A secret MoD report obtained by Scotland on Sunday has laid bare the project to test whether the drug modafinil could be used to reduce the amount of sleep needed by servicemen and women on active duty.
The covert supply of stimulants to fighting forces has become a controversial subject in recent years, particularly after it emerged that two United States F-16 pilots - Major Harry Schmidt and Major William Umbach - who killed four Canadians in a "friendly fire" incident in Afghanistan in April 2003, had taken an amphetamine issued by their superiors.
Defence chiefs have spent more than 50,000 on modafinil allegedly to treat conditions including the sleep disorder narcolepsy.
However, the secret report, obtained by Scotland on Sunday under the Freedom of Information Act, shows that the MoD has ploughed hundreds of thousands of pounds into researching whether they should follow the lead of forces including the French Foreign Legion and start using the drug to keep military personnel vigilant for up to 60 hours at a time.
A 300,000 investigation completed last year has effectively given the green light to start using the drug, marketed as ‘Provigil’, after it found a single dose helped people stay alert for more than 18 hours with limited side-effects.
Following problems with the amphetamine Dexedrine, attention has switched to modafinil, which has vastly improved alertness in patients with narcolepsy, shift-work sleep disorder and sleep apnoea, and with few apparent side-effects.
But it has already been banned as a performance-enhancing drug by athletics governing bodies, and been implicated in the BALCO doping scandal in which Kelli White is one of a number of top US athletes accused of using modafinil to propel her to championship-winning performances.
The report into stimulant drugs, presented to MoD chiefs by the Defence Evaluation Research Agency (Dera) six years ago, said the Canadians and the French had found that "during a period of 64 hours’ continuous work, modafinil improved performance in a manner similar to amphetamine, and led to fewer side-effects".
However, later studies warned that the drug could lead to "over-confidence", cause motion-sickness, vertigo and dizziness in air-crews, and therefore the Americans preferred to stick to amphetamine-based stimulants.
Nevertheless, the MoD agreed to spend almost 300,000 on research into the use of "hypnotics and stimulants", including modafinil. Key documents relating to the lengthy research programme explicitly state that its purpose was to test the drug for use in combat situations. One of the reports focusing on air operations, compiled by the defence agency QinetiQ, states:
"In recent years there has been much interest in the stimulant modafinil, which is reported to have beneficial effects on performance during prolonged periods of wakefulness extending from 24 to 60 hours."
The findings, presented to the MoD last summer and delivered to a high-level conference in the autumn, suggest that the side-effects can be manageable as long as the dose is restricted. Defence chiefs and ministers are now discussing whether to issue the drug on a routine basis to service personnel on operational duty.
When it emerged last summer that the department had bought 24,000 Provigil pills since 1998, with a particularly large order delivered before the campaign in Iraq, the MoD maintained that the drug was purely for medical purposes.
MoD surgeon-general, Vice Admiral Ian Jenkins, said: "The MoD does not use Provigil for performance-enhancing purposes or to alleviate the effects of sleep deprivation on operations or in training.
"Provigil may only be prescribed by medical officers within the Defence Medical Services for legitimate clinical reasons, in the same manner as it would be used by the NHS."
An MoD spokeswoman insisted that the armed forces did not issue stimulants to servicemen and women. She said: "Our current policy is that we don’t provide stimulants."