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Gene editing to protect US military: How the US could create a race of super soldiers

Darius Shahtahmasebi
Darius Shahtahmasebi
is a New Zealand-based legal and political analyst who focuses on US foreign policy in the Middle East, Asia and Pacific region. He is fully qualified as a lawyer in two international jurisdictions.
Gene editing to protect US military: How the US could create a race of super soldiers
A US Department of Defense agency is currently looking at ways to alter one’s biology to provide adequate protection for personnel from chemical and biological attacks.

There will come a time where sci-fi movies write themselves. These moving pictures wouldn’t even be referred to as science-fiction, as they would more or less be based on reality. Where it isn’t yet based on reality, it has to be said that we are getting to a stage now where it is probably only a matter of time until that concept has been actualized by government-funded scientists who seek to aid the US military.

According to the Defense Department, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is currently advancing a notion known as gene editing (or genome editing) with a view of it benefiting US military personnel. Gene editing is essentially a group of technologies that allow scientists to change an organism’s DNA, by adding, removing or altering genetic material at particular locations in the genome.

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As publicly announced by the director of DARPA, Steven H Walker, the agency is actively seeking to use this technology to protect soldiers from disease and chemical or biological warfare agents by modifying a soldier’s genetics to enable them to resist. DARPA has thus far invested $65 million in gene-editing research. 

“Can you actually protect a soldier on the battlefield from chemical weapons and biological weapons by controlling their genome… having their genome produce proteins that would automatically protect the soldier from the inside out?” Walker asked.

Apparently, Walker’s goal is not to make an army of super soldiers (though the temptation to do so must be right up there). Instead, the stated goal is to make things safer for soldiers. This is because, as Walker explains, you can’t “stockpile enough of the vaccine or antivirus capability to protect the population against that [chemical or biological warfare] in the future.” But if you can turn your body into an “antibody factory”, hey, why not?

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As Walker notes, you can use these technologies for good, or “you can use them for evil.” Thankfully, DARPA is all “about using them for good to protect our warfighters.”

Because if there is anything the US government agencies associated with the Pentagon are known for, it’s using eerily dangerous technology for good.

Gizmodo once referred to DARPA as the “American government agency known for its bonkers tech.” Nonsensically, (or very sensibly, depending on your aversion to power), this is the same agency tasked to develop “custom software that can unearth fakes [fake news] hidden among more than 500,000 stories, photos, video and audio clips.”

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The same agency creating a race of super soldiers will be identifying fake news and disinformation in the media.

According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the potential ways in which the use of such technology could go wrong are plentiful. So much so, it seems, that DARPA also wants to figure out how to reverse the process in case unintended consequences occur. I also can’t shake the image out of my mind of a scientist who altered two embryos produced by an HIV-positive donor and implanted them into a healthy mother who gave birth to twin girls, with the intention of giving the children a resistance to HIV. According to a study in Nature Medicine, people who naturally experience the mutation in question were twenty percent more likely to die young. Unsurprisingly, the scientist is under constant surveillance in China, and may still face consequences for his actions.

That being said, a recently published example in the New England Journal of Medicine seems to provide scientists with some hope that edited stem cells can cure HIV and/or cancer.

However, like most developments in American military equipment, there does appear to be the usual underlying agenda of pushing back against Washington’s primary rivals. DARPA, after all, was only launched in 1957 in response to the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launch. In the present day, DARPA is equally concerned with technological advances made by Beijing.

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“I believe the best way to compete with our peer adversaries is to win those tech races for the 21st century,” Walker also accidentally let slip.

I’m no expert in the philosophical discussion of ethical science and where the line should be drawn on aiding the human race and playing God with genes. That is not to say that there isn’t an important debate to be had on this topic, I just don’t see myself as being part of it. My immediate concern lies more in the fact that the US military may very soon have an army of super soldiers whose genetic structure will enable them to resist all manner of biological and chemical warfare; not to mention an army of killer robots, and an enormous supply of advanced nukes combined with a trigger-happy shoot-first-ask-questions-later nuclear doctrine.

The question of where to draw the line isn’t just a scientific one; it’s an existential one. There has to be a point where we say enough war, and focus our energy and resources on not how to prepare for a major war, but how to avoid one at all costs.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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