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Military looks to drugs for battle readiness

As combat flights get longer, pilot use of amphetamines grows, as do side effects.

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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 services.

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