Editorial Feature

Applications and Markets in the Defence Sector of Nanotechnology

Nanoscale informatics, pharmaceuticals and medicine remain the most high-profile areas of near-term market application. However, Gsponer contends that the most significant near-term applications of nanotechnology will be in the military domain. This is because micromechanical and MEMS engineering is historically connected to nuclear weapons laboratories: it was within this domain that the field of nanotechnology was born a few decades ago.

Historical Context of this Research

Today, it is not difficult to understand why nanotechnology might appeal to military planners. Through technologies such as steam navigation, repeating firearms, and high explosives, Western powers have enjoyed virtually unchallenged military supremacy throughout the 19th Century (Reynolds, 2002). It is not absurd, then, to imagine that nanotechnology could play a similar role in the 21st Century. Indeed, new technologies, notably IT, are playing an increasingly important part in modern warfare-as reflected by recent investments in the US Department of Defense - see Table 1.

Table 1. Breakdown of spending on the US’s National Nanotechnology Initiative from 2001–2003 (US $ million).


2001 Actual

2002 Estimate


National Science Foundation




Department of Defence




Department of Energy




National Aeronautics and Space Administration




National Institute of Health




National Institute of Standards and Technology




Environmental Protection Agency




Department of Transportation




US Department of Agriculture




Department of Justice








Could Nanotechnology Weapons Be More Powerful than Nuclear Weapons?

Trends such as these have led leading strategic commentators, such as David Jeremiah, to conclude that military applications of nanotechnology have an even greater potential than nuclear weapons to radically change the balance of global power in the future. Fundamentally, this potential lies in a greater range of military options when deciding how to respond to aggression. Scott Pace of RAND expands upon this:

‘How might nanotechnology contribute to US military power? In peacetime or crisis, nanocomputers may allow more capable surveillance of potential aggressors. The flood of data from world-wide sensors could be culled more efficiently to look for truly threatening activities. In low-intensity warfare, intelligent sensors and barrier systems could isolate or channel guerrilla movements depending on the local terrain. In conventional theatre war, nanotechnology may lead to small, cheap, highly lethal anti-tank weapons. Such weapons could allow relatively small numbers of infantry to defeat assaults by large armoured forces.

‘At nuclear conflict levels, accurate nanocomputer guidance and low nanomachine production costs would accelerate current trends in the proliferation of ‘smart’ munitions. Rather than requiring nuclear weapons to attack massive conventional forces or distant, hard targets, nanotechnology enhancements to cruise missiles and ballistic missiles could allow them to destroy their targets with conventional explosives. Conventional explosives themselves might be replaced by molecular disassemblers that would be rapidly effective, but with less unintended destruction to surrounding buildings and populations.’

More Military Applications of Nanotechnology Products

Other stated applications include (National Science Foundation):

•        Information dominance through advanced nanoelectronics,

•        More sophisticated virtual reality systems,

•        Increased use of enhanced automation and robotics,

•        Required improvements in chemical/biological/nuclear sensing,

•        Design improvements in systems used for nuclear non-proliferation monitoring and management,

•        Combined nanomechanical and micromechanical devices for control of nuclear defence systems.

Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) on the Battlefield

In addition, such nanotechnologies might be ‘cleaner’ and ‘safer’ and less likely to cause collateral damage than the technologies they replace, making them especially appealing to military planners. For example, MEMS have many potential uses in the battlefield, largely due to their built-in mechanical functions that allow them to act as sensors and actuators. Actuators in particular extend the functionality of sensors by allowing them to respond to the environment with the usage of force. Applications of MEMS in military systems include ammunition, petroleum, food, as well as enabling a host of other smarter, more efficient logistics operations.

Improving Conditions for the Infantry Soldier via Nanotechnology

The infantry soldier too is anticipated to receive a nanotech-based ‘makeover’: a new Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology (ISN) has been created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with a US Army grant of US$50 million over five years. The goal of this research centre is to greatly enhance the protection and survival of the infantry soldier using nanoscience. For example, US army planners are hoping to lighten the load that soldiers carry into battle (currently around 64 kg) by redesigning the equipment from the atomic scale up.

Which Organisations are Performing this Research and Who’s Funding It?

Current signs indicate that progress towards these objectives may soon begin to bear fruit: a Centre for Nanoscience Innovation for Defence (CNID) was created in January 2003 to facilitate the rapid transition of research innovation in the nanosciences into applications for the defence sector. CNID is sponsored by two federal agencies - the Defence Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) and Defence MicroElectronics Activity (DMEA) - to the tune of US$20 million over three years.

Note: A complete list of references can be found by referring to the original text.

Primary author: Alexander Huw Arnall.

Source: Greenpeace report, ‘Future Technologies, Today’s Choices Nanotechnology, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics; A technical, political and institutional map of emerging technologies’, July 2003.

For more information on this source please visit Greenpeace.

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