The timeworn “changing hearts and minds” idiom may soon take on a more literal meaning as we confront the weaponization of neurotechnology. In December 2016, CIA officers and American and Canadian diplomats stationed in Havana, Cuba reported hearing pulsing sounds, sometimes accompanied by pressure sensations in their heads. Neurological symptoms followed – symptoms like headaches, dizziness, cognitive difficulties, fatigue, and hearing and vision loss.
By Dr. Shannon Houck, COL John Crisafulli, Lt Col Joshua Gramm, Maj Brian Branagan – Small Wars Journal –
Over 40 U.S. government employees were affected; 24 were diagnosed with brain damage. These were not isolated incidents. Similar reports have emerged from U.S. personnel in China, Russia, Uzbekistan, and CIA officers working in several different countries.[ii] Two separate cases in the Washington D.C. area are currently under investigation after U.S. officials suffered from the same sudden symptoms, one occurring in an Arlington suburb in 2019, and the other in the oval lawn of the White House in 2020.[iii] Most recently, media reports from April 2021 indicate that DoD officials briefed the Armed Service Committee, stating they are “increasingly concerned about the vulnerability of U.S. troops in places such as Syria, Afghanistan, and various countries in South America.”[iv]
No official cause has been stated and multiple investigations are ongoing. However, evidence from the Cuba incidents suggest these were targeted attacks. Dr. James Giordano, a neuropathologist and one of the State Department-appointed scientists who investigated the Cuba cases, stated in his 2018 USSOCOM/J5 Donovan Group SOFWERX brief: “this is intentional, this is directed, this seems to be a beta test of some type of a viable neuroweapon.[v]” This conclusion leaves many questions. Who coordinated and executed this beta test? What neuroweapon(s) were used? What state and non-state adversaries have or will soon have advanced neurowarfare capabilities? Are the same actor(s) responsible for the attacks overseas and now domestically? Scholars and practitioners hypothesize different possibilities, including pointing the finger at Russia,[vi] but as of 2021, definitive answers remain unclear. And the most important question looms: What neurowarfare attacks are coming next that we must prepare for now?
SOF operators do not currently receive any direct training on neurowarfare (indeed, most are unfamiliar with the concept entirely), and published research is strikingly limited. Of the small number of academic publications on the topic, only a handful directly address neurowarfare. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are uniquely positioned to confront the complex and dynamic threats neurowarfare poses but is currently under-prepared to take up the challenge. Part of the reason is a lack of general awareness. Although US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) prioritizes neuroscience research and innovation, especially for cognitive enhancement, comparatively less is known about neuroweapons that cause cognitive degradation.
In line with USSOCOM’s 2020 ‘Innovation for Future Threats’ priority,[vii] the present article aims to fill this gap by providing actionable recommendations: (1) immediately implement training across the SOF enterprise; (2) invest in research on (a) cognitive degradation caused by neuroweapons, and (b) neuroweapons detection, disruption, and targeting; and (3) develop doctrine on neurowarfare. Ultimately, SOCOM needs to take a proactive stance by developing ‘neuro SOF professionals’ equipped to strategically navigate this new battlespace. To provide the necessary foundation for these recommendations, we first define neurowarfare, briefly discuss its use in defense and security over time, and then detail the critical significance for SOF today.
What is Neurowarfare?
Neurowarfare is the strategic takedown of a competitor[viii] through the use of neuroweapons that remotely “target the brain or central nervous system to affect the targeted person’s mental state, mental capacity and ultimately the person’s behavior in a specific and predictable way.”[ix] Just like cyber warfare, neurowarfare can be waged defensively or offensively. In a defensive capacity, neurowarfare could prevent conflict before it starts, easing tensions by shaping attitudes and perceptions about the potential adversary.[x] In an offensive capacity, neurowarfare could “manipulate the political and social situation in another state,” thus destabilizing the adversary, either as a stand-alone tactic or in conjunction with a military strike.[xi] Psychological operations share similar goals but achieve them through communication, typically over the long-term. Neuroweapons physically manipulate the brain and achieve immediate effects.
Neurowarfare: Then and Now
Brain modification in defense and security is not new. Under the guise of Project MKUltra, the CIA conducted human experiments during the 1950s and 60s in the hopes of exploiting mind control through hypnosis and experimental drugs.[xii] Over 80 institutions were involved, ranging from universities, hospitals, prisons, and pharmaceutical companies.[xiii] This program was largely a response to fears of Soviet and Chinese Communist thought-control, or ‘brainwashing.’ Also consider that during the Vietnam War, some American soldiers took various pharmaceutical agents (e.g., codeine, dexedrine) to heighten alertness and dull feelings of vulnerability.[xiv] Dexedrine/dextroamphetamine – a stimulant drug shown to improve cognition, alertness, and reduce fatigue – is still used today and is indeed an approved cognitive performance mechanism by the U.S. Air Force.[xv]
What makes brain modification new for warfighters today is the rapidly advancing technology in neuroscience. In the 21st century, neuroscience research, development, and innovation, combined with biotechnology, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence, has paved the way for entirely new industries that will likely lead to commercial development. Most of the research is currently being done in universities and the private sector; however, in 2013 President Obama marshalled the American BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative, a National Institute of Health (NIH)-directed plan to further understanding of the human brain by integrating multiple scientific communities, agencies, and organizations.[xvi] As of 2019, over 700 grants totaling $1.3 billion have been allocated, with the initiative continuing at least through 2025.[xvii] As far back as 2013, the neurotechnologies market potential was estimated at more than $150 billion, with projected growth in Asia and South America to surpass the West by 2020.[xviii] The U.S. is not alone in these endeavors, and will need focused attention to stay atop the research and development leaderboard.
The return on investment is evident. USSOCOM is becoming increasingly adept at developing the hyper-enabled operator (HEO) – “a SOF professional empowered by technologies that enhance the operator’s cognition at the edge by increasing situational awareness, reducing cognitive load, and accelerating decision making.”[xix] Yet these same advancements that add value for cognitive enhancement pose risks when used for cognitive degradation.
Cognitive enhancement versus degradation
Neurotechnological advancements present a double-edged sword, offering opportunities for both cognitive enhancement and cognitive degradation. Both are relevant to SOF readiness and resilience. Enhancement capabilities generally fall into three categories. First, neuropharmacology uses drugs designed to target specific areas of the brain,[xx] potentially even breaching the blood-brain barrier.[xxi] Second, brain stimulation uses electric currents to stimulate specific areas of the brain.[xxii] Third, brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) involve opening up pathways to connect the brain to a computer in order to allow the two-way flow of information, either to program new behaviors or control external machines and devices.[xxiii] Such technologies have the capability to improve warfighter performance by enhancing memory, concentration, motivation, and situational awareness while negating the physiological ills of decreased sleep, stress, pain, and traumatic memories.[xxiv] According to a 2020 RAND report, “In general, BCI could theoretically be applied to help future warfighters make more informed decisions within a shorter timetable or to more effectively engage with more robotic systems than their current counterparts.”[xxv] In the future, military commanders may not only be able to monitor but also control the mental performance of troops under their command by increasing performance without sleep, modulating emotions under stress, and thinking through emerging threats. The U.S. Army is even pursuing ‘synthetic telepathy,’ a technology designed to allow military members to communicate using only their brains.[xxvi] But in the hands of an adversary, all enhancement technologies can also be used for degradation.
Neuroweapons cognitively degrade a target using different modalities. First, similar to neuropharmacology on the enhancement front, biochemical agents can incapacitate or influence the actions and emotions of enemies and noncombatants alike.[xxvii] Second, directed energy weapons include a broad class of devices that use intense energy to achieve a desired effect, be it lasers, electro-magnetic pulse (EMP), or radio-frequency/acoustic weapons that impair brain function causing temporary incapacitation and/or death.[xxviii] Some form of directed energy weapon was likely responsible for the attacks against U.S. personnel in Cuba and China.[xxix] Finally, information- and software-based weapons can manipulate the brain, either tangibly with implants or at a distance by manipulating brain responses.
The Department of Defense has rightly recognized the benefits that neurotechnology can have on individual soldiers, and so the focus, at least from what is publicly available, is overwhelmingly on cognitive enhancement. The same level of effort is now needed to understand cognitive degradation and forecast what is on the horizon in the neurowarfare domain, especially given the stated priorities of U.S. adversaries. For example, China is seeking to dominate the field of neuroscience; their Grand Strategy calls to be a world leader by 2030.[xxx] China’s aggressive research into this field makes it likely China will find ways to effectively militarize this emerging technology in future years.[xxxi] In spite of the DoD’s acute focus on Great Power Competition, relatively little attention is granted to neurowarfare. SOF needs to strategize how to combat this threat now and forecast accelerating developments in this domain in the coming years.
What does this mean for SOF?
Great Power Competition is about access and influence; so is SOF. Similar to the ideological battles of the Cold War, the competition space between an American-led world order and a Chinese or Russian-led one is likely to play out on the periphery more than direct confrontation. These are the very places SOF lives and excels. Serving as human sensors and being attuned to the changing global dynamics requires innovative, adaptable, and highly specialized warfighters that SOF brings every day. SOF should position themselves in a leading role in the domain of neurowarfare for several reasons.
First, SOF is small, specialized, and thrives under uncertain and dynamic conditions that require constant adaptation; neurowarfare will also continue to develop under a veil of uncertainty, complexity, and secrecy that will require an attuned ethos. Second, SOF has a large global footprint, operating in as many as 141 countries as recently as 2019.[xxxii]This means they are both uniquely engaged and uniquely exposed to new forms of warfare. Due to the longer training cycles and specialized skills, SOF would be considered high-value targets for potential adversaries. Similar to high-value cyber targets, emphasis should be placed on hardening SOF against neuroweapon threats. Third, the past two decades of counterterrorism operations has enabled SOF to develop strong interagency partnerships that can be leveraged in neurowarfare. Finally, SOF has experience being at the forefront of technological developments and is already heavily invested in cognitive enhancement research and development. Much as they do today in many areas, USSOCOM can be a pathfinder organization, serving as an incubation laboratory that builds expertise and capability, which can subsequently be exported to the rest of the force at reduced costs.
Recommendations for USSOCOM
- Training and education across the SOF enterprise.
Awareness of current and emerging threats is critical for force readiness. In the short-term, formalized training should be developed and implemented now. All USSOCOM components would benefit from a general awareness training on neurowarfare that covers basic information — what it is, why it matters, effects on the brain, and warning signs to be aware of. But more in-depth, specialized training is merited for information practitioners working in intelligence, psychological operations, and cyberwarfare. Such training would ideally detail the neuroscience of influence, defensive and offensive cognitive enhancement and degradation applications, current and near-future neuroweapons capabilities, and an analysis of neuroweapons attacks case studies.
Longer-term, it will be critical to develop ‘Neuro SOF’ professionals who remain at the cutting edge of the neuroscience of war. Naval Postgraduate School, for example, is perfectly positioned to serve as the critical nexus between the strategic and operational challenges of neurowarfare. Similar to the cyber domain, competing with our adversaries in neurowarfare requires technical experts who can think through the terrain and develop innovative solutions. In the longer-term, primary military education (PME) institutions should staff credentialed neuroscientists who can fill current curricular gaps to rising military leaders. In the meantime, PME’s may be able to leverage currently employed cognitive scientists or scholars in the private sector to contribute to this educational need. Moreover, strengthening education and training requires ongoing, rigorous research.
- Investigating neuroweapons: Cognitive degradation research
To compete in this space, USSOCOM must place the same level of investment and momentum on research specific to cognitive degradation as it does cognitive enhancement. This means making cognitive degradation research a documented priority and putting resources behind it. These simultaneous lines of effort are mutually beneficial. Considering operator well-being and performance holistically means building up enhancement capabilities such that operators are “hyper-enabled” and hyper-protected. Right now, the force is vulnerable to neuroweapons attacks, in part because we do not have answers to basic questions. How do we detect and disrupt neuroweapons? What is needed to overcome the challenges with discerning attribution of neuroweapons attacks? What type operators should be developed into ‘neuro SOF professionals’ and what skills should they have? Under what conditions should SOF employ neuroweapons against adversaries, if at all?
Similar to SOF’s “Hyper-enabled operator,” USSOCOM’s acquisition arm, SOF Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (SOF AT&L), is flexible and responsive enough to stay engaged with private sector advancements and transmit information rapidly to the force. The possibilities and potential use-cases for neurowarfare are almost endless and will depend on the technologies created, thus a tight relationship is essential. This uncertainty in the face of rapid neurotechnological acceleration underscores the importance that SOF is guided by doctrine to help shape the way forward.
- Develop doctrine
As in all areas of conflict and competition, USSOCOM’s actions in the neurowarfare domain should be guided by doctrine. Currently, there are no national laws or international agreements that restrict the weaponization of the human brain. While U.N. treaties against biological and chemical weapons send a signal to be wary that future bans may be coming, neuroweapons fall into a legal and regulatory gap. Similar to nuclear development, science often forges ahead of political and ethical matters of use, a term called “the Collingridge dilemma.” As neuroweapons likely expand in the future, the legal and ethical challenges that need to be address will become paramount. SOF has developed expertise in precise, narrowly tailored effects on the battlefield that likely have similar spillover properties for neurowarfare.
While we’ve focused on the unique role SOF and USSOCOM can and should play when it comes to neurowarfare, the fact is that this new form of warfare will ultimately require the United States to take a whole-of-government approach, requiring attention and resources not only from the DoD, but also the interagency and the National Security Council. The most difficult—and likely to be the most contentious—are the serious moral and ethical concerns of whether the United States should consider pursuing offensive neuroweapons. Should the United States pursue an offensive capability, even if only discovered accidentally through private sector research? If so, what sort of weapons would be morally acceptable to use and how should they be employed? Should these weapons be reserved for high-priority targets or will we get to a point where neuroweapons are routinely employed in conjunction with more traditional forms of warfare? It is beyond the scope of this article to enter into that debate, but we acknowledge the seriousness and gravity with which academics and policy makers will need to approach this topic.
The weaponization of neurotechnology poses unique challenges in a strategic environment that emphasizes competition between major powers. As powers compete for influence against one another, neuroweapons that directly target the brain to sway an adversaries’ actions are likely to be employed with increasing frequency. USSOCOM must adopt a proactive stance. Too often, reactionary measures leave U.S. Forces playing catch up, as we are currently doing in the information environment. No longer should we conceptualize the human mind as a target for psychological influence through communication operations over long periods of time; neurotechnology paves the way for influence via physical brain modification to achieve almost immediate psychological shifts. SOF needs to decide now how to operate in this domain.