We learned recently that GIs will soon be equipped with portable air conditioners. Obviously, this is not for their comfort, but to fight better. Now, the Pentagon also wants soldiers to fight longer and without eating for up to five days. And it asks it research branch to investigate, as Wired News tells us in "Darpa Offers No Food for Thought."
Let's start with an example of future food for the battlefield.
At the Army's Natick Soldier Systems Center, a prototype First Strike Ration has been developed, to supply high-energy cuisine that needs no preparation. The meal includes a trio of small sandwiches, "zapple sauce" -- a carbohydrate-enhanced apple mush -- and caffeinated gum, according to Natick combat feeding scientist Diane Wood.
According to this description (PDF format, 1 page, 116 KB), the FSR is "a compact, eat-on-the move ration concept designed to be consumed during the first 72 hours of conflict."
Here is how the FSR looks like (Credit: U.S. Army).
Now, let's return to the Wired News article.
"The question is: 'Are there temporary biochemical approaches we can use to squeeze the last ounce of performance out of soldiers when they're already worked to exhaustion?'" said a Darpa life sciences consultant, who asked not to be named.
The agency has a couple of ideas on how this might be done: A cocktail of nutrients or so-called "nutraceuticals" could help build endurance. Lowering soldiers' core body temperature might keep them from overheating. Or, perhaps, the change could be made at the microscopic level, by turbo-charging mitochondria -- the cell's energy suppliers.
The Darpa project, called "Metabolic Dominance" or "peak soldier performance," is part of a wider, future-facing Pentagon research push to develop grunts who are pretty much immune to normal human demands. The agency has sunk millions into programs to reduce the need for sleep and is investigating ways to keep injured GIs pulling the trigger for days on end -- without help from a medic.
Some doubt this can work.
"What this seems to be asking for is fantastic in every sense of the word," said Marion Nestle, the former chair of NYU's department of nutrition, food studies and public health in an e-mail message. "Calories are calories, laws of thermodynamics still operate, and humans are still human. I think they should use robots."
Anyway, the program is going on and several research grants have already been awarded. So what's next?
Darpa wants to find ways to control hunger. And the agency is looking at nutraceuticals, natural products and traditional nutritional supplements to give the body what it requires when there's no food around.
In previous stories, we've seen that the Army wanted to replace human fighters by robots anyway (Check "Robotics to Play Major Role in Future Warfighting" or "More Robots for the Army" for example). So why controlling human sleep or hunger? Of course, if this kind of food becomes available for soldiers, it will be sooner or later marketable to you and me.
I don't know if I find this kind of prospect scary or unavoidable. What do you think?
Source: Noah Shachtman, Wired News, February 17, 2004