SOCOM considers performance enhancing drugs in super soldier endeavor

Performance enhancing drugs are not off the table as U.S. Special Operations Command works to boost the physical and mental abilities of soldiers who face extreme environments for extended periods of time.

SOCOM is hoping thinkers in academia and the private sector can help generate new ways to increase pain tolerance, prevent injuries, and boost strength and endurance, according to an agency announcement updated late last month.

The Command wants research, design and demonstration of solutions that “enhance physiological, physical, psychological, and intellectual performance, and improve resistance to disease, stress, or injury caused by the demands of sustained operations in extreme environments.”

That includes ways to reduce recovery time, increase energy and agility, enhance senses, provide the restorative effects of sleep, and enhance metabolic efficiency. “Proposed solutions do not have to be FDA cleared as a prerequisite, but nutraceuticals and/or pharmaceuticals must be US-sourced,” says the Broad Agency Announcement.

Basically, they want to create a super soldier. And according to Ben Chitty, SOCOM’s lead project manager for biomedical and human performance, drugs that are banned for U.S. athletes could be one way to achieve superhuman abilities for U.S. special operators.

“For performance enhancing drugs, we’ll have to look at the makeup and safety in consultation with our surgeon and the medical folks before making any decisions on it,” Chitty told Defense News.

“We’re not cutting any corners,” he said. “We want to make sure its [sic] safe first and then we want to look at the effectiveness of it.”

To combat the need for sleep, pilots in the Air Force have been using so-called “go pills” for years. In 2003, two Air National Guard pilots blamed the prescription amphetamine Dexedrine for impairing their judgment when they mistakenly bombed Canadian troops in Afghanistan.

According to a Nov. 2012 instruction issued to all active duty Air Force Special Operations Command personnel, Dexedrine was no longer authorized as a “fatigue management medication.” However, Modafinil, a stimulant used to treat narcolepsy, was approved for use.

“The maximum approved period of continuous operational use of Modafinil is 72 hours,” says the instruction.

At the end of the operation, pilots need to sleep. So, in addition to “go pills,” there are “no go pills” — a sleep aid used to “synchronize circadian rhythm in the deploying or redeploying crews.”

“The member is limited verbally to not flying within 12 hours after taking Temazepam (Restoril), 6 hours after taking Zolpidem (Ambien), or 4 hours after taking Zaleplon (Sonata) in accordance with the Official Air Force Aircrew Medications list,” says the AFSOC instruction.

The latest research efforts by SOCOM go beyond managing the human need for sleep. Chitty said current endeavors are focused, in part, on ways to enhance performance at high altitudes, or underwater. For example, when an operator spends hours underwater without sustenance, SOCOM wants he or she to be able to perform once they’ve arrived at the objective.

“If there are … different ways of training, different ways of acquiring performance that are non-material, that’s preferred,” said Chitty. “But in a lot of cases we’ve exhausted those areas.”

“If the best thing for our folks is a pharmaceutical then we’re interested in understanding what’s the space that industry and academia can provide for us,” he said.