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Analyzing Novel Experimental Research Data to Better Understand and Manage Fatigue Across the Range of Military Operations Coalition

Department of Defense – $207,712
4/1/15 – 3/31/17

Operational success and survival for both warfighters and police officers depend on their abilities to perform well around the clock in potentially deadly encounters, drive vehicles safety in challenging conditions, report what they observe and do, and interact successfully with noncombatants despite extended work hours and inadequate, irregular sleep. Using a novel combination of high-fidelity simulators, a controlled laboratory environment, and precision performance metrics, we are investigating the impact of fatigue on these critical job skills. Data analysis is currently underway, but preliminary results suggest fatigue critically impairs driving skills, tactical social interaction skills, cognitive tasks, and may reduce the threshold for moral decision making in use of deadly force.


The research project analyzes exploratory data from our recently completed set of ONR-funded experiments to identify and develop new ways to manage fatigue and understand its impact on warfighters’ safety and health, interactions with non-combatants, and driving. Specifically, the requested funding will enable us to test 10 new hypotheses that were beyond the scope of the original project funding.

The critical need to test these 10 additional hypotheses is an exciting outcome of the original ONR-funded study, which has yielded an even larger amount of valuable data than expected. This is because—in addition to the primary objectives of the study—we developed and tested novel research technologies such as ambulatory functional near-infrared brain imaging (fNIR), computerized simulations of tactical social interactions, and eye-gaze enhancements to our high-fidelity driving simulators. These technologies functioned beyond our expectations and produced very large data sets (>3TB) that will result in extremely valuable information when analyzed.

Fatigue management applies to every current and long-term ONR expeditionary warfare goal and focus area involving human decision making, information collection, communication and reporting, adaptability in complex combat environments, or operational safety and health. Yet relatively little is known about how to manage operational fatigue in the types of counterinsurgency, stabilization and humanitarian missions that dominate contemporary expeditionary and irregular warfare.
Our focus on individual-level effects of fatigue is especially important in these highly distributed global operations, during which small teams must conduct missions in extreme, politically unstable environments while sleep deprived and physically depleted. Fatigue-related degradation of the strategic corporal’s perception, judgment, decision making, performance, and stress management can undermine both tactical and strategic imperatives. Thus, our lack of knowledge about how to manage the individual-level effects of fatigue constitutes a critical need.

We will address this need by testing 10 new hypotheses that:

  1. Provide Navy/Marine Corps with an empirical basis for setting work-hours, scheduling, and equipment-use policies, training drivers to better manage fatigue and distraction load, and improving the structure and presentation of instruments and equipment inside motorized vehicles;
  2. Identify individual risk factors associated with performance of operational driving, deadly force judgment and decision making, and tactical social interaction in order to understand the extent to which performance is affected by fatigue-related risk propensity, PTSD symptomology, and mood;
  3. Assess the impact of fatigue on warfighters’ tactical social interaction skills and other behaviors that influence non-combatants’ perceptions of their legitimacy, fairness and civility; and
  4. Assess the extent to which fatigue-related driving accidents may be reduced by understanding the effects of fatigue and the timing of work shifts on collision risks as well as operational costs such as fuel consumption and maintenance.

As the results of this work are completed, we will actively disseminate research results to Navy and other DoD components, including warfighters and military occupational specialties such as Masters at Arms (MAA) and Shore Patrol as well as DoD civilian security contract personnel. This research funding will be leveraged by a separate contract through NAVAIR funded by the Defense Preparedness Support Initiative that will share research costs and fund translation of research results to civilian police and other first responders—whose performance is critical to homeland security—as well as researchers and policy makers.

Primary Investigator

Bryan Vila, PhD