The weird ethics of super soldiers

Why war is different.

The Lance Armstrong scandal and subsequent revelations of widespread doping in professional cycling laid waste to the sport’s credibility and public reaction was clear enough - doping is cheating and cheating is wrong. But does this ethic hold true in all situations? Could the advantage Armstrong sought, judged as bitterly unfair in the sporting world, be applicable in the context of modern warfare?

War is a thoroughly unique circumstance. If soldiers are tasked with defending a perceived greater good against an oppressor, should every avenue to gain an advantage be explored? And could this ethically extend to furthering the physical limits of human beings?

The US Department of Defense’s shadowy research agency DARPA has long been interested in boosting performance through biochemical means, with its Peak Soldier Performance Programme established to explore ways in which soldiers could operate in the field for up to five days without requiring sustenance. In pursuit of this, no genome was left unturned.

The ethical ground upon which DARPA stand was summed up very clearly by one official who informed Wired that the goal was not to create Supermen, but to make it so that “these kids could perform at their peak, stay at their peak, and come home to their families.” This isn’t so much an issue of overpowering an opponent, as much as it is one of getting soldiers home, safe and sound.

The ethical dilemma posed by boosting a soldier’s capabilities was even discussed within a 2003 report produced by the office of US President George W. Bush. "Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness" explored several ways in which so-called super-soldiers could be produced, and how far the ethical argument in support of such developments could stretch.

“What guidance, if any, does our analysis provide for such moments of extreme peril and consequence… when superior performance is a matter of life and death?” the report questioned, concluding that “there may indeed be times when we must override certain limits or prohibitions that make sense in other contexts.”

A line has, however, been drawn, placing great importance on the notion of “men remaining human even in moments of great crisis.” Alluding to the development of supplements suppressing soldiers’ fear and inhibition, effectively converting them to killing machines capable of acting without both scrutiny and impunity, the US Department of Defense is seemingly unwilling to venture as far as creating submissive super-humans.

Pumping a warfighter full of steroids and supplements raises all kinds of connotations and images of seven-foot tall behemoths rampaging around a battlefield, with nothing but a trail of wanton destruction in their wake. An arms race for the modern era, US soldiers could soon be enjoying the same kind of physical advantage Armstrong held over his opponents, with all too familiar results.

The ethical debate raises several legitimate concerns regarding the enhancement of man’s physical limits and retaining principles of humanity, but the arguments Armstrong’s opponents used cannot be replicated for the unique context of war. If the greater good is indeed at stake, surely each and every feasible advantage should be explored?

Read more here.

Photograph: Getty Images

Liam Stoker is the aerospace and defence features writer for the NRI Digital network.

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Can Trident be hacked?

A former defence secretary has warned that Trident is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Is it?

What if, in the event of a destructive nuclear war, the prime minister goes to press the red button and it just doesn't work? 

This was the question raised by Des Browne, a former defence secretary, in an interview witht the Guardian this week. His argument, based on a report from the defence science board of the US Department of Defense, is that the UK's Trident nuclear weapons could be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and therefore rendered useless if hacked. 

Browne called for an "end-to-end" assessment of the system's cybersecurity: 

 The government ... have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.

Is he right? Should we really be worried about Trident's potential cyber weaknesses?

Tangled webs 

The first, crucial thing to note is that Trident is not connected to the "internet" we use every day. Sure, it's connected to the main Ministry of Defence network, but this operates totally independently of the network that you visit Facebook through. In cyber-security terms, this means the network is "air-gapped" - it's isolated from other systems that could be less secure. 

In our minds, Trident is old and needs replacing (the submarines began patrolling in the 1990s), but any strike would be ordered and co-ordinated from Northwood, a military bunker 100m underground which would use the same modern networks as the rest of the MoD. Trident is basically as secure as the rest of the MoD. 

What the MoD said

I asked the Ministry of Defence for a statement on Trident's security, and while it obviously can't offer much information about how it all actually works, a spokesperson confirmed that the system is air-gapped and added: 

We wouldn't comment on the detail of our security arrangements for the nuclear deterrent but we can and do safeguard it from all threats including cyber.

What security experts said

Security experts agree that an air-gapped system tends to be more secure than one connected to the internet. Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-secure, told Infosecurity magazine that while some hackers have been able to "jump" air-gaps using code, this would cause "interference" at most and a major attack of this kind is still "a long way off". 

Franklin Miller, a former White House defence policy offer, told the Guardian that the original report cited by Browne was actually formulated in response to suggestions that some US defence networks should be connected to the internet. In that case, it actually represents an argument in favour of the type of air-gapped system used by the MoD. 

So... can it be hacked?

The answer is really that any system could be hacked, but a specialised, independent defence network is very, very unlikely to be. If a successful hack did happen, it would likely affect all aspects of defence, not just Trident. That doesn't mean that every effort shouldn't be made to make sure the MoD is using the most secure system possible, but it also means that scaremongering in the context of other, unrelated cybersecurity scares is a little unjustified. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.