U.S. President Donald Trump has declared that strengthening the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps is one of his major priorities, with calls for substantial increases in ships, fighter aircraft and uniformed personnel. While expanding the U.S. military’s arsenal of equipment and personnel will extend its capabilities, the new administration should make a serious investment in human performance to amplify the effectiveness of our forces and maximize the return on defense investments.
Military experience and robust scientific research demonstrate that enhancing human performance magnifies the benefits of advanced equipment and organizations. Despite fielding cutting-edge fighters and missiles before the Vietnam War, the U.S. Navy and Air Force found they were losing a surprising number of planes to enemy fighters. In the first half of the war, the U.S. lost one plane for every two that our pilots shot down. For the Navy, this changed radically when it refocused from improving hardware to enhancing the performance of its pilots halfway through the war. By implementing specialized training via the Top Gun program, the Navy advantage ballooned by 600 percent. The Air Force did not focus on human performance, and it did not improve.
Training is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to human performance enhancement. At a minimum, the U.S. military should substantially increase its investment in biometric monitoring and feedback, cognitive and physical profiling, and performance nutrition and supplementation. Many of these high-return technologies are already being applied in professional sports, the private sector and elite special operations forces. Their use is backed up by extensive scientific research demonstrating the ability to enhance mental and physical performance, with the additional promise of increasing morale and decreasing injuries. No tool should be considered too mundane or too advanced as long as it enhances performance and protects U.S. war fighters.
Consider the operational environment our military personnel faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. They conducted rotating daytime and nighttime operations, often in intense heat, with packs that could exceed 100 pounds. This is a scenario ripe with opportunities to employ human performance tools. For example, in a study evaluating tools for mental performance, light pulses using specific wavelengths of light enhanced reaction times during shifts that simulated the timing of overnight missions. A second study, conducted with Marines, found that pro-recovery supplementation decreased injuries by 37 percent during intense training. Yet, despite the potential to enhance battlefield outcomes and to help war fighters return home with fewer challenges, the military has not deployed these technologies to even a modest fraction of the force, even though their cost is tiny compared to hardware.
In addition to providing the best of already proven technologies, the Department of Defense should energize its human performance research and development efforts by increasing funding and focusing on more aggressive research. The services should begin widespread data collection during training and operations to gain an in-depth understanding of the relationships between the biology of our personnel and their performance. This will enable researchers to identify new avenues for enhancement. The military should then expeditiously test tools and techniques to validate what works and implement the most effective candidates. Military investments are especially critical now because the science underlying human performance is developing rapidly and the military has unique needs, which the private sector will not meet.
The discussion today is all too reminiscent of the environment preceding the Vietnam War, when military planners lost their focus on human performance in the glare of new technologies. Autonomous systems and artificial intelligence have replaced guided missiles as the new panaceas, but the tone is the same. Meanwhile, U.S. adversaries are seizing the initiative in the human performance arena according to pronouncements by the deputy secretary of defense. The United States should not make the same mistakes again by under-investing in human performance.
History, real-world experience and scientific research illuminate the value of investing in human performance. The Department of Defense should take immediate advantage of tools to sustain and enhance U.S. military personnel and should invest to lead this area in the future. It is time to act on the Special Operations Command maxim: “Humans are more important than Hardware.”
Andrew Herr is an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security and CEO of Helicase.