices. For our guys now, we just move. Getting lost is not an issue.”[3] Equally, the video connection allows the soldier to snap a video picture with their rifle’s sights and email it back to base. For example, they might send a picture of a suspected insurgent they’ve spotted to check against an intelligence database or take a photo of an IED to warn the rest of their squad of where it was.

The Land Warrior came with two problems, neither of which is unsurprising. The first is that the system sucked power like Las Vegas in the summertime. The early batteries that the soldier had to carry on their back only gave them 150 minutes worth of power. Newer versions have gotten better, but the soldier still needs to charge up every 4 hours or so. This means that the systems can only be used for short missions or in situations where the soldiers would be fighting alongside vehicles that allowed them to swap power out quickly. The second was that between all the computers and batteries, the overall system weighed around 80 pounds. Again, this limited where the system could be used, as a soldier couldn’t carry both the new gear and all their other packs and rations for a long march.

In 2007, the Land Warrior program was ended. Its systems and technology were rolled into a new program called Future Force Warrior. The Amy decided that using off the shelf technologies wasn’t working out; plus, by the time they fielded the Land Warrior for everyone, what had once seemed futuristic was already becoming antiqued. The irony is that it meant another generation of U.S. soldiers would go into battle without new gear. However, personnel shortages from the “surge” in 2007 meant that even the 4th Brigade Combat Team, an experimental test bed unit for the Land Warrior, was deployed to Iraq. Its units used stripped down version of the Land Warrior to generally positive reviews in battles such as Baquba.

The home for much of the work on the new technologies of the Future Force Warrior system is the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at MIT. The program was started in 2002, with a $50 million grant from the Army, the largest ever grant in MIT’s history. Among the consortium working with MIT on the soldier systems are traditional defense firms like Raytheon to unexpected players like DuPont, the plastics company, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a leading research hospital of cancer and women’s health issues.

Without any sense of irony, the designers of this system say the ultimate plan of Future Force is to give soldiers near “super-powers.”[4] The system will come with many of the same components as the Land Warrior, just updated and sexed up. For example, while the gun in the old system was planned to be the venerable old M-16, the Future Force Warrior will carry a new “Weapon Subsystem,” that crosses a machine gun with a missile launcher. Most likely using the Metal Storm electrical system, it will shoot either bullets or tiny 15 mm explosive rockets. The advantage of the rockets is that they not only will be able to blow things up, but also are planned to have sensors that guide themselves at any designated target, raising every soldier to the level of an expert marksman. The weapon will also shoot an “electro-dart” that instead of exploding, stuns an enemy with an electrical shock.

The eyepiece for their sensors also drops down from the helmet or is attached to a soldier’s goggles or sunglasses. It is much improved, smaller than an inch, but by being close to the eye giving the visual capabilities of looking at a 17 inch computer screen. Unlike the Land Warrior design, the new eyepiece will be see-through, allowing the soldier to still use the eye looking at the screen for other activities. The reason for this is that testing found that having one eye open and one eye covered was obviously very disorienting for soldiers in the field and essentially limited them to one task at a time, not the best thing for war. Even worse, when trying to use it while riding in vehicles, “soldiers were throwing up all over the place.”[5]

The system will also have the ability to break into multiple screens, the visual equivalents of pop-ups or “picture in a picture.” Just as I can eat popcorn, while I watch an episode of The Hills, while checking the score of the Red Sox game in “picture in a picture” on my TV, a soldier will be able to watch one target with his real eyes, but monitor for any changes in two other targets displayed on their viewscreen.

The sensors will also be a vast improvement. For example, instead of just regular night vision goggles and a video camera mounted on the rifle, the soldiers will be able have the enhanced MANTIS (Multi-spectral Adaptive Networked Tactical Imaging System) sight. Inspired by research into how insects “see” the world, MANTIS is a system which fuses together all the various images that different sensors (such as infrared light, thermal, etc.) detect into one single image. Individually, each of the sensors work well in some environment and poorly in others (infrared, for example, works great in low light, but terribly when there is smoke or dust; the reverse for thermal), but the combination into one gives the soldier the ability to see the world in multiple spectrums, much like the alien super-warrior in the movie Predator. MANTIS comes with a further twist. Each soldier’s helmet in the system is wirelessly linked to those of everyone else in their squad, “so that each person sees what every other person sees.” The system also has “a TiVo-like record and playback capability” that allows the soldiers to rewind what they just saw and give anything that struck them as important an extra look.[6]

If the soldier needs to look further out in the distance, they will be able to use the Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System. These are better known as “Luke’s Binoculars.”[7] The reason they are called this is that researchers got the idea for “smart” binoculars, which not only see can miles in the distance, but also recognize targets and mark threats for the user, from the ones that Luke Skywalker uses in the opening scenes of Star Wars.

Future Force will also carry sensors for other senses. For example, electronic “sniffers” will be able detect and analyze different chemicals that waft over a soldier that their nose might not be sensitive enough to pick up. These include such things as chemical weapons, explosive residue or even an insurgent’s hummus-filled breath. Designers hope that it will eventually give the regular infantryman the ability to sniff out adversaries hiding out on a battlefield, much as the famed Bushmen of Kalahari use scents to hunt down their prey in the wild.

The soldiers will also wear “smart” ear-pieces. These are tiny speakers worn inside their ears like plugs, which beam in radio communications and the like, but are sophisticated enough to screen out any noises that could damage their eardrum (such as a nearby explosion or the soldier’s own gun firing). On the outside of the earplugs are tiny, tunable microphones that can magnify the soldier’s hearing, allowing them, for example, to listen in on a conversation over 100 feet away. A developer in the project describes how raids into houses “used to be really loud affairs. The Marines would be shouting at each other from across the room. Now everybody is just whispering.”[8]

The combination of Future Force’s various sensors will give soldiers the equivalent of Iron Man’s “phera sense,” or what is known in military circles as “augmented reality.”[9] They will be able to sense the real world in a much more enhanced way than ever possible before. For example, when coming to a door in a building, a regular soldier just sees an obstacle. With Future Force sensors, they will also see the door with their left eye, but as they look at it through the clear view screen with right eye, a thermal image will be overlaid it, allowing them to know whether someone is waiting right behind it. Or, the screen might flash a warning from the chemical sensors that explosives are in the vicinity of the door, signaling a booby trap.

The system also allows the passing on of intelligence reports and other information. Icons and others information could be overlaid what they are seeing with their own eyes, akin to seeing the world through a Google Map. For example, as they walk down the street, they would see what any other person would see with their regular vision, but that suspected enemy sniper position in the 3rd floor window might now have a flashing red light appear over it. Even more, the system might integrate AI software into the display, helping the soldier to check what they are seeing against databases in real-time (“The person you are looking at has a 80% identification match to Bin Laden”) or allow live translation of foreign languages in conversations with local civilians (“Translation with 95% reliability: Your mother is a dirty goat herder.”).

The sensors will also monitor the soldiers themselves. For example, the “Warrior Physiological Status Monitoring System” will allow officers back at base to monitor the soldiers’ temperature, hydration, heart rate, and even whether the soldier is standing or lying down (reminiscent of the system in the movie Aliens ). If a soldier is hurt, starting to physically wear down, or just slacking off, the commanders back at the base will know.

Much like Iron Man’s powered armor, future soldiers’ protections will also be computerized. The plan is for new body armor that, instead of Kevlar, is filled with nano-materials that are connected to a computer. It would normally be as flexible as regular uniform made of fabric. But, like how a crash-bag works inside a car, it would activate whenever the system detects a bullet strike and turn as hard as steel in an instant. Bullets would then bounce off the Future Force Warrior like those off of Superman’s chest.

This flexibility creates all sorts of other advantages. While traditional body armor can only take a limited number of strikes from a machine gun before the plate cracks, “When you have a uniform with this new nanotechnology, it can absorb unlimited numbers of machine-gun rounds,” tells the Army’s soldier systems representative “Dutch” DeGay. The pliability could even be controlled. Gloves could turn into real-life brass knuckles, to give them a punch like Mike Tyson. Or, if the soldier gets hurt (such as from tripping on a rock while reading an email with their eyepiece), the uniform could go rigid to create a tourniquet or cast. The fabric could even be woven in with “nanomuscle fibers” that simulate real muscles, giving soldiers more an estimated “25 to 35 percent better lifting capability.”[10]

The incorporation of electronics into the fabric also means that the armored uniform would not just be able to change shapes, but also may even change colors. Already, Fujitsu has made a computer screen that is made of fabric, while the E-Ink company has created ink that actually changes colors depending on its electronic charge. Incorporated into a uniform, such technology could create “chameleon” camouflage. The soldier’s uniform would be able to take the color of whatever is behind them or even form a rough holographic image like that in the movie Predator.

In short, from deflecting bullets to powers of invisibility, as military analyst Max Boot writes, such a suit truly “would give ordinary mortals many of the attributes of comic book superheroes.”[11]

Step II: Build Yourself An ExoSkeleton

The major problem for soldiers using the wearable computer systems like the Land Warrior is that it is, as one book put it, “a heavy load to be luggin’ ‘round on top of all the weapons and shit.”[12]

From this comes the idea of what is called an exoskeleton. Akin to an insect’s hard outer shell, exoskeletons are not merely systems of technology that a soldier carries about on their body like the Land and Future Force Warrior suits. Instead, they are machine suits like what Tony Stark builds to surround and carry the soldier.

Besides Starks’ various Iron Man suits (in the comic books, he has made some 39 versions over the decades, made of everything from standard iron plates to Chobham ceramic plates, much like M-1 Abrams tanks are protected by), the most famous exoskeletons include the robotic cargo loader suit that Sigourney Weaver used to battle the queen bug in Aliens and the Armored Personnel Units that the defenders of Zion use in Matrix: Revolutions (ironically using robotic suits to fight robots). But when it comes to actual development of real exoskeletons, the most influential of the science fiction visions comes from Robert Heinlein and his 1959 novel Starship Troopers.[13] Heinlein envisioned the infantry of the future as wearing technologic suits that make “You look like a big steel gorilla, armed with gorilla-sized weapons.” As the main character describes, “Our suits give us better eyes, better ears, stronger backs (to carry heavier weapons and more ammo), better legs, more intelligence (in the military meaning…), more firepower, greater endurance, less vulnerability… A suit isn’t a space suit – although it can serve as one. It is not primarily armor – although the Knights of the Round Table were not armored as well as we are. It isn’t a tank – but a single M.I. [Mobile Infantry] private could take on a squadron of those things and knock them off unassisted.” The book is so popular among military readers, that it is on almost all the various military professional reading lists and DARPA even footnoted it in a research proposal on turning Heinlein’s vision into reality.

Besides the personal gear a soldier would previously have to carry on their backs, exoskeletons allow all sorts of heavy systems and technologies, that could previously only be mounted on a vehicle, to be carried on the metal frameworks that surround the soldier. As Degay describes, “Now the soldier becomes a walking gun platform.”[14] Also, just like that insect, the framework could also be surrounded by thick armor turning that soldier into a “walking tank.”

One of the most important prototypes of these suits was made by Dr. Yoshiyuki Sankai of Tsukuba, Japan. Inspired by the book 2001, it is known as the HAL suit, short for The Human Assistive Limb. The HAL suit is actually “more like riding a robot than wearing one,” says Sankai.[15] Looking like a cross between a series of knee and elbow braces that athletes wear and a Storm-trooper’s white armor from Star Wars, the HAL works by tracking the human’s movements. Using sensors attached to the wearer’s skin, a bio-cybernetic system detects the electric currents that are released when muscle cells contract or release. The signals are then fed into a control computer (worn on a belt) that triggers an instantaneously matching movement in the robotic arms and legs of the HAL suit.

Another control unit stores the movement patterns of a person, such as their standard gait or jog, allowing it to “predict” the likely move. This allows the HAL robot to move in sync with the person. It also means that people without the ability to send those electric signals from their muscle cells, such as someone who is paralyzed, can use the suit to carry out a standard set of movements.[16]

Powered by just a 100 volt battery, HAL is like wearing the strength of another person, without the weight. Not only does it give rigid upper-body support (so you lift heavy weights the way your gym teacher always told you too), but the actuators in the suit add power enough to lift up another 40 kilograms on top of what ever your puny little girly-man muscles could do before. Similarly, the powered legs only move as fast as your normal leg movements, but by relieving some of the weight, give the wearer far great endurance, especially when carrying heavy objects. A mountaineer getting extra muscle from the HAL suit, for example, was able to carry a Japanese quadriplegic (who had paid to ride piggy back) to the peak of a Swiss mountain.[17]

Sankai was offered funding by both the Pentagon and the Government of South Korea to develop military versions of the suits, but he turned them down. “I am convinced that ethical values and a vision embracing peace, not military goals, must remain at the foundation of any future development of robot technology.”[18] His vision instead is the HAL system being used by construction workers, rescue workers, or even nurses who need to easily lift patients from their beds.

Without military funding, Sankai and his colleagues turned to the private marketplace instead. The suit and its technology were so new that it was perceived as risky by generally conservative Japanese investors and the team could not find enough business partners. So, they have created their own commercial venture for HAL.[19] About as equally disturbing as naming their robot after a computer that goes berserk and kills its own crew, they called the new business Cyberdyne. If this name sounds familiar, it should. It is also the name of the company in the Terminator movies that builds Skynet, the computer system that destroys most of humanity in a nuclear holocaust and then unleashes robots that look like the governor of California to kill all the survivors.

With HAL off limits, closest to the production pipeline for U.S. military users may be the Berkley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton or BLEEX. This is an exoskeleton that comes out of a program started at University of California-Berkeley with $50 million worth of start up funds from DARPA in 2001. Looking a bit like a cheap prop from the movie RoboCop, BLEEX allows a soldier inside the suit to carry 200 pounds as if it weighs 5 pounds. Much like with HAL, the soldier in BLEEX doesn’t control the exoskeleton via a joystick or button; it simply reacts to their normal movements. The whole thing is powered by an Intel Pentium processor, just like a desktop computer.

The heroes in comic books like Iron-Man have all sorts of superpowers beyond just super-strength, and so too does the Pentagon have higher hopes for its exoskeletons. Describes one report, “Superhuman speed is on everyone’s secret list, right up there with x-ray vision and mind control. Humans with super-human speed and the ability to leap over large objects could render themselves even more dynamic, even more dangerous, even more efficient, even more cartoon like than they are now. Who could resist?”[20]

For instance, our wimpy little Achilles tendons allow the average human to run somewhere between 6 to 8 miles an hour and, unless your name is LeBron James, leap only a few feet in the air. New “bionic boots” and “spring walkers” in development are hoped to solve this. These attach outside the leg and mechanically mimic the enlarged Achilles tendon of a kangaroo, one day perhaps giving the wearer the ability to run as fast as 25 miles per hour and leap 7 feet.[21] Describes an MIT scientist of such exoskeleton legs, “…You’ll be able to run anywhere your legs can take you, but without breathing hard. So imagine running through the wilderness, day after day, sixty miles a day, jumping over logs, over rocks.” [22]

If having the speed of the Flash isn’t for you, another superpower under research by DARPA is the “Z-Man project.” As a report noted, “Copyright infringement was probably the only thing that stopped this DARPA program from being called the “Spiderman Project.” Its focus is to give exoskeleton-wearing soldiers of the future the ability to climb up a building without ropes or ladders, akin to a spider that is a man.[23]

Finally, there is the Exoskeleton Flying Vehicle, essentially a flying robotic suit (the model designed by Millennium Jet has canisters packing rotor blades attached to the exoskeleton). As one scientist, described of his dreams of flashing through the air like Iron Man or Superman, “If I’m going to change the world, I certainly want to fly in it.”[24]

Sometimes, though, the military and scientists take these superhero visions too far (thankfully, DARPA has not yet announced an AquaMan program, designed to give Navy SEALs the lame “superpower” of calling sea turtles for help). When the Army-MIT super-soldier project launched, its director, Professor Ned Thomas, extolled, “Imagine the psychological impact upon a foe when encountering squads of seemingly invincible warriors protected by armor and endowed with superhuman capabilities, such as the ability to leap over 20-foot walls.”[25] The problem was that the images his program used on the grant proposal were pretty much lifted from the Radix series, about a female superhero who wears an armored skeleton with just those same superpowers. Comic book creators Ray and Ben Lai threatened the project with a lawsuit, “They’re selling this as science fact while we’re trying to sell it as science fiction. And people don’t even know that we created it in the first place. People might even think we’re copying them.”[26]

Step III: Get Chemical Enhancements

Each year, the leaders of DARPA gather and present to the world the vision of where their research will take it to next. At the opening of DARPA’s 50th anniversary conference in 2007, program manager Michael Callahan announced an ambitious goal to the crowd of 3,000 scientists, business, and military leaders gathered in Anaheim: making soldiers “kill-proof.”

Callahan talked about research into what he called “Inner Armor.” This wasn’t the idea of giving soldiers a kind of armor under their skin like the X-Men character Wolverine, but rather that soldiers would be able to bring to battle the same sort of capabilities that nature has given certain animals. For example, a goose can fly for 5 days without eating, by adjusting their hemoglobin; tiny implants might help a soldier do the same. Similarly, sea lions bodies have a “dive reflex” that allows them to slow their heart rates and steer blood flow towards their cores as they change depths. Callahan described how the bodies of Navy divers might be given a similar “push-button dive reflex,” or how soldiers could fight in the mountains of Afghanistan, without feeling any altitude sickness.

The second part of Callahan’s presentation was on how the body’s natural defense mechanisms could be improved through technology. He described how the military today is only able to protect its troops against “7 of 44 highly dangerous pathogens” and had no way of helping them to resist chemical toxins or radiological poisons. He then discussed how “synthetic vitamins” and “pre-position[ed] universal immune cells” could make a soldier impervious to such attacks.

If wearable computers and exoskeletons were all about adding bits and pieces to the human body, this was the reverse. Science would be used to make the human body itself faster, stronger, smarter, and generally harder to kill. While the comic book inspiration for the other programs were superheroes like Iron Man, Callahan was laying out DARPA’s plan to make Captain America real. In the comic, Steve Rogers was a fine arts student, who wanted to join the fight against the Nazis in World War II. Too weak and small, he was given “Super-Soldier” serum and “Vita-Rays” that transformed his body to the peak of every human attribute. So, unlike a Superman, Captain America has no actual super-powers; he is just a soldier whose physical form was better than everyone else he fought.

DARPA today has a long-term, $3 billion program to help make such a “Metabolically Dominant Soldier.” In other words, the military is studying how to use technology and biology to meld man and machine and transcend the limits of the human body. Described the project director, “My measure of success is that the International Olympic Committee bans everything we do.”[27]

In seeking to enhance the performance of our bodies, the researchers are reaching out to both the chemical and technological worlds. Projects in pipeline range from drugs that will boost muscles and energy by a factor of 10, akin to steroids…on steroids (the project is jokingly termed the “Energizer Bunny in Fatigues”) to wearable, cooling gloves that regulate body temperature and prevent soldiers from getting overheated (and thus tired) even on the hottest desert day.

A major focus is on helping the soldier’s body to better deal with trauma and damage. One such is the “pain vaccines” coming out of a program at Rinat Neuroscience. Researchers are hopeful these “will block the sense of pain for almost a month,” describes DARPA’s Michael Goldblatt.[28] So, if a soldier touched a hot stove, they would feel the initial shock, but not suffer the long-term agony of inflammation and swelling. There is also lots of work on speeding up the healing process. A technology for this goal is the Warfighter’s Accelerated Recovery by Photobiomodulation, or WARP device. Much as the tri-corder that Dr. McCoy has in Star Trek, the WARP device uses near infrared light to speed up the repair of damaged tissue. Another program is working on microscopic magnets, which will “flow through capillaries and stop bleeding from the inside of a cut or wound.” [29]

One of the biggest drags on soldiers’ performance though is lack of sleep. As any parent of a newborn or college kid that pulled an all-nighter can tell you, not getting enough sack time effects your memory, judgment, calculations, and even ability to do basic physical tasks.[30]

Lack of sleep time has always been a problem in war. During World War II, for example, an Army survey found that 71% of American officers thought lack of sleep was their biggest challenges to doing their job well. And yet, the officers surveyed in World War II were averaging around 4 hours of sleep a night. Today, that would be a blessing for many of the officers in Iraq. With all the new technologies such as night-vision, war has become a 24/7 job.

Related to sleep deprivation is fatigue. This is the weariness that sets in from doing the same task for extended time, such as monitoring a long-endurance UAV flight. The human body gets tired, which leads to lower effort, even from the most dedicated soldiers, forgetting of goals, and a decreased ability to distinguish between simple and complex tasks. For example, air traffic controllers get fatigued from staring at a computer screen for too long. After a while, they have been found to process less and less information to each plane and tend to route planes along the simplest, but not necessarily the safest, routes.[31] Transposed to control of technologies like an exoskeleton or controlling a UAV, it means that it is the human side of a man-machine system can drag the capabilities down.

Militaries have turned to all sorts of remedies in the past to try to help their soldiers battle lack of sleep and fatigue. World War II soldiers invading Normandy, for example, were given amphetamine-filled “pep pills” just before they landed on D-Day. It kept many of them up until D-Day + 2 or even +3. Today, soldiers either self-medicate (caffeine charged energy drinks like Red Bull and Rip It are incredibly popular among younger troops in Iraq) or they are prescribed “go pills,” the modern day version of the “pep pills.”[32] The problem is that each of these has huge side effects. They hamper judgment (several “friendly fire” episodes, such as the accidental targeting of Canadian troops in 2003 in Afghanistan, are blamed on them) and only delay, not solve, the ultimate “crash” that comes from a lack of sleep and fatigue.

A major focus of the “Extended Performance Warfighter” program at DARPA is to see how technology can help create a 24/7 soldier, who could go without sleep for days or weeks at a time, but not suffer the consequences. Their helmet might, for example pack “transcranial magnetic stimulation.” Sensors would track whenever the soldier is getting tired, such as by monitoring their eye blinking. Then, a magnetic wave would directly stimulate their brainwaves. The sensation is described as akin to drinking down a shot of espresso, but without any of the chemical side effects.

With such devices, the human body would be able to extend its operating time. Soldiers might even be able to use such technology to recharge in a new manner, gaining the benefits of sleep, without having to completely fall asleep (It’s not without precedent; many of our mammal cousins, like the dolphin or whale, never completely fall asleep as they would otherwise drown). A Korean company already markets such a device for business travelers to recover from jet lag in a matter of minutes. The benefits are obvious for such civilian professions as truck drivers or air traffic controllers, but could equally be useful in war. “Small groups of sleep-free warriors could run rings around much larger forces,” tells Washington Post’s Joel Garreau. ”[33]

Electric stimulation technology opens possibilities that go beyond sleep and recovery patterns. It has already been used to treat patients with depression and researchers hope that ultimately it will prove important for stroke and Alzheimer’s victims. But think about this technology with a military perspective. For example, if a system can be used to treat clinical depression, there exists the strong possibility that it could equally be used to stimulate aggression. Sailors in the days of wooden ships were given “liquid courage,” shots of rum and brandy before they went into battle. The new technologies indicate the possibility of the 21st century equivalent, “electric courage.”

Step IV: Combat Evolved

As Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military thinker taught at all our military schools, emphasized, “All war presupposes human weakness and seeks to exploit it.”[34] By contrast, these new technologies hold the promise of making Tony Stark from Ironman or the Master Chief from Halo fly out into real battlefield. The infantryman, who had been “the weakling of the battlefield,” might well become what one former Army general called a “supertroop.” [35] So, the next step is figuring out how deploy and use these new soldiers with superpowers.

If individual soldiers are now instead packing the firepower and mobility of a tank or more, a literal “Army of One” as the U.S. Army recruiting commercials used to claim, it is hard to see them being used and deployed as they were in the past. Instead of being bundled together in large units on the battlefield, the regular infantry would likely operate in very small units or even alone. Marine Lieutenant General James Amos describes that soldiers serving in tiny squads, commanded by a sergeant or lieutenant, could hold down hostile cities of 100,000 or more.[36] In a sense, it would be like the humorist Garrison Keiller’s “Lake Woebegone” effect, just applied to war: All the forces would become special forces.

Having small units packing such punch would also change the way a nation mobilizes for war. Less soldiers would seem to be needed for the same tasks and a nation with technologically super-empowered soldiers might make it easier to strike quickly or covertly. If there were smaller numbers of troops in the field, it would also eliminate the need for a huge logistical support structure. Ultimately, described one set of military analysts, “What we are seeing is the end of the G.I. The G.I., the stamped government issue interchangeable warrior, becomes obsolete when masses of men are no longer required to fight wars.”[37]

Step V: Weigh the Consequences

And it is perhaps because of this that many soldiers aren’t as excited by Iron Man as the fanboys at the comic book conventions and the Pentagon research labs. Many instead find such technologic changes upsetting.

One issue is the worry of “Finagle’s Law.” A science fiction riff off of Murphy’s Law, it states that “Anything that can go wrong, will—at the worst possible moment.” So, soldiers worry about become so dependent on all this technology that could crash or lock up in the midst of battle. Indeed, when researchers surveyed Vietnam veterans about one of the first Pentagon exoskeleton programs back in the 1970s (the Hardiman), there was one feature that the soldiers wanted the suit to have most of all: a quick way to get out of it.

Another concern is the newness of such technologies and using systems for which we don’t know yet their long-term consequences. Described one Special Operations Forces officer to me, “My reaction is very negative. Being a guinea pig doesn’t settle well with me.” And, perhaps, well he should be concerned. The same science fiction stories that inspired so many of these enhancements idea also usually reference a downside. For example, the interfaces in Iron Man’s battle suit eventually damage his nervous system to the extent that they effectively cripple him when not in the suit.

Iron Man is science fiction, so there is no reason to think his imaginary disease will come true just as his imaginary technology is. But, then again, the Pentagon’s real-world record with things like Agent Orange, the Tuskegee Syphilis tests, above ground testing of atomic bombs and nerve agents, and Gulf War Syndrome certainly don’t inspire the greatest confidence that everything will turn out perfectly. As the Special Operations Forces officer, who had been given chemical enhancers such as pep pills during his deployments to Afghanistan, put it, “There is always a cost.”[38]

These issues are usually set aside as “manageable” side-effects by supporters of the programs; valid concerns, yes, but no reason to stop the work. But, they ignore that there is something deeper that underlies these fears. The use of technology enhancers to get ahead of human weakness just doesn’t seem to settle well with the self-concept of soldiers, who work so hard to hone their bodies and skills, and see conflict as the ultimate test. If technology becomes a simple substitute, how can they show their excellence?[39]

Many make a parallel to steroids. Many of the same arguments made to justify the use of artificial enhancements in sports apply equally to war. For example, Fortune magazine had an article that argued that performance enhancing drugs have gotten a bad name. “Let’s look at this for a minute. Isn’t better performance what we’re all striving for? Does anyone really strive for average performance –or worse-outright deterioration?”[40]

And still, performance enhancers are widely banned and athletes like Olympic sprinters Ben Johnson and Marion Jones or and baseball players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are treated with more contempt than celebration. The reason is not our worries of the side-effects on them of heart disease, shrunken testicles and gynormous heads. Nor is it only that the artificial enhancers are viewed as breaking the rules to get ahead. Instead, it is also because the use of enhancements make it hard to figure out whether it was them or the technology that mattered more. And no few want to open up a world where the human matters the least. If the human is the weaker link in the equation is raises fears that it will mean asterisks might have to be applied to sports records or military medals.

Outside of the military or sports, others worry about the vast potential for misuse and abuse that might come from such new technologies. “Just imagine the torture potential here!” exclaims one human rights activist, while another security analyst worries about technology that can interface with neural networks and the brain ultimately making possible a “morally anaesthetized soldier.”[41]

More broadly, though should be the concern about the humans that remain underneath these technologies. They will give us great power, but we should not be fooled into thinking they will allow us to transcend our true human weaknesses. The reason Iron Man is so popular among comic book fans is not because of his superpowers, but because that he is a fundamentally human, and thus flawed, figure, wrestling with such personal demons as alcoholism, depression, and really poor taste in girlfriends (one turns out to be the head of the East coast Mafia, while another cheats on him with his archenemy). Time and again, he ends up using his technologic superpowers for what he thinks is good, but what causes evil results. In the most recent series, for example, Iron Man supports the Superhuman Registration Act, a comic book version of the Patriot Act replete with Gitmo like detention centers. It ends up backfiring into a massive loss of rights and sparks a civil war that leaves many heroes of the Marvel Universe dead.

As we look to the impact of our new enhancements on the real world future of war, perhaps then a little comic book history is useful. Well before Iron Man, there was the Nyctalope, the very first superhero of pulp fiction. First created in 1908 by French author Jean de la Hire, the Nyctalope was actually Léo Saint-Clair, a crime fighter who was implanted with an artificial heart and new eyes that allowed him to do such things as see in the dark and swim underwater for great lengths of time. Over the next 30 years, Nyctalope would save the world from such prototypical super-villains as Fulbert, the mad monk, and Gorillard, the evil master of the 7 Living Buddhas. His last adventure, written by de la Hire after the Germans occupied France during World War II, however, was a little less noble. The world’s first technological superhero became a Nazi collaborator.

Super-human technology cannot replace for good-old human morality.

About the Author: P.W. Singer (www.pwsinger.com) is Senior Fellow and Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution. He is at work on Wired for War, a look at the impact that new technologies will have on war in the future.



[1] Daniel H. Wilson, How to Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming Rebellion, 1st U.S. ed. (New York: Bloomsbury Pub., 2005), 77.

[2] John Jumper, “What Determines Why People Support the Next War?” (paper presented at the Imagining the Next War, Guggenheim Conference, New York City, March 25, 2006).

[3] Major Keith Markham, as quoted in Kris Osborn, “Post Exercise Praise,” Defense News, January 1, 2007.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Developer, Interview at the AUVSI Conference, Washington, DC, August 9, 2007.

[6] Christian Lowe, “Own the Night… and Share It” (September 21) (Defensetech.org, 2006 [cited September 21 2006]); available from http://www.defensetech.org/archives/002792.html.

[7] Sharon Weinberger, “DARPA to Build Star Wars Binoculars.” Wired Blog, April 11 (2007), http://blog.wired.com/defense/2007/04/soldierportable.html.

[8] Developer, Interview at the AUVSI Conference, Washington, DC, August 9, 2007.

[9] Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge, “Converging Technologies for Improving Human Health: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science,” (National Science Foundation, 2002), 333.

[10] Copeland, Future Warrior Exhibits Super Powers.

[11] Max Boot, War Made New : Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today (New York: Gotham Books, 2006), 449.

[12] Richard A. Clarke, Breakpoint (New York: Penguin, 2007), 140.

[13] Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers (New York: Putnam, 1959).

[14] Copeland, Future Warrior Exhibits Super Powers.

[15] John Boyd, “Exoskeletons Incorporated.” American Chamber of Commerce in Japan Journal, February (2006), http://www.accj.or.jp/document_library/Journal2006/03_cover_feature_feb06.pdf: 19.

[16] Erico Guizzo and Harry Goldstein, “The Rise of the Body Bots,” IEEE Spectrum 42, no. 10 (2005): 50.

[17] Associated Press, Robot Suit Will Help Quadriplegic Scale the Heights (April 4) (The Age, 2006 [cited January 30 2007]); available from http://www.theage.com.au/news/breaking/robot-suit-will-help-quadriplegic-scale-the-heights/2006/04/04/1143916503382.html.

[18] Sankai Yoshiyuki, “Welcome to the Bionic Age: Robot Technology Advances to a New Level.” NIPPONIA, 38 (2006), http://web-japan.org/nipponia/nipponia38/en/feature/feature01.html.

[19] Cybernyne Inc., About Us (Cyberdyne Inc., 2006 [cited March 21 2007]); available from http://www.cyberdyne.jp/english/About_us/About_us.html.

[20] Gina Stanley, “Bionic Boots.” Unstrung Magazine, August 8 (2000), http://pages.zoom.co.uk/keahi/unstrung.html.

[21] Regine, Exoskeleton Might One Day Turn Us into Superman and Wonderwoman (www.we-make-money-not-art.com, June 14 2004 [cited July 13 2007]); available from http://www.we-make-money-not-art.com/archives/001169.php.

[22] Michael Bay and Matt Ford, Cybernetics: Merging Machine and Man (CNN.com, April 18 2006 [cited February 3 2007]); available from http://www.cnn.com/2006/TECH/science/04/10/cybernetics.profile/.

[23] Nick Turse, “Baghdad 2025: The Pentagon Solution to a Planet of Slums.” TomDispatch.com, January 7 (2007), http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/155031/nick_turse_pentagon_to_global_cities_drop_dead.

[24] Scientist, Interview, Peter W. Singer, January 18, 2007.

[25] web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2002/isn.html

[26] Noah Shachtman, “America’s Might: A Comic Tale.” Wired Blog, August 28 (2002), http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/2002/08/54815.

[27] Joe Bielitzki, as quoted in Joel Garreau, Perfecting the Human (May 30) (2005 [cited April 4 2007]); available from http://mindfully.org/Technology/2005/Perfecting-The-Human30may05.htm.

[28] Garreau, Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies – And What it Means to Be Human, 27.

[29] See WARP Light Therapy, Improving the Quality of Life Through the Power of Light (2006 [cited November 15 2007]); available from http://www.warplighttherapy.com/WARP10_WhatIsWarp10.htm. See also Garreau, Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies – And What it Means to Be Human, 27.

[30] Stephen Peter Rosen, War and Human Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 110-11.

[31] Ibid., 112.

[32] Peter Beaumont, “Fatigue Cripples US Army in Iraq.” The Observer, August 12 (2007), http://observer.guardian.co.uk/world/story/0,,2147052,00.html.

[33] Garreau, Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies – And What it Means to Be Human, 30.

[34] Carl von Clausewitz, Michael Eliot Howard, and Peter Paret, On War (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976), 257.

[35] Paul F. Gorman, “SuperTroop via I-Port: Distributed Simulation Technology for Combat Development and Training Development,” (Institute for Defense Analyses, 1990).

[36] Tom Abate, “Special Military Group Looks Ahead To Fight America’s Future Wars,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 27, 2007.

[37] George Friedman and Meredith Friedman, The Future of War: Power, Technology, and American World Dominance in the 21st Century, 1st ed. (New York: Crown Publishers, 1996), 392.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Christopher Coker, The Future of War: The Re-enchantment of War in the Twenty-first Century, Blackwell Manifestos (Malden, MA; Oxford, Eng.: Blackwell Pub., 2004).

[40] Susan Casey, “How to Amp your Mind and Body,” Fortune 155, no. 11 (2005): 113.

[41] Coker, The Future of War: The Re-enchantment of War in the Twenty-first Century, 109.

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