If you’re a soldier on a demanding mission, one of the greatest battles is simply staying awake. Fatigue causes mistakes, and mistakes cause casualties. It’s a serious life-or-death issue.
Soldiers that can stay awake—and most importantly, alert—offer a huge tactical advantage, but pure willpower alone isn’t enough to fight the strong biological effects of sleep deprivation.
Stimulants have been used in the military throughout history. The British had their tea, the Prussian army experimented with cocaine, and the Nazis developed a cocaine-based stimulant codenamed D-IX, and then horribly tested it on Sachsenhausen concentration camp inmates.
But highlighting barbaric Nazi experiments obscures the reality that defense agencies worldwide are interested in the use of pharmaceutical stimulants and sleep technology. The Pentagon Office of Defense has its Human Performance wing, and the Australian Department of Defense researches the cognitive effects of fatigue.
It would probably be more difficult to find military organizations that had no interest at all in fighting fatigue than vice versa. The worldwide exhaustion arms race has begun.
Can’t they just drink coffee?
The majority of us use stimulants to fight the effects of fatigue every day. Yet coffee, the most socially acceptable drug to combat fatigue, is actually not very well suited for military use.
Coffee’s diuretic effects, cardiovascular stimulation, and interference with fine motor control (the coffee tremors) all make it less than perfect for use on the battlefield. And those of you out there drinking your fifth cup of coffee for the day will attest to the fact that coffee drinkers rapidly develop a tolerance. Providing soldiers with ten cups of coffee a day might start to become logistically difficult.
On April 17, 2002, the spotlight was shone on the military’s use of something a little more controversial than caffeine. Two US F-16 pilots accidently bombed a Canadian infantry unit in Kandahar, Afghanistan, tragically killing four. It was revealed that the pilots had taken amphetamines.
However, the use of amphetamines isn’t exactly a new headline. US, British, and Japanese soldiers were given amphetamines during World War II to fight longer, fiercer, and without rest.
200 million Pervitin pills full of methamphetamine (meth) were given to German troops between 1939 and 1945 and the US Air Force was authorizing 5–10mg amphetamine doses to sleepy pilots as early as 1961.
As a matter of fact, in some countries (including the US), the use of dextroamphetamine can still be authorized for military use today. This shouldn’t be too surprising, given that some types of amphetamines can be legally prescribed by doctors in the US for conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Amphetamines “speed” us up
Amphetamines were first discovered in 1887, and believe it or not, they were first sold in the 1930s as a nasal decongestant under the trade name Benzedrine, affectionately known as “bennies.”
Unfortunately, amphetamines have the potential for drug abuse/dependency issues, especially at recreational doses, which is part of why military forces are now so interested in another drug: modafinil.
Amphetamines Effect on the Brain
There are many different types of amphetamines, some legal and some very much illegal, but all of them are central nervous system stimulant drugs that boost brain activity and alertness.
They work by increasing the effect of chemicals that conduct signals between brain neurons, known as neurotransmitters—in this case, mostly dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
At therapeutic doses, amphetamines have the effect of decreasing fatigue, increasing heart rate and alertness, and improving cognitive control.
The stimulant modafinil, marketed as Provigil, was first approved by the FDA in 1999 for treatment of narcolepsy, a chronic brain disorder involving extreme sleep attacks. The precise mechanism behind how modafinil works is still uncertain, but what is known is that it increases noradrenaline, dopamine, and histamine levels in the brain. It can keep people alert/awake for days.
Again, modafinil is no stranger to military operations. The French military supplies modafinil pills in fighter plane ejection seats and rescue boats, and the French Foreign Legion used the drug as long ago as the 1990–1991 Gulf War.
The US has also supplied modafinil to its Air Force troops since the 2003 Iraq Invasion, and the UK Ministry of Defense has purchased 24,000 Provigil pills since 1998, with the largest order being 5,000 pills in 2001. No prizes for guessing why (hint: it might have something to do with invading Afghanistan). A similar drug, nicknamed “Night Eagle,” has also been developed by the Chinese military.
Fatigue is a serious enough issue in everyday life, but in battle zones, the need for concentration is at a different level. Nations around the globe are trying to artificially squeeze as much as possible from their troops. To better fight each other, we’re fighting sleep.