The U.S. military has a sleep deprivation problem. Its effects are showing themselves in increased health and cognitive problems. 

As Major General Aubrey Newman said, “In peace and war, the lack of sleep works like termites in a house: below the surface, gnawing quietly and unseen to produce gradual weakening which can lead to sudden and unexpected collapse.”

A recent study at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio found that while all of the armed services are suffering from sleep deprivation and sleep disorders, the service most adversely affected is the Army, which also reported the least amount of sleep among its troops.

The DoD conducted its own research on sleep deprivation that was set down by Congress as part of the FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act. The results of both studies point to severe issues that do not only affect troops now but will affect them in the future.

The University of Texas’s study showed a startling 45 times increase of insomnia and an increase of 30 times of sleep apnea among troops. On March 31, the Texas Health Science Center released a statement, which was first posted by U.S. News & World Report on its study’s findings.

“The most surprising result was that military members in the Army had the highest rates of obstructive sleep apnea and insomnia diagnoses. These findings are concerning because service members across the military branches are otherwise healthy and have similar physical requirements. Their sleep disorders developed and were diagnosed while they were in the military,” said Dr. Vincent Mysliwiec, a sleep medicine physician at the Science Center and a retired U.S. Army colonel.

The DoD report found that 76 percent of military members and 38 percent of civilian personnel get less than seven hours of sleep a night.

The report also said that (not surprisingly) commanders across all of the services don’t value adequate sleep as an important factor. “Across military commands, attitudes toward sleep may range from viewing sleep as a controlled ration to asserting that a need for sleep is a sign of weakness,” the report stated. 

“Although the belief exists that short-term sleep deprivation during training is necessary to prepare service members for combat environments that might require conducting operations with little sleep, sustained chronic partial sleep deprivation may become counterproductive to overall training objectives,” the report added.

The report says that sleep deprivation is also a factor in other issues including Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), mood and anxiety disorders, depression, and suicide risk. 

Recommendations to Address Sleep Deprivation

Much deserved sleep
These paratroopers have worked through the night to prepare for an early morning combat equipment jump. Their preparations complete, they are catching some much-deserved sleep to ensure they are mentally alert for the joint forcable entry, with a follow-on movement to secure key terrain in a few hours. (Photo by Lt. Col. John Hall/ DVIDS)

The DoD report states that operations will many times dictate that troops operate in times within the realm of sleep deprivation. However, during downtime or when in garrison, commanders should enact guidelines to ensure servicemembers are getting sufficient rest. Some of the report’s recommendations are:

  • Allowing time for “tactical naps” of 20 minutes when troops are about two-thirds of the way through a 24-hour operation deprived of sleep.
  • Give the troops a jolt of caffeine when tactical naps are over in the form of a 100mg of caffeinated gum after waking.
  • Allowing time for sleep banking, i.e allowing troops eight to 10 hours of sleep before a planned operation.
  • Duty schedules requiring shift work should implement forward-rotation of changing shifts (day to evening to night), and utilize eight-hour shifts whenever possible.
  • Operational and tactical battle plans should account for the impact of sleep deprivation, ensuring eight hours of sleep every 24 hours, with sufficient opportunities for sleep banking and recovery sleep when operational requirements result in less than eight hours of sleep every 24 hours.
  • Establishment of an enlisted unit-level sleep trainer to promote the use of strategies to mitigate sleep deprivation throughout the unit and advise command on ensuring that servicemembers receive an adequate opportunity for sleep.

Getting enough sleep is a key component of unit readiness. Although military leaders are beginning to recognize the importance of their troops getting adequate sleep and the negative effects of sleep deprivation, the military still has quite a way to go.

Recently, the Norwegian Army tested its officers’ moral reasoning under both rested and severely unrested states. It found that “the officers’ ability to conduct mature and principally oriented moral reasoning was severely impaired during partial sleep deprivation compared to the rested state.”

Dr. Olav Kjellevold Olsen, a professor at the Department of Psychosocial Science at the University of Bergen in Norway said that “given that most contemporary military operations involve long periods of partial sleep deprivation and fighting in highly complex environments, one possible consequence of moral decay may be disproportionate use of power.” 

So, not only can sleep deprivation cause additional health problems but impacts unit readiness and individual performance. Therefore, it has to be managed in order to prepare troops for the battlefield.