“If you think about what’s going on in Russian and Ukraine at the moment, nobody’s trying to have a fair, level playing field.”
If all’s fair in love and war, are performance enhancing drugs like steroids also fair game?
That’s the ethical question a new research paper by University of New England (UNE) has asked, and the answer might be more complicated than you might think.
“It is commonplace for many recent discussions of the future of warfare and future military technology to proclaim the imminent arrival of Super Soldiers, whose capacities are modified via drugs, digital technology and genetic engineering,” the researchers write in their new paper.
“This is what some observers have referred to as the ‘Gladiator Model’ wherein the aim is to create soldiers able to perform feats of which ordinary citizens are not capable.”
The team specifically looked at steroids, so let’s start by correcting a few misconceptions. Anabolic steroids are not just the realm of oversized bodybuilders and cheating athletes. Natural anabolic steroids are produced in our bodies, and increase proteins within cells, while synthetic steroids have been used by the medical industry for hormone replacement therapy and growth stimulation. Other types of steroids like corticosteroids are used in everything from allergies to organ replacement.
Anabolic steroids are associated with an increased pain tolerance, strengthened muscles, a reduced risk of injuries and quicken recovery from injury. All things that could be helpful for an elite solider.
“Steroids have benefits, such as enhancing muscle strength or faster recovery of injuries, that can potentially improve the safety of the soldier.”Dr Katinka van de Ven
“Steroids have benefits, such as enhancing muscle strength or faster recovery of injuries, that can potentially improve the safety of the soldier, but also could help in terms of their performance and therefore, help protect society,” says Dr Katinka van de Ven, a UNE criminology and drug researcher.
That’s not to say that long term steroid use doesn’t also have some potential harms. An increased risk of cardiovascular disease is the most well understood, but steroid dependence can also occur in a subset of users.
Some studies have shown that steroids can make men feel slightly angrier, which might affect appropriate decision making for those in the military.
That’s not to say that long term steroid use doesn’t also have some potential harms – like an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and steroid dependence.
Another potential class of drugs that could be used by the military are stimulants. These would allow soldiers and other military personal, like pilots, to stay awake for longer.
Stimulants do have an unpopular history in the military. Amphetamines and methamphetamines were regularly used by both Allied and Axis forces during World War II to keep troops alert as well as reduce fatigue and appetites.
More recently, dextroamphetamine – which is prescribed for those with ADHD – was used in the United States Airforce until at least 2012.
Currently, stimulants with fewer side effects such modafinil – which is a treatment for narcolepsy – has been used by the UK and the US.
In a 2014 Future Land Warfare Report, the Australian Army suggested that amplifying performance for soldiers is on the table.
In 2014, the Australian Army suggested that amplifying performance for soldiers is on the table.
“Close combat will always involve a human presence. Beyond 2025, increasing levels of physical and mental robustness and resilience in soldiers will be essential. Physical and cognitive enhancements such as ‘exosuits’ or long-lasting stimulants need to be considered in the context of amplifying performance and also for their potentially unintended physical and mental health consequences,” they wrote.
“The study of the physiological effects of these emerging technologies should continue.”
This research might be taking place behind closed doors, but the Defence Force did not respond to Cosmos’ questions relating to research of these substances.
The current ADF policy to drug use swings far the other way. Military personnel Cosmos spoke to said regular random drug testing occurs and mandatory annual training notes that any type of non-prescription drugs are not permitted.
“Defence does not condone the use of prohibited substances by Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel or the misuse of prescribed over-the-counter medications, including the use of steroids,” a Defence spokesperson told Cosmos in a statement.
“Certain medications are prescribed at ADF Health Centres for specific medical conditions. These are only prescribed for medical reasons, by a medical officer, in accordance with the Therapeutic Goods Administration regulations.”
The Australian Defence Force’s drug policy has adopted parts of the World Anti-Doping Code. This is a code developed for use in sports specifically to keep competition fair. But in the UNE paper researchers suggest this doesn’t make a lot of sense.
“The practice of playing sport and the practice of being involved in war are very, very different.”Dr Adrian Walsh
“What we’re pointing out is [using he World Anti-Doping Code] is just very odd. It’s a mismatch – the practice of playing sport and the practice of being involved in war are very, very different,” says UNE ethicist, Dr Adrian Walsh.
“Maybe it’s a bit unfair, but it seems they grabbed hold of something that was in the rough vicinity, without thinking about it too deeply.”
“If you think about what’s going on in Russia and Ukraine at the moment, nobody’s trying to have a fair, level playing field.”
The team suggest that defence should adopt a new framework, outside of the World Anti-Doping Code, that aligns better with the ‘rules of war’.
If the ADF does decide to issue performance enhancing drugs in the future – as suggested in the Future Land Warfare Report – Walsh and van de Ven note some ethical and practical concerns they could consider.
“What happens when a soldier returns to their civilian life again? If they have started to use steroids, will they be able to stop?”Dr Katinka van de Ven
“One of the considerations that we highlighted in the article is, what happens when a soldier returns to their civilian life again? If they have started to use steroids, will they be able to stop when they return home?” says van de Ven.
“We historically can, for instance, look at heroin used by soldiers in the Vietnam War. Those that were classified potentially as being addicted while they were in Vietnam, when they returned home, the vast majority of soldiers were able to stop using the substance and not stay dependent on it.”
Other ethical issues include ensuring coercion isn’t occurring, and consent is able to be given. This is more difficult in the military, as soldiers give up some of their rights when they join.
They also suggest that more research needs to be done to understand how harmful these sorts of substances will be to the soldiers themselves.
But do the researchers really think the Australian military will decide to deploy performance enhancing drugs?
“I think if there’s a military advantage and there’s not any immediate and obvious health risks, I imagine they will,” says Walsh, “and why wouldn’t they?”
Originally published by Cosmos as What are the ethics of creating ‘super soldiers’ with drugs?
Jacinta Bowler is a science journalist at Cosmos. They have a undergraduate degree in genetics and journalism from the University of Queensland and have been published in the Best Australian Science Writing 2022.