The Future of Drugs in War

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Drugs have a long history in war. In fact, drugs and war may have always existed together in some form, leading Wes O’Donnell to declare that “Wars are rarely fought totally sober.” From the Trojan War, to the campaigns of Alexander the Great, drugs have been widely used for pain management and performance enhancement. Closer to the present, amphetamines were used extensively in WWII, in the Vietnam War and even by ISIS in the dying days of their siege in Raqqa. But while Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) have a clear history in war, should we necessarily assume that they have a future?

The 2015 August Cole and Peter Singer novel Ghost Fleet describes a future conflict where the use of stimulant drugs are widespread. Indeed, during any discussion on human performance in the present or the future, it is difficult to escape the question of PEDs. In times of war, they are a proven and simple way to boost cognitive and physical performance where failure is not an option. Similarly, their continued prevalence in all forms of competitive sport point to their obvious potential to create the elusive ‘fitter, faster and stronger’ human. 

While continued developments in artificial intelligence and robotics may alleviate some of the demands on humans in war, we need to continue investing in the development of those humans or risk them becoming the weak link in the future force system. 

The argument to allow the use of PEDs in the military is simple: why deprive combatants of any tool that might give them a competitive edge? Arguments that flatly reject the idea of PEDs in the military are largely short-sighted. Soldiers, sailors and airmen/airwomen are already using mandated PEDs every time they receive a vaccine that enhances their immune system. The widespread use of caffeine (in various forms) is an obvious example of stimulants that are used without any supervision or restrictions. So, the debate should probably start by asking what we want to achieve. 

Do we want a combatant to be fitter, faster, stronger or simply healthier and more alert?

If the desire is to create stronger and faster combatants (much like professional athletes), there are already a variety of commonly known PEDs in widespread use today. Steroids are perhaps the most obvious example of PEDs designed to boost strength and physical performance. Unfortunately for steroid users though, possible side-effects range from acne to liver tumours with psychological effects including mood swings, irritability and increased aggression– hardly desirable traits in war.

While future iterations of such drugs may mitigate these side-effects, the risks to an individual’s health are unlikely to justify the moderate increase in physical performance that would result. Not to mention, it is difficult to justify further exploring these drugs without a clear argument as to what we want the combatant to achieve in the future that they can’t already achieve today.

Unlike professional athletes, the diets and training regime of even specialised combatants are hardly monitored, let alone strictly enforced. It would seem counter-intuitive then to begin with PEDs for physical performance without first addressing the basics of diet and physical training, steps that are already underway within the ADF

More practical applications of PEDs in the future could therefore be seen in dietary supplements (although not technically drugs) supported by individual health data from Fitbit-like devices. Such applications could ensure that individuals are receiving adequate nutrients to support physical performance in a way that won’t have long-term, adverse health effects.  

On the cognitive side, a wide range of PEDs could be used to increase alertness and stave off the desire for sleep. But this approach can have a significant negative impact on human performance in the long-term. During the invasion of France, the German war machine shocked the Allies with the speed of their advance, supported in part by 35 million methamphetamine tablets that were consumed by the Wehrmacht over a four-month period. Unfortunately for the Germans, this initial boost in performance was believed to be followed by significant withdrawals and drug dependency that began to impact the force just in time for the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

The use of amphetamines (and later nootropics) as ‘go pills’ for US Air Force pilots has seemingly existed ever since, with 61% of surveyed pilots during the Gulf War describing them as essential to their operations. However, there are also modern examples of the downsides to such PEDs.

In 2002, two US pilots cited their use of ‘go pills’ as a contributing factor to a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan that cost four Canadian soldiers their lives. Regardless of the actual influence of these drugs on that incident, it highlights the risks associated with allowing the proliferation of such drugs. That being said, poor decision-making can just as easily occur under conditions of fatigue, stress and hunger, which are all enduring features of war. 

In a now famous 2011 study of US judges, it was found that the likelihood of a favourable ruling from the sample of judges declined the longer they went without a meal break– seemingly proving the concept of ‘hangry’. More extreme examples are no doubt widespread in war where sound judgement can already be altered by the extremes of combat. 

It therefore makes sense to support the decision-making of combatants with PEDs where the risks of side-effects are reduced. Modern examples of these types of PEDs can be seen in Modafinil, designed to treat narcolepsy but issued to US Air Force pilots since 2003 as well as Canadian astronauts on board the International Space Station. 

After Modafinil received widespread attention when it inspired the fictional pill NZT-48 in the Bradley Cooper movie Limitless, there has been renewed interest in such ‘smart pills’. While these types of drugs don’t actually make you smarter, they do have the capacity to improve cognitive functions which provides obvious value to decision-makers.

Even though the ADF chooses not to use ‘smart pills’, it would make sense to observe the successes and failures of their use abroad and design ethical frameworks around their possible implementation in the future. Since we don’t know how effective future iterations of these drugs will be, it would be foolish to write them off entirely. 

The historical use of behavioural PEDs have been even more controversial in war than cognitive PEDs. When the US military issued soldiers with psychoactive substances during the Vietnam War to mitigate mental breakdowns from combat stress, the results appeared to be quite successful in the short term. But these likely led to devastating effects on soldier’s mental health in the years following the war. Any drug that only treats the symptoms of trauma has questionable applications in war. Yet future applications of behavioural drugs do provide the potential to improve decision-making and even the morality of combatants. The key lesson from the Vietnam War experience is that issuing such drugs without the support of mental health professionals is likely to only delay the problem that was trying to be mitigated.

Preventing humans from becoming the weak link in the future force is a worthwhile pursuit; however, it must be achieved with the long-term health of individuals at the forefront of any such consideration. Similarly, the priority of such research and development in this field should probably be made with the acknowledgement that PEDs are unlikely to have ever played a decisive role in war, but rather have existed as a part of a system. That system can certainly be improved by artificially enhanced humans, but it can also be enhanced by simply helping to promote a healthier force. PEDs may well have a future in war, but they are unlikely to provide a singular solution to the limitations of man. 

This is the first article in a series drawn from Major Gareth Rice’s research on the future of human performance at the Australian Defence Force’s Force Design Division. 

About the Author: Major Gareth Rice conducts future warfare analysis for Force Design Division. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the ADF or Australian Government. If you have your own thoughts on this topic, please reach out to him at You can also find him on Twitter at @RiceGareth.

Cover Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons