The U.S. military's sleep-reduction program.

Science, technology, and life.
July 16 2008 8:01 AM

Night of the Living Meds

The U.S. military's sleep-reduction program.

A soldier in Baghdad at night. Click image to expand
A soldier in Baghdad at night

You don't have to worry anymore about the possibility of an arms race in pharmaceutical enhancement of combat troops. It's already here.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

The evidence is laid out in "Human Performance," a report commissioned by the Pentagon's Office of Defense Research and Engineering. The document, issued by a defense science advisory group known as JASON, was published earlier this year. It was flagged by Secrecy News and came to Slate's attention through Wired's military blog, Danger Room.


The report is unclassified because there's nothing earth-shattering in it. Indeed, it debunks some fanciful brain-augmentation scenarios. What it offers instead is a level-headed account of how cognitive performance-enhancement technology is already entering military practice. The gateway application for this technology isn't sensory acuity or information processing. It's sleep reduction.

According to the report, "The most immediate human performance factor in military effectiveness is degradation of performance under stressful conditions, particularly sleep deprivation. If an opposing force had a significant sleep advantage, this would pose a serious threat." Consequently, "the manipulation and understanding of human sleep is one part of human performance modification where significant breakthroughs could have national security consequences."

That's the theory. But it's not just a theory, the report notes; it's a proven pattern in military history.

Sleep deprivation is known to have significantly harmful impact on physical performance, alertness, and the ability to perform complex cognitive tasks. In planning their campaigns, battlefield commanders have to weigh carefully the negative impact on the effectiveness of their forces of extended periods of wakefulness and combat. In addition, under appropriate conditions on the tactical battlefield, sleep deprivation and exhaustion can be and has been exploited militarily as a specific mechanism to weaken opposing forces. This observation … is illustrated by accounts of General George Patton's almost legendary pattern of driving his army with extreme aggressiveness in World War II, based on his stated conviction that it was the way to reach his goal more rapidly and with fewer casualties. The point is to maximally exploit the state of exhaustion of one's enemy. It seems intuitive that, in combat between two armies at comparable levels of sleep deprivation, the advantage is with the force on offense in its ability to stress the opposition's state of exhaustion.

Deprivation. Degradation. Exhaustion. Harmful impact. All of these terms imply a deficit, a reduction from normal performance. This is another reason why sleep modification is the gateway app for cognitive military enhancement. We can tell ourselves and the rest of the world that we're not really making our troops superhuman; we're just restoring their natural powers. In the report's words:

If we take as a given that soldiers on the battlefield will always need to undergo sleep deprivation, sometimes severe, and given that such sleep deprivation leads to large performance degradation, it follows that any method for improving how soldiers behave under sleep deprivation will have significant consequences for either our own forces or an adversary that learns to solve this problem.

In concrete terms, sleep modification will save lives. This is the trump card for any controversial biotechnology. The report calculates:

[T]he maximum casualty rate depends strongly on the individual's sleep need, τ0. Hence any effort to improve human performance to minimize τ0 for given tasks can lead to a significant decrease in the casualty rate, of [about] 20 percent. … Suppose a human could be engineered who slept for the same amount of time as a giraffe (1.9 hours per night). This would lead to an approximately twofold decrease in the casualty rate. An adversary would need an approximately 40 percent increase in the troop level to compensate for this advantage.