Skip to main content

From Digger to Super Soldier: Human Performance Management Policy

From Digger to Super Soldier: Human Performance Management Policy

Human performance technologies continue to advance at an exponential rate.  A core part of this advancement is the integration of technology ‘in’ (e.g. substances and cybernetic implants) rather than ‘on’ the soldier (e.g. exoskeletons and tactical ballistic helmets).  Both Army and the Australian Defence Force (ADF) are missing forward leaning policy instruments that guide, inform and shape the transition of today’s diggers into the ‘super soldiers’ of tomorrow. 

Given Army stands to benefit most from human enhancing technologies (‘the person is the platform’ ideology) Army should lead ADF development of ‘human performance management policy’ (HPMP).  Numerous studies highlighting the efficacy, safety and suitability of ergogenic aids to combat advantage lie dormant due to the absence of guiding policy.   

To date, HPMP across organisational contexts has been dominated by sport’s prohibitionist anti-doping policy, demonstrated by the ADF adoption of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Prohibited List as part of drug control policy (DI(G) PERS 15-5).  Such a policy stands to retard the adoption of human enhancing technologies.  For example, DI(G) PERS 15-5 may make (or have made) Army reluctant to test the land warfare implications of peptide hormones (the basis for the Essendon Football Club sanctions).  There is a fundamental difference of purpose between a policy designed to protect the integrity of sport (e.g. ‘fair play’ or ‘fun and joy’) and Army’s need to protect the integrity of its troops.  This indicates the policy needs to mature to better account for Army’s interests and objectives. 

The policy development and maturation cycle required to support human performance in Army could usefully parallel the development of social media policy in the ADF.  The initial prohibitionist approach to social media matured into policy that enables the technology to be used to enhance capability by providing both an influence platform and feedback from civilian-military interfaces to inform decision making. 

In other work I have introduced the notion of the performance:health nexus as the basis for research and policy making in the field.  That is, the introduction of new technologies designed to enhance some aspect of the human condition must be examined relative to the World Health Organisation’s conceptualisation of health as a multidimensional construct (physical, mental and social).  Applying the nexus to Army’s HPMP indicates that the starting point for policy is to consider the trade offs between combat advantage, combat survivability and long term health. 

There is a range of issues to be considered in developing HPMP:

  • Formulating a policy that defines the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable violations of physical (e.g. replacing limbs), mental (e.g. drug based suppression of moral judgement) and social (e.g. impact on post-military lives or naturalness concerns).  This discussion includes guidance on the point at which the health consequences of technology are considered to outweigh the combat advantage; for example, whether Army would accept a combination of technologies that improves combat performance and survivability but increases the relative risk of mortality over the longer term. 
  • Identifying the differences between human enhancement for rehabilitation (e.g. returning a soldier to service after injury with cybernetic limbs), preventative measures (e.g. reducing injury rates by micro-dosing with anabolic steroids), extending careers (e.g. treatment regimes to prolong the active service period of experienced soldiers), or enhancing capability (e.g. surgery on healthy eyes to improve vision). 
  • A clear delineation of when human enhancing technology is considered voluntary and when it is compulsory.  The policy would include direction around the coercive effects arising from soldiers denied access to certain career paths based on their willingness to enhance.  This line of policy also needs to consider the privacy implications of human enhancing technology (e.g. implanted identity chips), especially where significant amounts of data about an individual exist. 
  • Establishing protocols around experimentation with human enhancing technologies at different levels of the organisation; for example, experimenting with different combinations of technology ‘in’ and ‘on’ the soldier to determine impacts at the unit level (e.g. one section with wetware integrations and another with substance-based enhancement). 
  • An indication of Army’s policy on technology development and sustainment.  For example, an increase in military specific implants and enhancement has significant implications for increasing investment in military medicine. 
  • Policy also needs to consider what approach is to be taken in response to the moral panic around human enhancing technologies (e.g. sports doping), especially how such technology use is explained and justified to both Army and broader Australian society public.  For example, the contradictions between HPMP in military (morally justified with respect to combat advantage) and sporting contexts (an unacceptable moral transgression) needs to be addressed. 
  • Policy in this space should also consider the developing positions of allies and adversaries.  For example, this may include integration with the technology of allies or counteracting the technological advantages of adversaries. 

As argued in Future Land Warfare 2014, Army can maintain and build on its combat advantage by integrating human enhancing technology with the soldier as it transitions to the future force.  A necessary step is to initiate a policy development process that both parallels and informs the modernisation of human performance to enable and support this combat advantage.  That is, developing strong HPMP now provides the foundations for the combat advantages of the future.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

Using the Contribute page you can either submit an article in response to this or register/login to make comments.