The multilingual contents of the site are the result of an automatic translation.


Other sources

Saut de ligne
Saut de ligne

The "increased" soldier: what are the stakes for the army?

General Military Review No. 56
History & strategy
Saut de ligne
Saut de ligne

Subject to fears and fantasies, the issue of the "augmented" soldier has been the subject of debate for several years, both in the civilian and military spheres. Based on three prospective scenarios, Second Lieutenant Gaspard Schnitzler mixes political, economic and ethical considerations in a resolutely operational approach. While a reflection on improving soldier performance seems indispensable, it nevertheless appears to be a limited, even illusory response, given the challenges facing our armies and the stakes of tomorrow's fighting.

Man has always sought to go beyond his biological limits to rise above his condition as a mere mortal. Faced with the double ordeal of killing one's fellow man and risking one's life to defend the lives of others, this aspiration is particularly marked in the soldier. Thus, the increase in performance offered by the progress of science and technology has been accompanied by a progressive distancing from death.1. Since antiquity, there have been many examples of the increase in the physical and cognitive capacities of the soldier involving a distance between the body: lance, crossbow, rifle, mortar, missile, drone, robot, etc. or the mind: alcohol, mead, sage, coca, ginseng, hemp, pervitin, benzedrine, ritalin, captagon, loxapine, etc.2, modafinil3etc.

If this quest to go beyond the limits of human nature is particularly marked in the military field, it is above all because of the specific nature of the profession of arms. The role of the soldier involves gaining superiority over his adversary in order to stay one step ahead. Consequently, the success of the mission depends on the ability to adapt quickly to the constraints of a hostile environment in order to deprive the adversary of his freedom of action and defeat him. This adaptation implies an ability to endure in the face of the adversary, which rests above all on physical and moral strength. Increasing a soldier's performance could thus make it possible to better protect him against phenomena likely to diminish his capabilities, while improving some of his faculties so as to increase his freedom of action.

This article on a subject that has been dealt with many times is intended to provide a different perspective on the reasons that lead a society to want to "increase" its soldiers on the one hand, and on the options available to the public decision-maker on the other, in the form of three prospective scenarios. Instead of the notions of "improved" or "increased" soldiers, the notion of the "non-degraded" soldier - defined at a later stage - will be preferred here, as it is more relevant to the operational issues specific to the army and to our own ethical considerations.

What makes a society want to "increase" its soldiers?

Faced with the progress made in the life sciences and the evolution of man's capacity to intervene in matter on ever smaller scales, the debate on the artificial improvement of the soldier's performance has reappeared in recent years, under the influence of several factors.

Firstly, it is the result of a societal environment that promotes performance and surpassing oneself. Indeed, under the influence of certain socio-professional groups such as high-level athletes or entrepreneurs, a "cult of performance" has developed since the 1980s, spreading the values of competition and surpassing oneself.4. One only has to look at the enthusiasm for marathons, obstacle courses or extreme sports among an ever-widening segment of the population. As for the army, it has broken away from this "culture of surpassing oneself", as external operations require soldiers to be prepared to face extraordinary situations. In addition, civil society no longer tolerates casualties and hopes that technological advances will provide soldiers with the ability to wage war without dying.5.

Secondly, the idea of improving human nature echoes the transhumanist ideology. Since the 1990s, philosophers, scientists and entrepreneurs, most of them American, have been advocating " the improvement of the intellectual, physical and psychic capacities of human beings through the use of scientific and technical processes ".6. Convinced that man in his present condition is ill-adapted to face the new technological challenges of this world, they wish to free themselves from current physical limitations such as ageing. Thus, companies such as Google, through the Calico company, are working to slow down ageing and associated diseases.

This movement is not without impact on the American conception of the augmented soldier. In 2018, a document from the US Department of Defense announced the allocation of $15 million to research on the augmented soldier(bio-enhanced), while in 2017 the Defence Research Agency (DARPA) announced the allocation of $65 million to neurological research.7. These transhumanists are opposed by so-called "bioconservative" thinkers, for whom the increase represents an attack on human nature and threatens the fundamental rights of the human being.8.

Finally, this quest to surpass man's biological limits is driven by scientific research and technological progress. Since the role of science is to explore, it is only natural that the world of medical research should advocate scientific progress and discovery. Thus, many of the techniques used today to increase the performance of individuals were initially developed for therapeutic applications or to compensate for handicaps, such as methods of reconstructive surgery, means of combating narcolepsy or Alzheimer's disease, etc.9. For its part, the defence industry advocates a race for innovation and experimentation on which its sustainability depends. Finally, the favourable disposition of populations towards technology, which they perceive more as a progress than as a threat, facilitates the dissemination of these ideas.

What's in it for the Army?

The interest of armies, especially the army, in increasing the performance of its soldiers is based on a threefold observation. Firstly, the size of Western armies - France being no exception - is limited compared to countries such as China (2.3 million soldiers), India (1.3 million), North Korea (1.2 million) or Russia (900,000). Acquiring capability and technological superiority, rather than maintaining a critical mass, may therefore appear to be an attractive solution for achieving tactical victory. Secondly, conflict zones tend to multiply and the fighting tends to harden, which wears out soldiers and equipment more quickly. Finally, the technological superiority that has hitherto distinguished our armies is in competition, while the increasing complexity of the systems used increases the cognitive burden on the soldier.10.

In view of this observation, it is worth considering the prospects offered by the improvement of the physical and cognitive capacities of the soldier in the quest for tactical superiority that characterises air-land combat. The challenge is twofold: on the one hand, it is a question of increasing the mobility of the infantryman who has landed, and on the other hand, of reducing his vulnerability through physical (strength, resistance, speed, sight, hearing, sleep, food, etc.) and cognitive (reaction, understanding of the environment, stress, etc.) improvements.

While these objectives can be achieved using scientific and technical processes (nano- and biotechnologies, pharmacology, artificial intelligence, even genetic manipulation), they can also be achieved using less invasive and non-medical solutions (operational preparation, potential optimisation techniques (TOP), etc.).11(e.g., psychological support). The challenge is therefore to determine the need and the limits that the army should set for itself in its use of science and anthropotechnics.12 to enable the soldier to best carry out his mission. In order to do so, we propose three scenarios ranging from the naturally "improved" soldier (without the use of intrusive technologies) to the "all augmented" soldier and the compromise that an "undeclared" soldier could be13.

What choice is there for the political decision-maker and the military leader?

Scenario 1: the "improved" soldier

Among the possible options, the first would be to reject any improvement in the soldier's capabilities using scientific processes such as genetic manipulation or nano- and biotechnologies. This approach would prohibit any intervention on the human body aimed at modifying the body for non-medical purposes or giving it faculties it does not possess. On the other hand, it would not prevent the improvement of the soldier by reversible means, becoming one with him(e.g. night vision binoculars, exoskeleton) and ensuring the continuity of his bodily, sensory, physical or cognitive capacities.

Based on the observation that combat actions represent a tiny proportion of the soldier's missions compared to training, intelligence gathering or progress among the population, it can be considered that the strengthening of purely combat-related capabilities is not a priority. Consequently, it would be more appropriate to improve the intellectual and psychological capacities of the combatant by developing an understanding of environments that are becoming increasingly complex, the ability to interact with populations, discernment, mastery of feelings and cohesion.

To do so, there is no need to resort to so-called invasive techniques, which threaten the subtle balance between body and mind. Developing the learning of foreign languages and cultures, improving training, psychological monitoring, using psychological techniques to improve the quality of sleep, recovery, memorisation or concentration, are all possible solutions to naturally increase a soldier's abilities.

Obviously, the improvement of physical and physiological capacities cannot be neglected. Given the harsh environments in which soldiers operate, the extreme weather conditions and the abrasiveness of combat, it is essential to strengthen and conserve the strength, resistance and endurance of the combatant. Likewise, enhanced physical training and diets inspired by high-performance sport are essential for the fighter.14 but also a reduction in the weight of the infantryman's equipment, an improvement in its ergonomics, or the provision of technical clothing, could be enough to improve the soldier's physical performance without intrusive intervention.

Among the main advantages of this scenario in favour of an "improved" soldier are the non-dependence of the soldier on new technologies, the preservation of feelings (fear, fatigue, pain, etc.) and their stimulating nature, the maintenance of versatility in the face of the diversity of operations, the preservation of the health and well-being of the combatant, not forgetting lower cost and greater ethical and social acceptability. In a way, this soldier can be considered "enhanced" by his ability to dispense with overly invasive technologies and remain operational in a degraded environment.

Nevertheless, renouncing any increase of a medico-technical nature entails risks: that of France being downgraded both militarily and in the knowledge economy, that of our soldiers' vulnerability to combatants who are not subject to the same moral imperatives, and finally that of a loss of sovereignty, both economic and political, in the face of the spread of foreign technologies and the development of standards that escape us.

Scenario 2: the soldier all grown up

A much more radical option would be to accept all that science and medicine have to offer as possibilities to develop a super soldier who would be human in spirit and more cyborgin appearance.15. This is the image conveyed by American cinema which, in an apocalyptic vision of war, advocates the total hybridization of man and machine(e.g. Iron Man, Terminator, Avengers, etc.).

This vision is part of a symmetrical and high-intensity approach to conflict. It is intended to respond, on the one hand, to the operational challenge represented by the numerical superiority of the adversary and, on the other hand, to the call of society, which advocates performance and no longer tolerates losses. Indeed, having a soldier with increased physical capabilities and enhanced psychological resistance appears to be an attractive solution to compensate for the mass requirements of our armies while reducing mortality. Improve the protection of soldiers by equipping them with armour(e.g. , a protective body armour). Improve the protection of soldiers by equipping them with armour (e.g. the American TALOS or Russian Ratnik-3 armour), reinforce visual or auditory acuity with implants or medication, stimulate attention and reduce fatigue with psychostimulant substances or brain impulses (electric or magnetic), improve the analysis and understanding of a situation thanks to augmented reality in order to facilitate decision-making, measure the evolution of various physiological variables to anticipate human failures, limit the need for water, food and sleep through pharmacological uses, or even resort to surgery or genetics16are all solutions being considered to improve the performance of the soldier and increase his survivability.

Neuroscience research programmes are making significant advances, such as the development of brain-machine interfaces.17 (Brain Computer Interface) or optogenetics, which allows the activity of groups of neurons to be observed and controlled by light stimuli . The military applications of these fields of research are numerous: accelerated learning, medical monitoring of military personnel, treatment of injury related pathologies, remote guidance of weapon systems, networking of brain capacities, etc.18. In the United States, the field of neuroscience is the subject of major investments, notably under the impetus of the Defence Research and Development Agency (DARPA), which funds several research and development programmes as part of the BRAIN initiative. To a lesser extent, this is also the case in France with projects such as the upstream study programme " Man Machine Teaming ".19 supported by the French Defence Innovation Agency (AID) or the brain-controlled exoskeleton prototype developed by the Clinatec biomedical research centre in Grenoble.

Nevertheless, this scenario comes up against several limitations. Firstly, overcoming man's physical and physiological limits must not go against his nature, at the risk of distorting the soldier and dehumanising conflicts. Secondly, the increase cannot take place without the consent of the soldier. It therefore implies the latter's acceptance, at the risk of creating inequality between augmented and non-augmented soldiers, and between soldiers and ordinary civilians. It also requires full transparency on the risks and side effects involved: lying would engage the moral responsibility of the leader and undermine the relationship of trust between the soldier and his leader. Thirdly, as any soldier would have to return to civilian life, the reversibility induced by the increase could create a psychological risk for those who, used to a new capability, would be deprived of it. In addition to the vulnerability implied by the use of complex technological means (jamming, malfunctioning, remote control), there is also the risk of dependency. Permanent decision support and increased assistance to the combatant can lead to a loss of basic reflexes and skills, threatening the resilience of the combatant. In addition, the use of psychostimulants can create a distancing from populations and an inability to adapt to changing situations, not to mention the risk of disinhibition and the potential physical and psychological sequelae induced. Finally, over and above the financial cost that this choice would entail, there is obviously the question of the legal responsibility and moral acceptability of such practices. The ethical position that States will take with regard to the notion of the augmented soldier will strongly depend on their liberal or illiberal form.20.

Why favour the idea of an undeclared soldier over an augmented or improved soldier?

Scenario 3: the undeclared soldier

A compromise between the improved soldier and the all-improved soldier could consist of limiting the increase to what is necessary to keep the ascendancy, taking into account the moral, economic and political sustainability of such a choice in the face of States that will not hesitate to resort to means that we would not allow ourselves. This soldier, who could be described as "non-degraded", wants to respond to a twofold imperative: the quest for operational success and the protection of the health of the combatant. In contrast to the idea of the "augmented" soldier, which aspires to go beyond the limits of human nature, the idea of the "undeclared" soldier would tend to improve the protection of the soldier against phenomena that could diminish his or her capabilities. This choice between the different scenarios raises two eminently political questions: how to win the war without losing one's soul? And how far would we be prepared to go to defend our values?

In an attempt to respond to this, we propose the following recommendations21 :

  • Designing the unclassified soldier around people and not equipment, by designing socio-technical systems according to their operational purpose. It is essential for those who think and develop these systems to be familiar with their uses, the constraints on the soldier (noise, odour, temperature, fatigue, weight, etc.), the causes of injury or death. Used in degraded conditions, by women and men under great stress, these systems must be instinctive and simple to use so as not to increase the cognitive load on the soldier. Feedback can help improve this understanding.
  • Preserving the soldier rather than trying to increase it. Non-decommissioning will therefore be achieved above all by reducing exposure to sound trauma, electromagnetic radiation, toxicology (CBRN threats, etc.) and the use of the military's own equipment.22) and extreme conditions (freezing cold, high heat). French innovations such as sensors to control the filtering efficiency of a mask or the permeability of a fabric to toxic agents, BIONEAR intelligent hearing protectors that facilitate communication in noisy environments thanks to active filtering, or future anti-blast protections to better protect lung tissue and thorax, which could be developed as part of the REELTHOR project, should make this possible.23.
  • Continue research on the "repaired soldier" to restore the injured soldier's motor, perceptual and cognitive functions as much as possible. Advances in science and engineering offer not inconsiderable solutions in terms of physical and psychological reconstruction of the combatant. For example, the French BLOC-PRINT bio-impression-assisted surgery technology, supported by AID, makes it possible to graft the dermis and epidermis of people who have suffered major burns - such as explosion victims - in just three hours (compared with three to six weeks at present) thanks to 3D printing.24. Other major research projects are underway, such as the development of intelligent prostheses to restore the mobility of the soldier.
  • Maintain know-how through training and learning. The vulnerabilities created by new technologies and the risks of dependency mentioned above call for the preservation of the basic skills and knowledge that every soldier should have, in order to ensure that operational superiority is maintained in degraded or alternative modes.
  • Pharmacological research should not be neglected. While the use of pharmacology to improve performance raises many reservations, it is essential to continue and extend the research carried out by the Armed Forces Biomedical Research Institute (IRBA) in order to know what the adversary might have at his disposal, to exploit the vulnerabilities induced, and even to resort to it - exceptionally - in critical situations (hostage-taking, ambush, ejection into a hostile environment) or in the event of imminent danger to France's vital interests.
  • Discriminating the use of nano- and biotechnologies with regard to their operational purpose. As long as the use of nano- and biotechnologies is not intrusive (implants, surgery) or risky for the health of the soldier, respects the principles of consent or reversibility and meets a specific operational objective, it should be promoted. This implies discrimination with regard to the missions entrusted to the various types of units, whether according to duration, the risk involved or the operational need specific to each mission (coercive action, peacekeeping mission, aid to populations, etc.).25. Thus, the capabilities to be improved will not be the same depending on whether it is a landed infantryman, an armoured vehicle pilot or a sapper.
  • Develop a doctrinal framework on the use of these practices. Although there is no official doctrine on the "augmented" soldier at either the Military Staff or Land Staff levels, the 4 May 2015 instruction on the military use of vigilance modifying substances seems to set out a guiding principle: that of military necessity. Reserved for "exceptional situations of survival" when other measures prove to be "insufficient or inapplicable", the use of these practices must take into account the benefit/risk ratio for the soldier concerned. On the basis of this observation, it may therefore be considered that recourse to augmentation should be assessed on the basis of two criteria: the exceptional nature of a situation on which the soldier's survival depends and the absence of an alternative solution.

Faced with the wide range of possibilities opened up by science and technology, it is very difficult for a "non-increased" researcher to reach a conclusion on a subject as vast and complex as this one. Nevertheless, three reflections are worthy of note. Firstly, the idea of improving the performance of man, and therefore of the soldier, is a historical constant which again has only the scope of possibilities offered by the progress of anthropotechnics. It is experiencing a resurgence of interest under the influence of primarily civilian actors (researchers and industrialists) who, by creating supply, are fuelling the debate. Secondly, the current approach remains limited by its techno-centric nature, which neglects the human element. Thinking that human frailties or emotions can be compensated for by technological solutions risks increasing the gap between society's perception of the battlefield and its reality. However, it is not the soldier as an individual that makes up the strength of an army, but rather the cohesion of the group. It is therefore necessary to go beyond the individual framework of the notion of the augmented "soldier" and study this issue through a collective prism. Finally, wanting to increase the performance of the soldier appears to be a limited, even illusory, response in view of the challenges facing our armies and the stakes of tomorrow's fighting. This debate must be seen in the context of a broader reflection on the role that our country aspires to on the international stage and calls for discerning action, to distinguish between what is science fiction and what is of real operational interest.


1 Éric LENTONTURIER: Au-delà du " soldat-robot " : l'éthique comme augmentation, La Revue, 2014, n° 68, p. 139.

2 A conventional antipsychotic indicated in the treatment of schizophrenic psychoses, Loxapine could prevent the appearance of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in soldiers who are victims of trauma or acute stress episodes (cf. the study conducted by the Percy Army Training Hospital).

3 The pharmacological aids authorised in the French army are Modafinil (psychostimulant), sustained-release caffeine and Zolpidem (hypnotic), according to Instruction No. 744 of 4 May 2015.

4 Frédéric COSTE: Le contexte sociologique des technologies augmatrices, perception et acceptation sociale, IRSEM Studies No. 42, 2016, p. 52.

5 Caroline GALACTEROS: Homme augmenté, volonté diminuée, Inflexions, n° 32, p. 117.

6 Definition of transhumanism according to the Larousse dictionary.

7 DARPA, Towards a high-resolution, implantable Neural Interface, 10/07/2017.

8 Nicolas LE DEVEDEC and Fany GUIS: L'humain Augmenté, Un Enjeu Social, Sociologies, 2013.

9 Frédéric COSTE, op. cit.

10 Thomas NOIZET : Le soldat augmenté : quel intérêt pour les forces, DSI, hors-série n° 45, déc. 2015, p. 37.

11 A set of methods using breathing, relaxation or mental imagery to improve the quality of sleep, memorisation, concentration and self-confidence (Ministry of the Armed Forces).

12 Activity aimed at modifying the human being by intervening on his body without medical purpose (Jérôme GOFETTE: De l'humain réparé à l'humain augmenté: naissance de l'anthropotechnie, L'humain augmenté, CNRS, 2013).

13 A distinction is made here between the qualitative notion of improvement, which consists of "tending towards the growth and deployment of all the qualities of man", and the more quantitative notion of increase, which tends towards "maximising a measurable quantity" without worrying about its moral dimension. Henri HUDE: Réflexion éthique sur le soldat augmenté : vers une interdiction conventionnelle? in Le soldat augmenté, Les cahiers de la RDN, 2017, p. 205.

14 Following the example of training in hypoxia (simulated altitude) to accustom high-level athletes to the scarcity of air.

15 Defined in Cyborgs and Space by Manfred E. CLYNES and Nathan S. KLINE (Columbia Univ. Press. 1960) as the result of the contraction of the terms cybernetic and organism, a fusion of man and machine.

16 Genetics could make it possible, through in vitro manipulations, to inhibit the expression of a gene that would be able to secrete a hormone harmful to performance or reduce sensitivity to pain. Jean-Paul LABEDADE: Augmentation individuelle du sportif et comparaison avec le monde militaire, in Le soldat augmenté, Cahier de la RDN, CREC, 2017, p. 213.

17 System of direct link between the brain and a computer, allowing the action of a prosthesis or any automated system to be controlled by thought, without stressing the action of peripheral nerves or muscles.

18 Olivier BRECHT and Thomas GASSILOUD: Rapport d'information sur les enjeux de la numérisation des armées, Commission de la Défense Nationale et des Forces Armées, Assemblée Nationale, 30 May 2018.

19 Launched in March 2018, this project aims to support the emergence and maturation of man/machine interface technologies within the framework of the combat aviation of the future.

20 Dominique REYNIÉ: Le politique face aux usages sociétaux de l'augmentation et de leurs impacts pour le monde militaire ?, intervention at the conference Le soldat augmenté : une réflexion éthique européenne on 16/10/2019.

21 I would like to thank ICE2TA Emmanuel GARDINETTI, Head of "Men and Systems" at the Defence Innovation Agency (AID), for his informed view of the issue and his valuable contribution.

22 Nuclear, Radiological, Biological and Chemical.

23 Research and Establishment of Thorax Tolerance Limits under dynamic loading carried out within the framework of an ASTRID (Specific Support for Defence Research and Innovation Works) system.

24 Interview with Colonel Jean-Christophe BOERI, Director Armed Forces at the AID, on 06/11/2019.

Title : The "increased" soldier: what are the stakes for the army?
Author (s) : Sous-lieutenant (R) Gaspard SCHNITZLER

Saut de ligne
Saut de ligne
Vector technology created by vectorpouch -