NBICS and Military Products
by Gregor Wolbring
January 30, 2007
The world spends some $1,000 billion annually on the military, of which around $30-35 billion represents sales of military products. The U.S. Congressional Research Service reports on arms transfers to the developing world. Its 2006 report, Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 1998-2005, says developing nations received two-thirds of foreign arms sales by weapons suppliers.
With so much money spent on the military and weapons, it was only a matter of time until nano-weapons raised interest. As one reads on the Nanowerks webpage, “All major powers are making efforts to research and develop nanotechnology-based materials and systems for military use.” Most European and Asian countries have nanotech projects integrated within other military projects. Sweden and the USA have dedicated nanotechnology defence research projects. According to Nanowerks, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) spends well over 30% of all federal investment dollars in nanotechnology. In 2006, estimated DoD nanotechnology expenditures will be $436m. About $1m will be spent on risk-related research.
On the Swedish Defence Nanotechnology Programme one finds the following description: "With the help of nanotechnology, sensors and protection within the new networked defence will be improved. This is the challenge set for this five-year programme, which starts 1 October 2003. Researchers within the field of nanotechnology, both in Sweden and internationally, have been invited to participate. Seven projects have been chosen for a two-year term. In the autumn of 2005 the scope of the programme will be focused further for the next three years. The researchers will through demonstrations prove their concepts and ideas. The overall aim is to create an enhanced defence organisation. In addition to funding promising research projects, secondary goals are to: promote international co-operation and technological renewal with the defence sector; increase the interaction between universities, research organisations, industry and the armed forces; introduce new technologies to the armed forces."
It was recently reported that Israel wants to develop a nanotechnology arsenal.
The Sydney Herald and the Times of India mentioned tiny sensors that can be scattered on enemy territory; intelligence wasps or mini drones that can squeeze into narrow alleys, jam communications, photograph intelligence targets and even kill militants; anti-suicide bomber sensors that can be installed in public places, that are apparently able to spot a bomber, based on scent, heat and weight; and "bionic man" gloves that would give the user super-human strength.
Nanowerks reported that India is also moving towards military nanoweapons: "Department of Science and Technology (DST), Govt of India will be making use of the Agharkar Research Institute's (ARI) expertise in nanotechnology for the defence establishment. The work, which is to begin soon, will see the ARI providing nanoparticles to the defence establishment."
Nanowerks states: "Proposed and actively pursued military nanotech programs cover a wide range of applications to improve the performance of existing systems and materials and allow new ones. The main areas of research deal with explosives (their chemical composition as well as their containment); bio and medicine (for both injury treatment and performance enhancement); biological and chemical sensors; electronics for computing and information; power generation and storage; structural materials for ground, air and naval vehicles; coatings; filters; and fabrics." Another application is a portable, cheap, and fast explosive detector.
Nanowerks has identified current and near-term (to 2010) projects that will incorporate nanoparticles. It lists organizations and institutes such as the ISN - Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, Naval Research Laboratory - NRL, DARPA - Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Army High Performance Computing Research Center, ICB - Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies and the ARL - Army Research Laboratory. A variety of research projects can be found in the Army RDT&E Budget Item Justification (R2 Exhibit).
The 2005, U.S. Defense Nanotechnology Research and Development Programs reviewed defense nanotechnology research and development programs in the following seven areas:
- Fundamental Nanoscale Phenomena and Processes
- Nanoscale Devices and Systems
- Instrumentation Research, Metrology, and Standards for Nanotechnology
- Major Research Facilities and Instrumentation Acquisition
- Societal Dimensions
Goals related to Societal Dimensions include:
- Assuring health and safety of war fighters utilizing future nanotechnology-based applications
- Enabling physicochemical characterization and toxicology for water, air and space environments
- Sustaining an investment strategy to enable a multidisciplinary education system capable of sustaining the skilled workforce needed to meet future defense needs
- Assessing, avoiding and abating any adverse environmental or health impact from defense utilization of nanotechnology. However the table shows that the societal dimensions is not given a lot of money.
A recent NATO study group outlined numerous issues around the security implications of nanotechnologies, observing: "The potential for NT [nanotechnology] innovations in chemical and biological weapons is particularly disquieting, as NT can considerably enhance the delivery mechanisms of agents or toxic substances. The ability of nanoparticles to penetrate the human body and its cells could make biological and chemical warfare much more feasible, easier to manage and to direct against specific groups or individuals. Dr. Sean Howard, in his work on NT security implications, has even called the threat of chemical and biological warfare a 'real nano goo.' "
Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno are known fields of military products and combat personal interventions. Synbio is just as involved, although less known. The new field of synthetic biology can obviously be misused to design biological and synthetic biology weapons. The U.S. National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity seems to be getting sidetracked from its original agenda to develop rules to govern the new field of synthetic biology -- leaving the doors wide open for the negative, uncontrolled diffusion of synthetic biology material and processes towards military applications.
Some believe that the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention covers the synthetic biology field. However the same article states: "Nevertheless, because the BWC has not been signed and ratified by every country, lacks formal verification mechanisms, and does not bind non-state entities such as terrorist organizations, it does little to prevent the deliberate misuse of synthetic biology for hostile purposes."
The synthetic biology crowd is well aware of the biological and security risk. However they prefer self-regulation over local and global government regulations --which is seen by many as not feasible (see my first column).
The Choice is Yours
The start of a nano arms race, and the lack of willingness to regulate potential synthetic biology through the modification of existing treaties or the application of existing treaties or the development of new regulations is short sighted.
Nano or synthetic biology weapons will diffuse into hands other than the inventor and first user, and it is easier to reverse engineer nano or synthetic biology military products than to make a nuclear weapon. Once they exist they can be copied, and diffusion of the resulting products will make local and global security nearly impossible. Security would come with a hefty price tag -- not just in financial terms, but in changes to societal interactions.
Gregor Wolbring is a biochemist, bioethicist, science and technology ethicist, disability/vari-ability studies scholar, and health policy and science and technology studies researcher at the University of Calgary. He is a member of the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University; Member CAC/ISO - Canadian Advisory Committees for the International Organization for Standardization section TC229 Nanotechnologies; Member of the editorial team for the Nanotechnology for Development portal of the Development Gateway Foundation; Chair of the Bioethics Taskforce of Disabled People's International; and Member of the Executive of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. He publishes the Bioethics, Culture and Disability website, moderates a weblog for the International Network for Social Research on Diasbility, and authors a weblog on NBICS and its social implications.