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Military looks to drugs for battle readiness

As combat flights get longer, pilot use of amphetamines grows, as do side effects.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 9, 2002



When Navy fighter pilot "Maverick" and his sidekick "Goose" declare "I feel the need – the need for speed!" in the box-office hit "Top Gun," they're speaking about the capabilities of their fast and furious F-14 Tomcat.

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In the air war over Afghanistan, "the need for speed" may have taken on quite a different meaning.

"Speed" is the well-known nickname for amphetamines, the controversial and potentially harmful drug some American pilots are taking in order to enhance their performance. Despite the possibility of addiction and potential side effects that include hypertension and depression, such drugs are needed, military officials believe, in order to stay alert and focused – especially on long-range bombing missions. Such flights can mean nine hours or more alone in expensive, high-performance aircraft. Their lethal weapons are aimed at an elusive enemy that can be (and has been) confused with civilians or friendly troops.

According to military sources, the use of such drugs (commonly Dexedrine) is part of a cycle that includes the amphetamines to fight fatigue, and then sedatives to induce sleep between missions. Pilots call them "go pills" and "no-go pills." For most Air Force pilots in the Gulf War (and nearly all pilots in some squadrons), this was the pattern as well.

The drugs are legal, and pilots are not required to take them – although their careers may suffer if they refuse.

Amphetamines follow a pattern that goes back at least 40 years to the early days of the Vietnam War – further back if one counts strong military coffee as a stimulant. But they're also part of a new trend that foresees "performance enhancements" designed to produce "iron bodied and iron willed personnel," as outlined in one document of the US Special Operations Command, which oversees the elite special-operations troops that are part of all the military services.

Indeed, the ability to keep fighting for days at a time without normal periods of rest, to perform in ways that may seem almost superhuman (at least well beyond the level of most people in today's armed services), is seen by military officials as the key to success in future conflicts.

"The capability to resist the mental and physiological effects of sleep deprivation will fundamentally change current military concepts of 'operational tempo' and contemporary orders of battle for the military services," states a document from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). "In short, the capability to operate effectively, without sleep, is no less than a 21st Century revolution in military affairs that results in operational dominance across the whole range of potential U.S. military employments."

A 'radical approach'

What's called for, according to DARPA, is a "radical approach" to achieve "continuous assisted performance" for up to seven days. This would actually involve much more than the "linear, incremental and ... limited" approaches of stimulants like caffeine and amphetamines.

"Futurists say that if anything's going to happen in the way of leaps in technology, it'll be in the field of medicine," says retired Rear Adm. Stephen Baker, the Navy's former chief of operational testing and evaluation, who is now at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "This 'better warrior through chemistry' field is being looked at very closely," says Admiral Baker, whose career includes more than 1,000 aircraft-carrier landings as a naval aviator. "It's part of the research going on that is very aggressive and wide open."

In a memo outlining technology objectives, the US Special Operations Command notes that the special-forces "operator" of the future can expect to rely on "ergogenic substances" (such as drugs used by some athletes) "to manage environmental and mentally induced stress and to enhance the strength and aerobic endurance of the operator."

The memo continues: "Other physiological enhancements might include ways to overcome sleep deprivation, ways to adjust the circadian rhythms to reduce jet lag, as well as ways to significantly reduce high altitude/under water acclimatization time by the use of blood doping or other methods."

Although the Air Force Surgeon General's office recently acknowledged that "prescribed drugs are sometimes made available to counter the effects of fatigue," it is not publicly known how widespread the practice is or whether special-operations forces on the ground in Afghanistan are taking such drugs.

But it is certainly widely talked about among combat veterans and military experts.

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