Engineering Humans for War

Retired four-star general Paul F. Gorman recalls first learning about the “weakling of the battlefield” from reading S.L.A. Marshall, the U.S. Army combat historian during World War II. After interviewing soldiers who participated in the Normandy beach landings, Marshall had learned that fatigue was responsible for an overwhelming number of casualties.


“I didn’t know my strength was gone until I hit the beach,” Sergeant Bruce Hensley told Marshall. “I was carrying part of a machine gun. Normally I could run with it … but I found I couldn’t even walk with it. … So I crawled across the sand dragging it with me. I felt ashamed of my own weakness, but looking around I saw the others crawling and dragging the weights they normally carried.” Another officer told of the effects of “fear and fatigue.”


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“Soldiers get tired and soldiers get fearful,” Gorman told me last year. “Frequently, soldiers just don’t want to fight. Attention must always be paid to the soldier himself.”


For decades after its inception in 1958, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—DARPA, the central research and development organization of the Department of Defense—focused on developing vast weapons systems. Starting in 1990, and owing to individuals like Gorman, a new focus was put on soldiers, airmen, and sailors—on transforming humans for war. The progress of those efforts, to the extent it can be assessed through public information, hints at war’s future, and raises questions about whether military technology can be stopped, or should.



Gorman sketched out an early version of the thinking in a paper he wrote for DARPA after his retirement from the Army in 1985, in which he described an “integrated-powered exoskeleton” that could transform the weakling of the battlefield into a veritable super-soldier. The “SuperTroop” exoskeleton he proposed offered protection against chemical, biological, electromagnetic, and ballistic threats, including direct fire from a .50-caliber bullet. It “incorporated audio, visual, and haptic [touch] sensors,” Gorman explained, including thermal imaging for the eyes, sound suppression for the ears, and fiber optics from the head to the fingertips. Its interior would be climate-controlled, and each soldier would have his own physiological specifications embedded on a chip within his dog tags. “When a soldier donned his ST [SuperTroop] battledress,” Gorman wrote, “he would insert one dog-tag into a slot under the chest armor, thereby loading his personal program into the battle suit’s computer,” giving the 21st-century soldier an extraordinary ability to hear, see, move, shoot, and communicate.


At the time Gorman wrote, the computing technology needed for such a device did not yet exist. By 2001, however, DARPA had unveiled two exoskeleton programs, and by 2013, in partnership with U.S. Special Operations Command, DARPA had started work on a super-soldier suit called TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit) unlike anything in the history of warfare. Engineered with full-body ballistics protection; integrated heating and cooling systems; embedded sensors, antennas, and computers; 3D audio (to indicate where a fellow warfighter is by the sound of his voice); optics for vision in various light conditions; life-saving oxygen and hemorrhage controls; and more, TALOS is strikingly close to the futuristic exoskeleton that Gorman first envisioned for DARPA 25 years ago, and aims to be “fully functional” by 2018. “I am here to announce that we are building Iron Man,” President Barack Obama said of the suit during a manufacturing innovation event in 2014. When the president said, “This has been a secret project we’ve been working on for a long time,” he wasn’t kidding.



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It was the collapse of the Soviet Union that accelerated many of DARPA’s most radical super-soldier science programs. The revelation that the Soviets had developed an extensive biological-weapons program caused DARPA to bring biologists into its ranks, and with the life sciences at the fore, DARPA began to look inside the human body, toward a scientific capability that could transform soldiers from the inside out.



The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency.