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From the comic book to the battlefield: Get ready for the superhuman soldier

Superhuman at Sunset
© Paul Hair, 2012
Editorial Note: Originally published at The Rebel on August 10, 2015.

Superhuman abilities are associated with comic book superheroes and fantasy, but they likely will become a reality and military-sponsored workshops even foresee them possibly being on the battlefield of the future.

Superheroes fill the big screen and television. Many people like them but others may be tired of them and think they are “childish” or “pure fantasy.” And while superheroes may indeed be both of these, superhumans certainly are not. They might one day become a reality and the U.S. Department of Defense is thinking about how they could affect warfare.

Many news outlets have reported on the U.S. Department of Defense developing a so-called Iron Man-type suit. But the DOD is also aware the future will see advancements beyond this; advancements that might eventually include biological superhuman abilities.

Defense One reported on July 22 that elements of the DOD, national security professionals, scientists and others met earlier in the year and discussed the future of warfare. That meeting produced a report called, “Visualizing the Tactical Ground Battlefield in the Year 2050.”

“Visualizing the Tactical Ground Battlefield in the Year 2050” covered many different things, including the topics of augmented humans and superhumans. Defense One highlighted these topics even as it pointed out the report also explicitly stated it does not reflect any official position of the DOD or those who participated.

First, the report talked about augmented humans, and how they might “be physically and mentally augmented with enhanced capabilities.” Later it revealed how advancements might lead to outright biological superhumans.

The principal Army unit operating in 2050 will be mixed human-robot teams. To enable humans to partner effectively with robots, human team members will be enhanced in a variety of ways. These super humans will feature exoskeletons, possess a variety of implants, and have seamless access to sensing and cognitive enhancements. They may also be the result of genetic engineering. The net result is that they will have enhanced physical capabilities, senses, and cognitive powers. The presence of super humans on the battlefield in the 2050 timeframe is highly likely because the various components needed to enable this development already exist and are undergoing rapid evolution.

Defense One noted the DOD isn’t specifically pursuing surgical or genetic manipulation to enhance troops, but at the same time the article said the DOD had looked into them in the past.

Talk to officials at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and they’ll tell you that soldier enhancement involving surgery or genetic manipulation is not an area of active interest. Certainly the prospect brings up ethical concerns and it may pose a number of legal ones as well. As bioethicist Patrick Lin has observed, a permanently enhanced soldier might constitute a new type of weapon that conflicts with international law. Regardless, the military has dabbled in the field, as Noah Shactman revealed in this 2007 article for Wired.

How much the DOD actually looked into surgical or genetic manipulation to enhance troops is debatable. But a separate conference sponsored by the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) in April of this year again showed the DOD is aware they might eventually become a reality regardless of what the DOD is doing.

TRADOC sponsored the 2015 Mad Scientist Conference at Georgetown University which ran from April 28-29. The Army issued a press release about this and talked about how genetic manipulation could become a reality.

The first forays into genetic manipulation will be altering DNA to eliminate diseases or provide enhanced capabilities in embryos. Then, that research could focus on changing the genetic structure of adults. . . .
While this would likely not occur in the United States due to ethical and moral repulsion, state and non-state actors, who are our potential adversaries, would no doubt want to use it against us, he said, meaning designing super soldiers.

Research and development are moving towards discoveries once thought to be impossible. These discoveries will alter warfare and humanity in general. And while no one can say for sure what will happen in the future, it’s now the work of serious people to think about a world where people with biological superhuman abilities exist.


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