Editorial Feature

Military Uses of Nanotechnology

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An important political problem that needs to be factored in the balance of power is, how nanotechnologies are likely to have an impact on the military. Boosting human performance has evident attractions, like enhancing strength, stamina, and the potential to tackle numerous situations and process data more effectively.

Technological Advances and the Military

History has also demonstrated that developments in technology have encouraged the military to create smaller, more robust, and more mobile surveillance systems, weapons, and other military equipment. Though these systems may be developed under the auspices of protecting freedom and guaranteeing security, if these devices persist to follow present trends, they may lead to an arms race akin to that of nuclear weapons.

Regulations to Prevent an Arms Race

Hence, there should be internationally agreed regulations to prevent such escalations. For example, in the days to come, nanotechnology could build almost undetectable weapons and surveillance devices, and include sophisticated remote control capabilities. This raises the question of where the dividing line lies between infringing human rights and ensuring security.

Consequently, unilateral actions of one nation on another may turn out to be more targeted and more complicated for the international community to enforce the order. Protecting these technologies will be very significant—inhibiting their distribution or sale to, or theft by, other organizations.

Military-Based Nanotechnology Programs in the United States

Currently, the United States is the major country to announce publicly that it is developing military applications of nanotechnologies. Earlier in 2001, the country made an investment of 125 million USD in nanotechnology initiatives for the Department of Defense (DoD).

The proposed budget for 2005 includes 1 million USD for homeland security and 276 million USD for the DoD (together, this is about 28% of the overall nanotechnology budget).

For instance, MIT’s Institute of Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN) was founded in 2002 with a five-year 50 million USD agreement from the US military. It is aiming to produce a battle-suit that offers better protection and tracks vital signs, while being lighter than traditional equipment.

Military-Based Nanotechnology Programs in the United Kingdom

Similarly, the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) is sponsoring a few military aspects of nanotechnology, such as innovative structural materials, quantum interference, and electronic devices, but on a relatively smaller scale (about £1.5 million per year).

This study is primarily performed through the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) and its Corporate Research Program, albeit the MOD is aware of the fact that close association with academic research is important to keep track of advancements in nanotechnology that can have potential uses in defense.

Military-Based Nanotechnology Programs in Sweden

For military purposes, Sweden is investing 11 million euros over five years in nanotechnology studies through FOI—the Swedish Defence Research Agency. The funding is split between seven research projects (involving top defense companies, universities, and a few high-tech start-up companies) and focused during the initial two years on feasibility studies prior to venturing into an application-oriented phase.

Military-Based Nanotechnology Programs in the European Union

Recently, the European Union (EU) has published a call for suggestions and supporting activities concerning the preparatory action on “the enhancement of the European industrial potential in the field of security research.”

Although this does not particularly mention nanotechnologies, most of the areas have implicit nanotechnology links (like tracking devices and sensors) under the project themes of “Protecting against terrorism (including incidents and bioterrorism with chemical, biological, and other substances) and “Improving situation awareness.”

A budget of 65 million euros has been set aside from 2004 to 2006, which is a precursor to a much larger security research program that will begin in 2007.

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