When Navy fighter pilot "Maverick" and his sidekick "Goose"
declare "I feel the need - the need for speed!" in the box-office
hit "Top Gun," they're speaking about the capabilities of their fast
and furious F-14 Tomcat.
In the air war over Afghanistan, "the need for speed" may have
taken on quite a different meaning.
"Speed" is the well-known nickname for amphetamines, the
controversial and potentially harmful drug some American pilots are
taking in order to enhance their performance. Despite the
possibility of addiction and potential side effects that include
hypertension and depression, such drugs are needed, military
officials believe, in order to stay alert and focused - especially
on long-range bombing missions. Such flights can mean nine hours or
more alone in expensive, high-performance aircraft. Their lethal
weapons are aimed at an elusive enemy that can be (and has been)
confused with civilians or friendly troops.
According to military sources, the use of such drugs (commonly
Dexedrine) is part of a cycle that includes the amphetamines to
fight fatigue, and then sedatives to induce sleep between missions.
Pilots call them "go pills" and "no-go pills." For most Air Force
pilots in the Gulf War (and nearly all pilots in some squadrons),
this was the pattern as well.
The drugs are legal, and pilots are not required to take them -
although their careers may suffer if they refuse.
Amphetamines follow a pattern that goes back at least 40 years to
the early days of the Vietnam War - further back if one counts
strong military coffee as a stimulant. But they're also part of a
new trend that foresees "performance enhancements" designed to
produce "iron bodied and iron willed personnel," as outlined in one
document of the US Special Operations Command, which oversees the
elite special-operations troops that are part of all the military
Indeed, the ability to keep fighting for days at a time without
normal periods of rest, to perform in ways that may seem almost
superhuman (at least well beyond the level of most people in today's
armed services), is seen by military officials as the key to success
in future conflicts.
"The capability to resist the mental and physiological effects of
sleep deprivation will fundamentally change current military
concepts of 'operational tempo' and contemporary orders of battle
for the military services," states a document from the Pentagon's
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). "In short, the
capability to operate effectively, without sleep, is no less than a
21st Century revolution in military affairs that results in
operational dominance across the whole range of potential U.S.
A 'radical approach'
What's called for, according to DARPA, is a "radical approach" to
achieve "continuous assisted performance" for up to seven days. This
would actually involve much more than the "linear, incremental and
... limited" approaches of stimulants like caffeine and
"Futurists say that if anything's going to happen in the way of
leaps in technology, it'll be in the field of medicine," says
retired Rear Adm. Stephen Baker, the Navy's former chief of
operational testing and evaluation, who is now at the Center for
Defense Information in Washington. "This 'better warrior through
chemistry' field is being looked at very closely," says Admiral
Baker, whose career includes more than 1,000 aircraft-carrier
landings as a naval aviator. "It's part of the research going on
that is very aggressive and wide open."
In a memo outlining technology objectives, the US Special
Operations Command notes that the special-forces "operator" of the
future can expect to rely on "ergogenic substances" (such as drugs
used by some athletes) "to manage environmental and mentally induced
stress and to enhance the strength and aerobic endurance of the