The DARPA "war fighter enhancement" programs -- an acceleration of bipartisan biotinkering that's been going on for years -- will involve injecting young men and women with hormonal, neurological and genetic concoctions; implanting microchips and electrodes in their bodies to control their internal organs and brain functions; and plying them with drugs that deaden some of their normal human tendencies: the need for sleep, the fear of death, the reluctance to kill their fellow human beings


Ready for war in 2005: the soldier who never sleeps
(Filed: 05/01/2003)

The US pilots who accidentally bombed a Canadian patrol in Afghanistan claim their judgment was impaired by the 'go pills' they were forced to take. The latest Pentagon project is designed to ensure future warriors stay awake and alert for days on end, reports Charles Laurence in New York

The Pentagon has launched a series of remarkable medical experiments to find a way to keep its soldiers and pilots awake and alert for up to five days at a time.

The mission to create an "Extended Performance War Fighter", as the project is known, took on added urgency last week as the military use of amphetamine stimulants - "go pills" as they are called - was plunged into deep controversy.

The defence lawyers for two American pilots who accidently killed four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan last April said they will argue that the forcible use of the drug dexamphetamine was to blame. Majors Harry Schmidt and William Umbach are threatened with courts martial for dropping a laser-guided bomb on the Canadians near Kandahar as the pilots approached the end of a six-hour night patrol.

A preliminary hearing is to be held next week to decide whether full courts martial should proceed. David Beck, the lawyer for Major Umbach, said he will argue that the drugs impaired the pilots' judgment and that the US Air Force should accept responsibility.

Major Schmidt has said that he flew seven 10-hour missions during his several weeks in the region and used the "go pills" each time because he became too tired without them.

The Pentagon's search for an "Extended Performance War Fighter" concentrates on employing advanced genetics and neurological science rather than the drugs which have been used since the Second World War to keep warriors awake and alert.

Jan Walker, the spokesman for the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), confirmed that the Pentagon is "working out ways to resist the effects of sleep deprivation. If our fighters can do that, we can fundamentally change the order of battle, and it would make a revolutionary difference".

Darpa is an inner circle of scientists and defence bureaucrats whose job is to dream up the next battlefield tools - they were the ones who first thought of creating "stealth" technology to make low-flying aircraft invisible to radar.

One of Darpa's plans for keeping warriors awake is to "zap" their brains with an electro-magnetic energy called TMS. Much of the research is being conducted at Columbia University in New York in the laboratories of the neurological science department. It was there that Dr Yaakov Stern led me to a basement room and pointed to an old yellow dentist's chair festooned with cables and clamps.

"Sit in there," he said with a jovial smile. Rick Ellasser, the laboratory technician, clamped a contraption rather like a microscope attached to a miner's helmet around my brow and picked up an instrument like a raygun.

If I were a bomber pilot and the year was around 2005, Mr Ellasser might now pull the trigger and "zap" a piece of my brain not much bigger than a penny with a powerful electro-magnetic field. At the moment, though, the equipment is too experimental for use on humans.

"When he needed it, the pilot could just be zapped during operations," said Dr Stern, a leading research scientist who has spent years mapping the brain with MRI scanners to work out which clusters of neurological cells do what.

"I am convinced that we can help the Pentagon. I have identified the parts of the brain that seem to control the response to sleep deprivation, and we have the technology to stimulate that part to improve the resistance to lack of sleep. The generals want a man who is awake and alert for up to a week. We think we can actually do that."

The part of the brain identified by Dr Stern for "zapping" with his TMS magnetic-wave is just above the left ear, a spot mapped out after performing week-long experiments on volunteers whose brains were scanned as they performed simple tasks.

The first research contracts for the "Continued Assisted Performance" programme were handed out at the beginning of last year: Darpa wants results by 2005.

Other projects favoured at this stage include work at the University of Wisconsin where Niels Rattenborg, a biologist, is probing the brains of the white crowned sparrow, a tiny song bird which migrates between Alaska and California.

Even when the birds are kept in cages, they become restless and will not sleep for a week during the migration season. The researchers are comparing their brains with those of a close avian cousin which does not migrate.

"If we can spot the difference in their brain function, then it will give us a target to look at in the human brain," said Ms Walker. That raises the possibility of scientists altering a soldier's brain to make it more like a sparrow's.

Meanwhile, biologists at the US Navy's Marine Mammals Programme, the organisation which once trained dolphins to place mines against the hulls of enemy ships, is now studying how the animals keep at least part of their brains awake at all times so that even when submerged and asleep they still surface to breathe.

Mothers and newborn dolphins have also been found to stay awake continuously for several days after birth.

The idea now is to identify the genetic material which allows this, and find it in human "junk" DNA - those parts of the human genome which have no so-far identified function. Genetic codes could then be modified to create soldiers who run and run.

But as Dr Stern points out, this raises considerable ethical issues with a permanent genetic change. His own work - "zapping" brains with electro-magnetic energy - does no harm, he insists.