Global Security Implications
As a major sector driving nanotechnology research and investments, the military has many innovations in progress or predicted, including the following:
• New offensive capabilities: Smaller, more efficient weapons, including energy weapons; greater use of robotics; hypersonic missiles and jets; precision-guided munitions, including smart bullets; and improved stealth technology.
• New defensive capabilities: Stronger, more dynamic personal and vehicle armor; better detection devices, e.g., “smart dust“ and biochemical sensors; better jamming capabilities against booby traps; and energy weapons to defend against missiles.
• Communications and control: Quantum computing for smaller, powerful devices as well as for better intelligence; quantum communications for greater eavesdropping and more secure messages; and greater ability to attack enemy systems.
• Other: Bionic suits for superhuman strength and capabilities; more effective battlefield medicine; more powerful and lighter energy sources; faster production of military assets, i.e., force multiplier; and enhanced weapons of mass destruction, e.g., bio-weapons that can target specific DNA.
Given just this short list of forecasted capabilities, nanotechnology clearly has the potential to take a military well into the next generation and beyond. The prospect of having this sizable advantage, as well as the fear of being surpassed by other militaries, provides a strong incentive to engage in a new arms race. Also, as with previous arms races, without an agreement or treaty among nations to moderate or curb their activities, there will be an increased risk of mistrust, misunderstanding, and catastrophic conflict.
For the U.S., it is no longer a foregone conclusion that it will be the first in this area as it was in many previous technologies. Besides losing ground to other nations in education, particularly in science, as well as in research spending, U.S. success in nanotechnology research is hindered by convoluted funding processes, intellectual property issues, and other factors, according to a recent report from Lux Research.
So its an open question as to which country might take the lead in nanotechnology and its military applications. If nanotech is developed unevenly among nations, it may lead to difficult political change and greater insecurity. Further, if a nondemocratic government, such as China, develops nanotechnology first, that would raise a host of additional worries, including becoming the target of a first-strike attack that we cannot effectively defend against or answer in kind.
Terrorists, however, are perhaps not a near- or mid-term worry in nanotechnology. The consensus among scientists seems to be that terrorists, though still very interested in new capabilities and tactics, can more easily and affordably employ conventional or biochemical weapons to achieve their goals. If nanotechnology weapons reach a point where they are easy to manufacture, or if lax security or political instability allows terrorists to acquire such weapons from a nation, then we may have good reason to worry. This, however, begs us to ask whether some research is too dangerous to conduct or publish—a question that biotechnologists are becoming increasingly familiar with.