by Bailey Marsheck
Senior Editor

Ordinary human soldiers simply do not cut it anymore. At least that’s the impression given by Hollywood’s obsession with “super soldiers” of superhero franchises (“Marvel” and “Justice League”) and robotic dystopian infamy (“Matrix” and “Blade Runner”). But how attainable are the abilities of mutant or enhanced humans in real life?

Research is progressing rapidly and super soldiers will certainly exist in the very near future, but not in the box office-storming form depicted by Hollywood. Firstly, there is no precise definition of a “super soldier” beyond the characterization of an individual whose capabilities exceed existing human aptitude. Secondly, current super soldier development–at least, what is known to the public–is much subtler and, regrettably, less sexy than media portrayals suggest. Scientists face constricting realities that their fictional counterparts overcome rather easily or simply fail to address. However, this hasn’t prevented a race among strategic competitors to operationalize said technology and gain military advantage.  

With the publicization of advances in gene-editing technology, particularly in light of news that Chinese scientists have utilized CRISPR technology to create the world’s first genetically-modified babies, some alarmists fear that CRISPR will be applied to create genetically superior humans. Fortunately, such scientific abilities remain a ways out of reach. Additionally, there is little evidence of large-scale programs utilizing radiation or other nefarious means to grant individuals superhuman abilities through mutation. Instead, super soldier research falls under three main categories: enhancement, exosuits and augmentation.

Human “Enhancement”

The most common research undertaken towards creating super soldiers focuses on simple physical and cognitive performance enhancement. Scientists look to maximize soldier training and performance without drastic alterations to the human genome–similar to scientific training approaches used in professional sports to get the most out of athletes. As explored in a report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), the U.S. military is demonstrably sleep-deprived and provided with insufficient nutrients. Resulting lapses in cognitive performance (reactionary sharpness and decision-making ability in moments of intense stress) and physical performance (exhaustion and capacity to carry their heavy body armor) impair combat effectiveness. To supplement the selection of stimulants already widely distributed by American military branches as mentioned by the CNAS report, researchers are experimenting with repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, which helps neurons conveying brain signals faster. Soldiers will be able to react more quickly and maintain their focus for longer, which has the potential to drastically increase troop survivability rate.

Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation being tested on a U.S. soldier

Exosuits and Exoskeletons

Another branch of super soldier technology focuses on enhancing troop capabilities through wearable suits or exoskeletons, which are removable and do not alter the abilities of the users themselves. Both Russia and the United States have created competing prototypes of Hollywood-like exosuits with advanced armaments and combat capabilities, but they are immensely heavy and require extreme amounts of power to operate. With battery lives lasting no more than a few hours at present and weight beyond what soldiers can carry, their combat effectiveness is extremely limited.  

Far from armored weapons systems designed to turn users into human arsenals à la Marvel’s “Iron Man” or Tom Cruise’s mech suit in “Edge of Tomorrow,” the modern generation of exoskeletons are designed primarily to increase soldier endurance and survivability rates through mobility.  According to another CNAS report, “Exoskeletons with more modest goals, such as lower-body exoskeletons that are designed simply to increase mobility, reduce energy expenditure and reduce musculoskeletal injuries, may show more promise in the near-term.” These “soft skeleton” exosuits are light and require little power to operate. Fitted on top or even under a soldier’s uniform, they aid mobility by assisting leg joints without hindering natural movement, using biomechanics and even artificial intelligence to synch with a soldier’s unique gait. Several defense labs and companies, including Lockheed Martin and the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, are currently under contract to develop soft exosuits for the U.S. government.

TechCrunch Sessions: Robotics
A demonstration of the Wyss Institute’s lower-body exoskeleton at a 2017 robotics conference

Human Augmentation

A third method of infusing humans with superhuman abilities is “augmentation,” perhaps the most questionable and sinister-seeming field of application. While it seeks to push the limits of human capability similarly to physical and cognitive enhancements, augmentation differs because its effects on humans are potentially permanent. Because of the strong ethical and strategic implications, government research into augmentation is likely to be secretive, blurring the line between rumor and reality.

In attempting to imbue soldiers with traits unattainable to humans, scientists turn to the animal world rather than science-fiction. Unclassified research from U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)  includes experiments on an anesthetic vaccine to reduce pain sensitivity completely at the site of a wound and studies on marine mammals like dolphins and whales, who never fully sleep, to understand how to reduce human sleep dependency. Instead, one side of a whale’s brain sleeps at a time, with the other carrying out basic functions such as allowing the whale to surface for air. Labs have also attempted to replicate a goose’s ability to fly 5 days without eating through hemoglobin adjustment and a sea lion’s control over its blood flow to prevent altitude sickness when changing depths.

Courtesy J. Moore – HIHWNMS/ NOAA Permit # 15240
Marine mammals like whales and dolphins cannot sleep fully or they will drown. Researchers hope to replicate their “sleeplessness” on the battlefield.

Global “Super Soldier” Competition

The major contenders for strategic supremacy in terms of super soldier development are the United States, China and Russia. While they attempt to publicly one-up each other through flashy exhibitions of exoskeleton progression, the real competition likely occurs in secret labs as researchers advance projects classified for both their strategic importance and ethical ambiguity. The U.S. government’s accountability to its citizens and relative transparency is a great disadvantage in this area. Among the major powers, the United States has the largest accumulation of scientific and military innovation ability; Russia doesn’t have the volume or quality of research institutions to match the United States as it once did and China still lags in terms of original military innovation. Yet, Russia and China benefit from less institutional restrictions on boundary-pushing experimentation. Far less information on super soldier development is made publicly available by the Russians or Chinese. Military competition places the United States in a tough spot from a game theory perspective: if they suspect that rivals will pursue domination in “super soldier” development through unethical means and high levels of spending, can the United States afford not to do the same? In true “arms race” fashion, competition ratchets up as each actor perceives the same uncertainty, logically opting to accelerate super soldier research.

Even in an era where military calculus appears dominated by precision drone strikes, cyber warfare and nuclear detente, individual soldiers remain indispensable. Unmanned, long-distance warfighting has enabled humans to bring about World War III in a matter of minutes; ground troops provide a more measured, less-escalatory solution to armed conflicts. For this reason, militaries will continue to maximize the abilities of their soldiers through modern technological means. Yet–as research has demonstrated–creating super soldiers requires far more than a secret serum or quick blast of radiation. Movie buffs rejoice; the defense industry won’t be putting action flicks out of business just yet.

Photos by:
Airman Magazine
M. Cheng

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