The 5 Biggest Concerns About Enhancing US Troops with Technology

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A U.S. Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance team assigned to the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion waits to perform high altitude-high opening jumps for the first time over Yausubetsu, Japan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Savannah Mesimer)

For the past few years, the U.S. military (and likely others) have been looking for ways to enhance the natural abilities of its troops. Doing so could come in almost any form imaginable, be it a chemical (like the Super Soldier serum that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America) or a series of external devices (like the Power Armor that Tony Stark uses as Iron Man).

While imagining all the ways human beings could become enhanced for combat might be a fun exercise for scientists and researchers, there is a whole other school of thought that doesn’t stop at the question, “Can we do this?”

Their question is “Should we do this?”

Two of those military ethicists joined Managing Editor Hope Hodge Seck on the seventh episode of Military.com’s podcast, Left of Boom.

Dr. Edward T. Barrett is the Director of Research at the US Naval Academy's Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership and an ethics professor in the Department of Leadership, Ethics and Law. And Dr. Tony Pfaff is currently the research professor for Strategy for the Military Profession and Ethic at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College. He's also a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

They talked about the top concerns the military ethical minds have for combat enhancements.

1. What Are You Doing to the Soldier?

Are the troops being enhanced with a drug that helps them stay awake? Is it something removable, like an exoskeleton for lifting heavy objects? Is it a full-on chip inserted into their brain?

Depending on what you do to enhance someone, medical intervention may be required to reverse it or care for the individual later on down the line.

“The concerns revolve around the type of the enhancement and the extent of the enhancement. On the type, consider the possibility that you could make soldiers extremely fearless, says Barrett. “On the face of it, that sounds very good. But you could compromise the freedom and the safety of the soldier and then you’re gonna also expose the missions and citizens to undue risk.”

2. What About When the Enhancement Isn’t Needed?

Dr. Pfaff discusses the disruptive nature of enhancements. If we enhance soldiers in a way that permanently increases their cognitive ability, it could disrupt their lives and the lives of others after their service ends. For example, an enhanced individual will be more competitive for certain jobs, and civilians are going to be displaced from those jobs that will be disrupted.

“On the flip side, what if those enhancements have long-term negative effects?” Pfaff says. “Who's paying for that veterans care? Well, presumably the Veterans Administration, but that's a significant cost that can be disruptive in that society would also have to bear.”

3. Psychological Effect on the Veteran

Dr. Barrett mentions the work of Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel, who posited that limits were beneficial to individuals, and without them people take a turn for the worst, psychologically.

“They promote interdependence and humility, and those are constitutive of human flourishing,” says BArrett. “And when you take away those limits, you might end up with people, soldiers who are extremely narcissistic and self-centered, superior in their attitude. And that in itself is not fulfilling for that person.”

This is a sentiment echoed by Dr. Pfaff.

“Some of the scientists I've talked to like to point out that no enhancements [are] reversible, because you remember what it was like to have that capability. And so that can bring on its own kind of pain or discomfort.”

4. Is It Reversible?

Whether or not reversing an enhancement has a negative psychological effect on a veteran, it’s still a concern for military ethicists like Drs. Barrett and Pfaff. If the enhancement is having a negative effect on their regular lives, could it be mitigated when they don’t need it?

“You could take away that cognitive enhancement that’s making them superior and narcissistic,” Barrett says. “But there could be some psychological issues associated with that. You could give them enhancements only when they’re operational, say, so they wouldn’t be like this all the time.”

5. Does It Mean More Conflict?

Taking the time to enhance a certain number of troops means those are the units that are more likely to be called on to fight when needed. That puts more risk onto the troops being enhanced -- making their enhancement the biggest threat to life and limb as time goes on.

“While that enhancement may make them more resilient,more survivable and more lethal on the battlefield, it makes them more likely they'll be used,” says Dr. Pfaff. “Depending on how many iterations of that [risk] there might be, getting the enhancement might over long term make them less survivable, or more likely to be severely injured.”

Hear what the U.S. military’s ethical minds are talking about and how they discuss the latest in military technology on the latest episode of Left of Boom.

Tune in to new episodes of Military.com's Left of Boom podcast on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, TuneIn and Stitcher. Follow host Hope Hodge Seck on Twitter @HopeSeck.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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