By Stéfanie von Hlatky and H. Christian Breede

The idea that technology is advancing quickly is at once an understatement and cliché. However, it also happens to be true. Books, articles, lectures, policies and speeches for decades have made reference to the rapid pace of technological innovation. Concepts like accelerators, disruptors, ingenuity gaps and complexity have been used to describe how technology can impact our lives, sometimes causing a great deal of anxiety and fear. This anxiety and fear is hampering meaningful policy discussion, and this is especially the case within the literature on performance enhancement for soldiers.

Rather than a substantive discussion on how best to integrate technological developments into what we refer to as “the soldier system,” some observers call for eschewing such advances on ethical or legal grounds. At the other end of the spectrum is the temptation to focus exclusively on what science and technology can provide, which loses sight of how that innovation is to be integrated into existing soldier systems. The modern U.S. or Canadian soldier’s service rifle, based on a design from the 1960s, bedazzled with wires, grips, sights, lights, and other devices, is the very image of an unintegrated system. Although the added capability of the device-laden rifle is real, it is uneven and unintegrated, creating more of a burden (the appetite for batteries is but one example) than an improvement. Indeed, there is a trade-off between unfettered innovation and the degree of integration needed to truly enhance the capability of soldiers.

In short, the current understanding of soldier enhancement is torn between the “gee-whiz” of the technology and the “oh hell no” of ethics. We are arguing for a middle ground — one that sees this debate as part of the broader force development puzzle facing all militaries and, as a result, takes a more holistic approach to the question of enhancement. Enhancement is more than just about technology – it is about how technology is integrated to enhance combat effectiveness without the soldier losing their underlying humanity. We are putting the human back into human performance.

To date, our research on soldier enhancement suggests that the emphasis thus far has been on easing the burden that military operations place on our soldiers. Whether in terms of the physical burden of equipment or the mental burden of managing the ever-increasing flow of information, enhancement has focused on the science and technology that can ease this. Recent examples include Springloaded Technology’s UpShot Tactical Knee Brace, which is has been recently undergoing trials and evaluations with the Canadian Armed Forces, to cognitive enhancements that have been the focus of substantial research and development in the United States.

Alongside efforts at easing the burden, the field is also focused on force protection. Here, research has focused on preserving life and ensuring that the soldiers are protected as they engage in close combat or are exposed to the myriad threats they face in the contemporary operating environment. Examples here include improvement in clotting agents and technology for improved wound packing. Additionally, we see substantial efforts to improve the design of body armour. Notable here is the acknowledgement that different body types require body armour that is different in style, not just size. One example is the body armour redesign being pursued in the United States to tailor the body armour based on gender as well as size.

Despite these interesting – and at times controversial – developments, there remains a gap in the research. Indeed, the enhancement of soldiers needs to be seen in a broader context. Enhancement is more than just new gear or new drugs; it is also about education, focused on enhancing understanding and the systems that enable it.

Recent research has focused on the issue of cultural interoperability in military operations, showing that the lack of cultural awareness can act as a barrier between intervening forces and local populations. We think the interaction of this literature with research on human performance enhancement is a necessary next step. In short, we need to move from a focus on burden to a focus on barriers. The successful deployment of cutting-edge technology must take account of specific cultural and social contexts in order to enhance performance as intended.

During the war in Afghanistan, for example, soldiers sometimes felt that their body armour, helmet and sunglasses imposed an unnecessary distance between themselves and the locals they needed to interact with. This kind of anecdotal evidence is important because we can invest millions of dollars into updating equipment that will then just be taken off, in certain contexts. The point is not to halt the development of innovative technologies that can improve the soldier’s capabilities or force protection, but to be mindful of the efficacy of such technology in different contexts, in order to preempt any counterproductive effects. In many cases, we argue that it is the soldier who will have to make that call. Therefore, it is not enough to hand out high-tech kit: members of the armed forces also have to be educated about the interaction of that technology with the social and cultural context.

While the development of human performance enhancement technology has been primarily focused on easing the burden placed on soldiers, there are other burdens that can sometimes be less visible. One such example relates to how burdens are experienced differently by men and women. Body armour and much of military equipment have been designed with one body type in mind: the average male body. For women, the burden of using ill-fitting equipment represents an actual barrier to their effective integration into the fighting force. This underscores the point, from a different angle, that technological improvements are introduced in specific social contexts and that these must be anticipated by both the organization and individual service members. Indeed, the aforementioned developments towards redesigning body armour to account for this is an example of what a more holistic take on performance enhancement looks like.

What we are arguing for is to bring a holistic understanding to the research and products that are developed under the banner of human performance enhancement. It is a note of caution, of sorts, to make sure that proper cultural and social analyses are at the heart of these developments, as a first stage, but also central to how technology is then being integrated into the performance of missions and tasks. Technology on its own is not a panacea, so we have to think about the cultural and social barriers concurrently with physical and psychological burdens.

In previous research, we have highlighted the need to favour non-invasive over invasive technology in order to preserve a healthy soldier-society connection. To achieve this balance, we contend that innovations in science and technology should keep pace with the cultural and social context. The argument here takes this logic a step further, by suggesting that cultural and social variables can profoundly influence how we can use this emerging technology and that failure to account for this point could lead to major acquisition blunders. These are blunders that will not only undermine capability, but ultimately cost soldiers’ their lives, either on the battlefield or once they get home.

Stéfanie von Hlatky is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University and Director of the Centre for International and Defence Policy (CIDP). The CIDP is hosting the 2017 Kingston Conference on International Security on the theme “Developing Super Soldiers: Enhancing Military Performance” on 12-14 June 2017. She has published three books, including American Allies in Times of War: The Great Asymmetry, published by Oxford University Press in 2013. She obtained her PhD in political science from the Université de Montreal where she was also executive director of the Centre for International Peace and Security Studies. She can be reached at

H. Christian Breede holds a PhD in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada and is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at The Royal Military College of Canada and Deputy Director of the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University, both in Kingston, Canada. He can be reached at

The opinions and analysis expressed in this article are based on Breede’s own research and in no way reflects the official policy of the Government of Canada.