Military uses of Nanotechnology: The Future of War
An all-out war between two powers possessing molecular nanotechnology would be disastrous to human life and natural resources. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) type principles may prevent many potential wars, since anything of value being fought over would most likely be destroyed in the process.
Security (or defense) of its citizens is the first duty of any government. National defense entails the protection and safety of a nation’s secrets and its citizens, and freedom from foreign dictation. Military security implies the capacity of a nation to defend itself, and is defined as, “a condition that results from the establishment and maintenance of protective measures that ensure a state of inviolability from hostile acts or influences.”
“Science and technology are advancing to the point that structuring matter at the nanometer scale (1nm = 10-9m) is becoming routine. Nanotechnology (NT) is predicted to produce revolutionary changes, bringing far-reaching consequences in many areas.”
Ultimately, “technology will become nanotechnology and disappear from our physical presence.” Nanotechnology is the study and manipulation of the new properties that emerge as material dimensions are reduced the limits of the nanoscale. The classical laws of Newtonian physics break down at this ultra-small scale and give way to quantum mechanics, resulting in remarkable differences in material behavior. Scientists and engineers are able to exploit these unusual properties through nanostructured devices. Nano is the direction of future technological progress, and military scientists and engineers have a duty to study these effects and apply what they learn to the protection of their people.
An overlap exists between so-called dual-use applications of nanotechnology such as advanced nanocomputers, energy production, and environmental remediation, etc., where military and industry can pool their resources and collaborate their efforts for mutual benefit.
All of the world’s major military players are heavily involved in research and development of nanotechnological materials and systems. President Bill Clinton also advocated nanotechnology development. In a 21 January 2000 speech at the California Institute of Technology, Clinton stated, “Some of these [nanotechnology] research goals will take 20 or more years to achieve. But that is why… there is such a critical role for the federal government.” In 2001, the U.S. Federal Government, determined to maintain technological supremacy in this area, created the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The NNI is the U.S. Government’s interagency program for coordinating R&D and enhancing communication and collaborative activities in nanoscale science, engineering, and technology. President George W. Bush increased funding for nanotechnology further in 2003 by signing into law the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act.
Nanomaterials can be designed at the atomic level, lending more control over their properties, and making them better suited to their desired purpose. Most nanomaterials derive their enhanced abilities from the large increase in surface area that results when individual particle-size decreases.
Electronic active-camouflage provides the element of stealth. Metamaterial-based optical/EM invisibility suits & vehicle cloaks are close to reality. Artificial muscles using deforming or contracting molecules provide organic movement in applications such as full-body robotic exoskeleton suits. Nanostructured materials can make lighter armor, and extremely strong building materials. Nanofiber based duds offer enhanced protection against projectiles.
Much of the ~60Kg load of a 21st century soldier comes from the many electronic devices needed for communications, etc. One main goal of military research into nanomaterials is to reduce this load to 20Kg via the development of lighter, higher Gravimetric Energy Density (Wh/kg) batteries. Nanotechnology offers a long list of potential alternatives for efficient, economical and sustainable power generation and storage. Lithium-air (Li-air) is one next-gen rechargeable battery technology with the potential to replace the current tech standards, Lithium-ion (Li-ion), Nickel Metal-Hydride (NiMh) and non-rechargeable Lithium-Manganese Dioxide (LiMnO2).
Engineered nanomaterials and metamaterials that are stronger, lighter, have enhanced properties, are more heat-resistant and more compact are becoming possible. Carbon nanotube/fullerene based materials offer a much higher strength-to-weight ratio than those currently employed.
The Department of Defense (DoD) has shown the feasibility of creating a new class of weaponry – Compact, powerful bombs that use nanometals such as nanoaluminum to create ultra-high burn rate chemical explosives an order of magnitude more powerful than conventional bombs. Nanothermite or “super-thermite” is one example of such a “Metastable Intermolecular Composite” (MIC.) Nanoweapons are any military technology that exploits the power of nanotechnology in the modern battlefield.
The United States, Russia, and Germany are currently in the R&D phase of nanotechnology-based “mini-nuke” devices. Andy Oppenheimer states, “The creation of much smaller nuclear bombs adds new challenges to the effort to limit weapons of mass destruction.” “[The bombs] could blow open everything that is in place for arms control,” Oppenheimer says. “Everything gets more dangerous.” Some advanced technologies, such as superlasers could be used to trigger comparatively small thermonuclear fusion explosions in a mixture of tritium and deuterium. An entire mini-nuke device could fit into a package weighing less than a few kilograms, and having an equivalent yield of less than a ton, to hundreds of tons of high-explosives (making them technically not Weapons of Mass Destruction.) The devices would use very little to no fissionable material at all, resulting in “virtually no radioactive fallout.” By making nuclear weapons smaller, however, they become more likely to be used.
Just as nano techniques can be designed to deliver medicines to targeted locations within the human body, bioterrorists could use similar techniques to release highly toxic substances to the most vulnerable or desired target areas of the body.
“I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals.” – Bill Joy, Why the future doesn’t need us
Nanoweapons will become obsolete almost immediately, needing to be upgraded or replaced continually. As soon as a new weapon is designed and tested, it will be ready to go into service. Competition to develop or use molecular manufacturing could lead to a new arms race between nations.
“Another guiding vision is the development of a battle suit that dynamically provides protection, communication, mechanical enhancement and thermal management, compresses wounds and administers therapeutic drugs.”
– Military Uses of Nanotechnology
Alongside improvements in weaponry, come equal improvements in armor. Nanomaterials can be designed to create exceptionally strong armor. Kryron Terminator ballistic body and vehicle armor, for example, is made from an aluminum alloy combined with carbon nanotubes. The ballistic armor plate is multi-impact capable, durable, lightweight, and available now.
Nanostructured materials can make lighter, stronger, and adaptive armor, and nanofiber based suits deliver improved protection against projectiles. “Smart-materials” may adapt to changes in light, temperature, pressure, or stresses, for instance.
As computers and electronics become nanocomputers and nanoelectronics, they will become a lot smaller/lighter and require much less power than they do today. These improvements will lead to entirely new, once impossible, applications. Inexpensive, decentralized nets of sensors with computational and wireless communications abilities, known as “surveillance dust”, “smart matter”, or “smart-dust” due to its diminutive form-factor, will bring data-mining onto the battlefield, and into the Age of Nanotechnology.
Any algorithm that today requires a large supercomputer will be possible to run onboard a bullet or fit into an insect-size robot with room to spare. Networks linking smart-dust, robots, UAVs, and other nanocomputer-enabled systems on the battlefield, paired with sensory/neural interfaces/immersive virtual reality, will enable extremely high bandwidth telepresence.
Acceleration of the raw computational power available leads to a natural progression of Artificial Intelligence (AI) abilities. Improved information processing modeled after the human brain may eventually give rise to machine systems with human-level thought processes. AI may ultimately surpass its human creators entirely – at which point it will call the shots, or we may follow transhumanist visions in which humans merge with their technology to become cyborgs.
Unless we are very careful, The incredible potential of the human race – the result of billions of years of unceasing evolution – may be wasted in an unfortunate accident, or misguided war between molecular superpowers. The potential threats are staggering, but surviving this critical juncture may bring opportunities beyond the scope of the imagination.
A lead in current technologies, even current nanotechnology, is no guarantee of technological supremacy when it comes to molecular nanotechnology/nanofactories. Advanced molecular manufacturing capabilities will, to a large extent, determine the future balance of power between nations. Nanofactory-level molecular nanotechnology could bring between 100 to 1,000,000-fold increases in military capabilities. Nations lacking a molecular manufacturing ability will be at the mercy of opponents with this technology.
Nor do I doubt if the most formidable armies ever heere upon earth is a sort of soldiers who for their smallness are not visible.
– Sir WILLIAM PERRY, on microbes, 1640
Molecular nanotechnology may dramatically alter the motivations for war. By making material wealth available to all nations, the incentive to attack an opponent to take what they have is greatly reduced. This could result in reduced tensions, and increased national security. Conflict between advanced molecular manufacturing powers also carries with it a considerable amount of risk on both sides. Such a war would be disastrous to human life and the planet as a whole. With this almost god-like control over the physical world comes immense responsibility for the human race to use this power responsibly; a test upon which rests the very fate of our species, and whose outcome remains to be elucidated.
“Replicators can be more potent than nuclear weapons: to devastate Earth with bombs would require masses of exotic hardware and rare isotopes, but to destroy all life with replicators would require only a single speck made of ordinary elements. Replicators give nuclear war some company as a potential cause of extinction, giving a broader context to extinction as a moral concern.
Despite their potential as engines of destruction, nanotechnology and AI systems will lend themselves to more subtle uses than do nuclear weapons. A bomb can only blast things, but nanomachines and AI systems could be used to infiltrate, seize, change, and govern a territory or a world. Even the most ruthless police have no use for nuclear weapons, but they do have use for bugs, drugs, assassins, and other flexible engines of power. With advanced technology, states will be able to consolidate their power over people.”
– Engines of Destruction
Self-replicating assemblers could be used to build vast arsenals of advanced weapons, or fleets of small inexpensive attack robots, very quickly. In the wrong hands, this could be used to enable more malicious means of harming large numbers of people.
Ultra-long-term possibilities of nanowarfare are more difficult to predict, however a few possibilities can be seen from 2012. Space is the logical next-frontier for technologically advanced human beings. Sci-fi sounding possibilities such as the redirecting of comets or asteroids to impact earth intentionally, robotic soldiers, and nanobots are among the technologically feasible. Unless we re-engineer our human nature with our technology, or come to an enlightened understanding of one another, the bi-polar nature of man – Good vs. Evil – will ensure unrest & conflict.
British physicist and educator, Freeman Dyson has outlined a plan in his book, Disturbing The Universe, that would greatly reduce the overall toll of war in terms of casualties, while emphasizing and actually strengthening defense.
The heart of his argument involves drawing an important distinction between offensive and defensive warfare/weaponry, focusing almost entirely on the side of defense. If every country were to adopt this strategy it would effectively eliminate most of the wars fought worldwide, while increasing each countries’ effectiveness at dealing with threats.
This may also be a useful method of managing threats in an age of nanotechnological warfare. Nano weapons designed to attack the enemy would not be developed, while (less glamorous and often more complex) technologies intended to protect against these threats would be pursued from every conceivable angle.
There may be some overlap, i.e. it may be necessary to envision an offensive nanotech weapon in order to build a defense against it, however the world would be a safer and friendlier place to live in if we adopt a primarily defensive approach to military. A world that continues to pursue more effective means of killing people into the nano age will succeed on an unimaginably horrific scale. We must not loose sight of our morals and ethics as our technological powers grow ever greater.