Ethics On the Near-Future Battlefield
(Source: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; issued Dec 17, 2015)

By Michael L. Gross
The US Army’s recent report “Visualizing the Tactical Ground Battlefield in the Year 2050” describes a number of future war scenarios that raise vexing ethical dilemmas. Among the many tactical developments envisioned by the authors, a group of experts brought together by the US Army Research laboratory, three stand out as both plausible and fraught with moral challenges: augmented humans, directed-energy weapons, and autonomous killer robots.

The first two technologies affect humans directly, and therefore present both military and medical ethical challenges. The third development, robots, would replace humans, and thus poses hard questions about implementing the law of war without any attending sense of justice.

-- Augmented humans.
Drugs, brain-machine interfaces, neural prostheses, and genetic engineering are all technologies that may be used in the next few decades to enhance the fighting capability of soldiers, keep them alert, help them survive longer on less food, alleviate pain, and sharpen and strengthen their cognitive and physical capabilities. All raise serious ethical and bioethical difficulties.

-- Drugs and prosthetics are medical interventions.
Their purpose is to save lives, alleviate suffering, or improve quality of life. When used for enhancement, however, they are no longer therapeutic. Soldiers designated for enhancement would not be sick. Rather, commanders would seek to improve a soldier’s war-fighting capabilities while reducing risk to life and limb. This raises several related questions.

First, should medical science serve the ends of war? This is not a new question—it first arose when the US Army recruited doctors to develop chemical and biological weapons during World War II. And while there may be good military reasons to have doctors help build bombs, the medical community has firmly rejected this role. Physicians are healers, not warriors; enhancing soldiers to kill undermines the integrity of medicine.

Another ethical difficulty speaks to the transformative effects of enhancements. Many pharmaceutical agents raise legitimate concerns about personality changes. For example, if soldiers use drugs to maximize cognitive prowess by reducing anxiety and eliminating fear, visions of power and grandeur may result.

Some drugs, meanwhile, could block memories of battlefield events. Without memory, there is no remorse, and without remorse, there is no constraint.

Finally, we must consider the rights of soldiers designated for enhancement. Soldiers have no right to refuse standard medical treatments that keep them fit for duty. But must soldiers agree to enhancement? Soldiers who do are already healthy and fit; enhancement only makes them more fit. As a result, enhancement should require informed consent together with the medical supervision necessary to oversee safety.

And because the long-term effects of medical augmentation remain unknown, military authorities should make every effort to utilize nonmedical alternatives (such as body armor, armored transport, and improved weaponry) to improve troop performance.

Meeting these conditions, however, will be problematic. (end of excerpt)


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