We often see stories of invincible warriors with superhuman abilities combating monstrous threats, but are the days of supersoldiers nearly upon us, and could they be the biggest threat of all? Welcome back to Science and Futurism with Isaac Arthur for another Scifi Sunday here on SFIA, where we look at common concepts in science fiction and ask how scientifically realistic they are, or how they might arrive in the real world. Today our topic will be Super Soldiers, and like a lot of examples in scifi, this is also one common both in history and mythology. Our civilizations have risen and fallen on the shields of our soldiers, or sometimes under their boots, and whoever had the best tended to win. The reality is that numbers are rarely very decisive, more troops is better than fewer troops, all things being equal, but all things are never equal. A handful of well-trained and well-equipped veterans is worth ten times their number of newly trained troops, and not because they could each beat 10 at once, but rather because over the course of a dozen successive engagements of more even size, they will have undoubtedly decisively won each of those and as a result, eroded those larger numbers down. This gives us the first rule of warfare that every strategist needs to know, “It is Quality Rather Than Quantity That Matters”.
There are some exceptions where equipment or doctrine is just so superior that a single warrior might face down several opponents simultaneously – and that’s a lot of what people contemplate in the notion of a super soldier – such as knights in full plate armor against poorly armed conscript foot troops or some mythic warrior like Achilles or Hercules. You can also get impressive groups of troops like the Greek Hoplites and the Phalanx formations that would prove so effective in the Classic Era or the high mobility tactics and rapid communication frequently aiding light cavalry as skirmishers, or the Mongols for instance. But outside of the awesome and envy-worthy abs on the cast of the movie 300, elite troops of the past and present generally benefited only from superior training and equipment. A medieval knight generally ate well and might be bigger and brawnier than many a commoner, but this difference really varied from place to place and time to time on whether it would be a minimal or moderate advantage in strength or toughness.
We certainly will contemplate the pathways of super-training and superior equipment, all the way up to Matrix-style kung fu brain downloads and anime-style Giant Robots or Mecha that people pilot, but our principal discussion today is more on that direct enhancement of the soldier in question. And we need to begin that with a caveat, because while having vastly greater strength, physical endurance and reach would have been utterly devastating in a lower-tech era, where some 7 foot tall muscle-bound titan could just smash people with blows they couldn’t block before they could reach him, that’s not as important anymore. Muscle and endurance does still help but the major reason modern militaries incorporate a lot of exercise is that being in good shape does wonders for people’s mental endurance too, everything from handling stress to confidence. It certainly helps to have muscle still, especially in some jobs, I remember having to move around for hours at a time in heavy body armor for months in a row during field exercises and warzone deployments when I was in the Army, and you get some very nice shoulder muscles that way, but they would hardly be a decisive advantage to a jet fighter pilot or a missile technician. And a bomber pilot might achieve vastly more significant results in battle than someone bulked out like Captain America and fighting hand to hand, and both might be deployed to disproportionate effect by being unleashed in a bunker-buster capacity on the enemy command and control fortress.
But people piloting bombers or battle mechs isn’t really what we mean by super-soldier. And of course, discussing Captain America always raises the point of why soldiers like him aren’t being mass-produced. We know why for classic Steve Rogers, it defeats the point of an awesome comic book hero if everybody gets the super soldier serum that makes him so tough. But that’s plot contrivance for a story, the serum’s formula gets lost and somehow can’t be replicated, not something that makes sense in a modern context of huge research projects and data backups, or simply having someone motivated see the end result and seeking to replicate the work from scratch, likely with far more clues to go from than the original researchers had. This makes a bit more sense in cases like Captain America’s regular avenging teammates, Thor, the Hulk, and Iron Man, as one is invested with a specific and unique cosmic power, another is the accidental byproduct of nuclear bomb blast and is very unreliable for missions, and the other is in an insanely expensive battlesuit that’s arguably an inefficient use of money but much like with Batman, Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne are both spending their own cash.
So it might be more like a yacht than a cargo container ship that has accountants examining its budget. The reason that Steve Austin, the six-million dollar man is singular is, six million dollars was a lot of money when the show first aired in 1973, about 42 million dollars in modern cash, lots of inflation since then, and nearly a thousand times the GDP per capita of the US at the time, so as prototypes go, you’re not really anxious to mass produce those when you could buy a squadron of new tanks for less than that, or employ a thousand police officers or soldiers in his place. This also raises the point that any given super-weapon or super-soldier is super at something specific and it rarely pays to over-specialize your entire military.
Even if a tank or bionic man was giving you better results per dollar – however one chooses to measure those results in a military context – you still want a mix of units. It’s not a question of whether the soldier with super-reflexes, super-intelligence, super-strength, super-senses, or super-durability is best, it’s that one of each is nice and in most contexts, if someone could have a score of 1-10 in such traits, it’s better to have 5 soldiers each with a 10 in one of those rather than one soldier with, say, an 8 in each. Gamer sorts often know such a character as “Captain Average”, even though they’re well above average in everything, they always have a teammate who's better than them at everything, in a modest size-team.
Though the flip-side of over-specialization, someone who is amazingly good at something but ultra-fragile or weak in every other regard, sometimes is called the Glass Cannon, and is often not terribly useful either, especially in the real world where your opponent isn’t the video game computer and will start by taking that glass cannon out. The right tool for the right job is best, but since you often don’t know what the job is going to be, and in a military context you might be facing intelligent opposition, some general all-around toughness and ability is good too. And unless your super-soldiering method is dirt cheap, whether we’re talking money or some fixed number of slots that might be filled or augmented on someone, you probably have a constraint in how much of any given thing you can add to a person or that you can distribute among everyone. And improvements, such as training, can cost your troops both in time, cost to support them, and training injuries and deaths.
So in reality it isn’t quality vs quantity, but rather balancing them to achieve excellence, since you likely have a number of different qualities you want to have rather than just one. The counter to that though is that a civilization in which everyone is a super-soldier, while boring for story-telling, is also probably a hyper-productive one. This is our normal context for discussing Transhumanism, a future in which a large percentage of humans have been genetically or cybernetically augmented, and in our various episodes on Transhumanism and Cyborgs and Superpowers we have laid out a lot of those individual augmentations people might be able to get down the road and the problems some others have. Those are potentially very real and stunning options too, and the source of a point we often make when discussing alien civilizations. That, if their ambassador shows up, we want to treat them nice, not just because they might have endless armadas produced by an empire of a million worlds to come and object to any mistreatment, but because that ambassador themselves might be quite capable of trashing your entire military single-handedly, and be but a normal specimen of an empire of untold quintillions of titans, even if they’re all little green men in stature. We can imagine almost any given ability eventually being available to humans of course but let’s consider what’s on the radar for us in the next century and what we often see in scifi too.
One obvious path is genetic engineering, but in the short term this has the problem of needing to be done at the embryo stage. Future technologies might allow us to completely alter the DNA of every single cell in an adult human, several trillion in number, but at the moment we’re more limited, and those adult alternatives are further off. Whether as a product of engineering or selective breeding, this path has the obvious moral conundrum of basically going into a caste approach to children and limiting free will options. If you have some traits you want in your military but not in your common populace, then you don’t want them crossbreeding much. Though, if you’re essentially a ruthless autocrat looking for ideal citizens to govern, there’s not many traits the stereotypical ideal soldier has that you wouldn’t want those citizens to have too, like endurance and a tendency to obedience.
I’m not really sure why you would particularly want soldiers who were vastly more obedient than modern ones anyway, a cheerful willingness to obey any order without hesitation is not really all that beneficial compared to your typical professional soldier’s normal discipline, and armies don’t generally rebel either, their commanders do, so it is typically your generals and higher-ranking officers you need to work to keep obedient. Taking all that into account, it’s not a bad path, if you want very elite troops starting a specialized training at birth from a genetically tailored group, that is likely to yield you some very impressive forces when all is said and done. However, realistically I doubt it would be that much better than simply beginning at a young age from a wider pool of the general population sifted for suitable candidates or even at an older age and just introducing a lot of the preferred traits, genetic or personality-wise, into the general population. This also circumvents a lot of the friction that might arise between your warrior caste and the rest of your population, as well as providing diversity of background. Diversity as a problem-solving trait is very important strategically because if all your troops are borderline clones – or literally are clones – they can be a lot more predictable and maybe more to the point, you’re losing a lot of innovation options. As an example, if none of your soldiers are scientists or engineers, you probably aren’t likely to see much innovation in weapons and gear.
And vice-versa - If your scientists and engineers have no experience on the battlefield they could focus on inventing and optimizing things that don’t really matter. They just don’t have the relevant background to be daydreaming up good improvements. People can get in quite a rut without new perspectives being added, and just saying that’s how stuff has always been done.
In that case, no soldier stops to think about adding rubber soles to boots because all they know is that any decent soldier knows how to take care of his old leather-soled boots and so theirs stay in good shape or they never think to add ibuprofen to kit because they think soldiers aren’t so weak they need a pain killer. Meanwhile, the engineers are over-engineering rubber tires, and since they’ve never marched a day in their life, they might never think to make that addition to footwear. That hardly means standardization doesn’t have value, or that raising your troops from a young age in isolation doesn’t either, particularly if you’re using them for rebellion suppression a lot. Though the flip side of troops raised in isolation away from the civilian population is that while they may have no empathy for the locals, the locals don’t have empathy for them either, and so your rebel elements aren’t likely to have any reason to hesitate in killing or torturing your troops if they get the chance, whereas even a fareless ruthless rebel faction at least has to worry about the main populace turning against them for what they did to someone’s son or daughter, whose only crimes were duty and loyalty. What’s more, your super-troops bred for war and kept in an isolated camp their whole life might be easily fascinated by the outside world and incredibly gullible too, especially if you’re aiming for the cliché mindless grunt.
And that’s another aspect of ‘super’ to be considering, because while raw IQ is handy, and ‘street smarts’ is a bit of a nebulous concept, you don’t want to be overlooking that or wisdom, experience, creativity, and so on, because your enemy won’t. Your enemy is not going to try to find a way to beat you at your own game, if you’ve got the finest heavy cavalry who ever charged across the battlefield then they’re going to run away into a dense forest full of ditches, spikes, and deep mud. Though at the same time, the notion that you can’t use the same trick twice is exaggerated. If it’s a good trick you can use it over and over, and even turn it into standard doctrine.
A newly innovated super-heavy tank for instance is not something you can’t use in the very next battle for fear the enemy has your number, but you do need to be mindful that they’re picking it apart trying to find counters and that calculus applies to your super-soldiers as well. That includes never forgetting the goal is not simply ‘to kill or capture the enemy troops’, it is ‘to achieve the desired effect’, whatever that is. It might be making the enemy troops turn on their commanders instead, or just desert to take up their true love of making sand castles, or not being stabbed and bleeding to death in some filthy trench. If you’re spending all your time trying to figure out how to poke holes in your enemy’s super-armor or keep yours from being punctured, you’re going to be surprised to find out the enemy’s weak and ineffective bullets that merely damaged your armor, contained tracking chips so they could locate and bomb your repair facility. And while innovation, unpredictability, and adaptability are awesome traits, it will usually lose horribly to someone who has memorized a big long playbook of good tactics. Again doctrine and training are awesome, so is institutional knowledge, you just don’t want to let yourself get strangled by them, and it would seem like the tendency to warrior caste setups tilts in that direction.
The alternative though, of introducing genetic enhancements to the general population instead, is even more likely to have unexpected side effects. Every child is now 5% more aggressive, or 5% more obedient, or whatever, and that has to be considered as part of the wider ecosystem of that civilization. More aggression and maybe your crime rate spikes to dystopian high-levels, and the civilization just won’t stay together, more obedient and you just have a society where everyone is very agreeable and your losing every war at the bargaining table because you’re just not very good diplomats and negotiators anymore, even if you’ve got an amazing military. I could imagine some gray areas, like you have cities you recruit from that you intentionally breed for aggression and where gangs run rampant and you recruit from them.
If memory serves, that’s how some space marine chapters in Warhammer 40k recruit, and many others from horrible death worlds, much like we see discussed in Frank Herbert’s Dune, where the Imperial Shock Troops, the Sardaukar, are all raised and recruited on some desolate and harsh prison planet, Salusa Secondus, then given elite training and gear forthe survivors, and spoilers of course but the Fremen of Dune turn out to be even better as they come from an even harsher planet and eventually end up getting even better training. In that series we also have an extensive breeding project to make superhumans that went on for 90 generations – which is nearly as long as we have meaningfully recorded human history. Shorter would be nice and we see something like that with the Clans from the Battletech and Mechwarrior Franchise, who are mix of genetic engineering and selective breeding and raised from birth to serve in various caste systems, and their warriors are huge Elementals who tower over everyone and have awesome body armor or pilots who run the giant battlemechs the setting is best known for.
Starting up camps to raise infant soldiers from genetically engineered embryos is definitely a long prep time, and you really have no way of knowing what traits or training you need to focus on that far out beyond generalities or how many troops you need. An empire can topple itself pretty quickly by having too few troops, but just as easily by having too many to support, so 20-30 year prep time for your classes to graduate isn’t too optimal, nor is 90 generations of selective breeding. Even the child soldier slaves, the Unsullied, we see in George R.R. Martin’s A song of Ice and Fire, are problematic for requiring many years of training, compared to rapid conscripting and boot camp. And a high-tech society might be able to virtually train people very quickly or even upload skills directly to people’s brains like in the Matrix. I mentioned Warhammer 40k a moment ago, and in that setting we see the Astartes, the Space Marines, who are created by having 19 engineered organs implanted into them when they’re adolescents or young men, over the course of several years which also includes lots of training and conditioning and even brainwashing.
They get a range of abilities, from being about half again as tall as the typical human and stronger than an Olympic bodybuilder, to some weirder ones like being able to spit acid, though with the secondary benefit of being able to digest just about anything for food. And while they have definitely had a power creep over 4 decades of the game and stories, the original notion wasn’t that they were the toughest thing out there, but rather a very tough thing that could be mass-produced cheaper, faster and more reliably than some of the other methods. It’s still very expensive to make and equip them, so they tend to use recruitment, weeding out standards that are very extreme, often stupidly so depending on the writer, but in the case where they’re recruiting from gang members or prisoners that they’re planning to also brainwash so they can’t remember their past, having 99% of ‘applicants’ die during the trials to join isn’t really a big deal to them, as they only want the absolute best to fill a number of slots that’s less than a billionth of their empire’s total population but the deadliest spear tip of its vastly larger military. That setting is always an impressive mix of the utterly fantastic and ridiculous with occasional bits of surprising realism, so I don’t want spend much time on its specifics, but the notion of specialized and implantable organs does make a lot of sense, and if you’re super-sizing an adolescent in their growth phase to be huge, then maybe you’ve got more room for extra bits like a second heart, or to cover their bones in adamantium or lace them with graphene or whichever.
The second heart definitely does make sense, that’s definitely a vulnerability and not just in the obvious way. As I mentioned earlier, the biggest reason besides tradition that militaries still focus a lot on physical exercise is that all that improved cardio and associated chemistry like endorphins just make people better at handling stress and keeping morale high, so replacing or adding hearts or adrenaline or dopamine-producing glands might have some huge effects, as might simply using drugs on the soldiers. It’s worth noting that a second heart doesn’t help for blood loss though, and that more ideally you’d rather have several smaller secondary hearts throughout the system as pumps, though that would be harder to accomplish I assume. There’s a comic book where Magneto, master of magnetism, gets his heart ripped out by Thanos’s grandfather and instead of dying he’s able to prove he deserves his sobriquet by keeping his blood pumping and inside his body by magnetically controlling the iron in his blood cells. Which is both a reminder how impressive mastery of a single talent can be once you know all the tricks, and a good reminder to writers to be careful to contemplate some of the additional options some new power or technology might include that might wreck the setting, once your fans think of it, and start wondering why ships in Star Wars don’t trying ramming each other at hyperspeed more often.
Like that, this is often some other form of attack or defense a power or tech might be put to, but also includes non-military roles. If you’re out cloning or duplicating your best soldiers – which isn’t a bad idea - you also might be wanting to do the same for your scientists, best craftsmen, best teachers, and just about anything else. Speaking of clones, and Star Wars, when Star Wars did their Clone prequels and cartoons, we saw one single person reproduced over and over, Jango Fett, and rapidly grown in just a handful of years to maturity of body and skills by a technology that presumably would have worked on any other specialist occupation too. Before that, back when the Clone Wars were a throwaway line from the original film, Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn series explored cloning more, and Grand Admiral Thrawn had the common sense to select some of the best at various different disciplines of soldiering, pilots, infantry, etc. One single super-soldier versus duplicating your ten best pilots, your ten best tank gunners, your ten best light infantrymen, and so on.
This better approach and common sense is why so many of us loved Thrawn as a villain and Zahn as a writer. It's worth noting though that life is not a point-buy system for mental and physical attributes in some Role Playing Game, so there’s no reason strength has to come at the expense of Intelligence or Charisma, or Dexterity or Constitution. If you’ve gone and isolated the various genes to make someone seven feet tall, prone to living over a century, having an IQ over 160, being physically beautiful, and so on, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t include that on everyone. And someone who has all that going for them plus bionics or super-education might actually be the best pilot, tank gunner, infantrymen, and everything else you’re looking for too. In which case, yeah you should duplicate that single person not the distant runners up, but you could have duplicated that person when they were, say, 20 rather than 30, and had a dozen 20-year old copies each specialize in something else, and then duplicate them instead. Now I say duplicate instead of clone because cloning is usually meant as creating someone’s genetic twin who then needs to be grown and educated, not a copy of their mind and memories, which we usually call duplication instead, and typically presumes some digital uploading and scanning of brains.
Though you could also replicate a classic meat-brain with copied neurons and memories with nanotech too. I think you could probably argue it’s still cloning if you took someone you found impressive and also grafted on replacement genes for some things, like removing their risk of cancer for instance, but either way it's just copying the hardware from the same basic schematic, if they don’t get those memories. Duplication is trickier because that can still be divergent too, the Bobiverse series by Dennis E. Taylor gives one of the best, and certainly the most humorous, deep contemplations of scanning and copying someone’s mind over and over again. This is definitely a good way to make a super-soldier as all you’re really doing is taking an existing one. I suppose you could also rob copies of your best troops from other places in a multiverse too, something akin to Council of Reeds or Ricks or Kang the Conquerors for that matter, something we’ll explore more next week, in our Multiverse Warfare episode.
This is probably your best path to getting super-soldiers though, because a digitally copied mind of a loyal and skilled troop can still benefit from all your other cool technology, like power armor or giant robot mecha, even those very tailored to fit their style and specifications. They gain the quasi-immortality of duplication and from someone who is already presumed willing to lay their life down for the cause, which is a lot easier if you know someone is able to take care of your family, friends, and other obligations, which a copy of you presumably can be trusted to do. This circumvents all the problems with Artificial Intelligence running amok while still allowing digital alterations. Imagine a soldier had 100 copies made of them onto an android with super-strength and toughness and just some minor digital tweaks like lessened sense of panic or the new digital upgrade for knowing how to use the newest version of the plasma rifle, and you outright tell the volunteer that the memories of each bot are saved for review but patched over and replaced every week with a fresh copy. A week’s not long for a volunteer who doesn’t really want a billion divergent copies of themselves to change their minds and go off track, and from the individual copy’s perspective, you know you’re a copy and have a mission and that your memory is getting saved and your original is still around reviewing the highlights and you don’t want your family having to deal with a million divergent clones either. I can see someone feeling depressed and expendable at that or just comfortably liberated, and the upside to this process is that it wouldn’t take long to determine which camp a volunteer for duplication fell into.
And again, since they're digital and you have the original’s help and insight, you could tweak that copy to be less inclined to worry on the matter. That’s not without risks but seems better and safer than the classic robot war machine run by an artificial intelligence, and I think it would go over better than using the upload copy to replace the original if they died in combat. Backing your soldiers up isn’t a bad option either but it makes more sense to tweak and augment the copies, especially in prototyping mode when there’s doubts about the results. You don’t have to delete your copies either, if you’re mass producing android troops for instance, you just need to have a game plan for afterward. And ‘hit the off button and kill off your survivors now that you don’t need them’ probably isn’t a good one.
Same for any super-soldiers. It’s popular in fiction to show the modified and trained killing machines being shunted off to the side after the war as inconvenient, dangerous, obsolete, or embarrassing – Star Trek The Next Generation did an episode on this called “The Hunted” where they were kept in a prison on a moon after the war they’d been made for. The episode was typical for TNG season 2 – awful – and many parallel plots seem analogies for veterans of unpopular wars or with mental health issues shuffled off to one side by their leaders. There’s a lot of historical and modern precedent for that concern too. In practice this a bad plan for all sorts of very obvious reasons though probably better than trying to wipe them out, which is what happened in the case of those Space Marines I mentioned earlier, in terms of their predecessors, the more crudely designed ‘Thunder Warriors’, who were so prone to going nuts or dying of cancer or illnesses related to their fast, crude and heavy-handed augmentation that some of the scattered survivors of their purge seem to regard it rather philosophically as a necessary evil, recognizing they had a shelf-life with no pleasant post-expiration-date outcomes.
Super soldiers made on addictive combat drugs and using weapons and power armor running on poorly shielded radioactive power supplies don’t have a lot of good retirement options, something that setting also explores. And to be fair, if a war was desperate or important enough, you would have volunteers for things like that who knew this was irreversible and would only end in them dying in battle or needing to be euthanized for everyone else’s safety, and we’re not really contemplating ethics here, just options, so I could see that. Alternatively, if you’ve got excess super-troops who you’ve not made mentally unstable or living on borrowed time, and who actually have relatively normal or admirable civilian skills and behaviors, then you can use them to help colonize newly conquered territories or to fill in your losses in your old territory, which has certainly been a common approach historically, especially as it often lets you insert community leaders into areas who are loyal. Whether or not their skills are hereditary, or if they keep their bionics or augmentations or other gear, or are forging a new life as a copy of someone else whose original family is back on their home world are all very dependent on the circumstances and technology.
One thing that seems to run true throughout our examples though, is that if you’re planning on making people into supermen, arming them to the teeth, and training them to kill, it’s probably a good idea to be training them not just to be super-soldiers but good citizens too. It makes it more likely that they’ll keep to the spirit of the cause and reduces the problems of what to do after the conflict. Appropriately then perhaps, probably the most important trait when making super soldiers is to focus on making super-citizens.
So as I’ve mentioned before, a couple months back my wife and I adopted 3 little kids, the youngest of whom is 4 and currently spends a lot of time in daddy’s studio watching educational videos, as does my wife who has an adjoining office but prefers to work from mine and since she’s a politician, that means she’s on the phone a lot. I love having them here, but it means I have also come to truly love having an earbud I can put in that has noise isolation features, and is why I love my Raycon Everyday Earbuds. They let me choose whether to work with one earbud in or both, or to put them in noise isolation or awareness mode, depending on how I need to be able to balance hearing my work over what’s going on around me at the time, and the ability to switch back and forth, or answer calls, or adjust volume, by quick taps on the earbud, is very handy. As more and more of us do work from home or work while running errands, having good and reliable audio really is a must, and Raycon offers premium audio at the perfect price point, with great sound quality, and top notch battery life, all of which is also true for their low-latency gaming headphones and portable speakers, and all starting at half the price of other premium audio, which means you can try two different models or grab a spare pair and still pay less than other guys.
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Are you ready to buy something small with a BIG impact? Click the link in the description box or go to buyraycon.com/isaacarthur to get 15% off your Raycon purchase! So next week we will continue our discussion from last fall about Time Wars with a look at Multiversal Warfare and the implications of some of the crazier aspects of Quantum Mechanics. And next Thursday we’ll take a Journey to Alpha Centauri. And two weeks from now we’ll have our end of the month Livestream Q&A, Sunday, February 26th at 4 pm Eastern Time, where my lovely wife and cohost Sarah will take your questions live from the chat for me to answer. I hope to see you then. If you’d like to get alerts when those and other episodes come out, make sure to hit the like, subscribe, and notification buttons.
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