In April last year, the US Navy announced the deployment of a laser weapon on the USS Ponce. The YouTube image they posted at the same time demonstrates how effective it is to damage an unmanned aerial vehicle. The image might have excited some sci-fi movie fans around the world, envisioning the arrival of futuristic weapons, like ‘phasers’ familiar to ‘Trekkies’. It is expected that these laser weapons will be more widely deployed with the aim to strengthen defence capabilities against missiles, artillery and mortars.
The revelation of a laser weapon was not unexpected. Indeed, the history of the pursuit of laser weapons is as old as the nuclear arms race during the Cold War. The idea of laser weapons was already hinted as a potential counter-strike onto a nuclear ballistic missile. Although the technical details of the laser weapon announced for deployment is kept secret, there is little doubt that the rapid development of nanotechnologies over the last decade has enabled significant improvement of different components of the solid state laser system that makes it deployable as a weapon.
A greater excitement may be forthcoming with the prospect of further fine-tuning of the laser technology to provide a wider range of tactical options – like a weapon that can be set for ‘stun’ up to ‘kill’. Even the existing laser weapon the US Navy announced for deployment has the ability of limiting the damage to the targeted aircraft, rather than destroying it like with a missile. Ethicists may envision the arrival of a more humane warfare in the near future where a less lethal force will always be used prior to lethal means.
The law currently does not require such gradual application of force. However, it could well be adopted as government policy for a specific operation from political or ethical considerations. Interestingly, though, the law may oblige soldiers not to use such less lethal means if there is a chance of civilian casualties, for example, as a result of disabling an aircraft that then clashes into a town.
The laser weapon is not the only armory that benefits from the rapid development of nanotechnology. There are scientists who are working to create Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, which undoubtedly attracts obvious military interests, or what is called ‘nano air vehicles’ – the prototype ‘Hummingbird’ developed by the US DARPA could be further miniaturized into a small insect-like combat vehicle. The use of nanotechnology thus enables existing weapon technologies – such as stealth, precision-guided munitions and UAVs – to evolve into their ultimate form. It will provide soldiers with the ultimate protection of invisibility during combat operations or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities. Commanders will be able to assassinate the target anytime, from anywhere, with mechanical precision without a margin of error.
Using those ‘smart weapons’ will certainly help reduce, or even completely avoid, civilian casualties. In that sense, future warfare may well be expected to become more humane. But at the same time, the ability to kill someone without facing that individual and without giving him or her any chance of survival may test where our human conscience stands. Already, the US targeted killing policy has caused controversies over its legal, political and ethical implications, and on 31 May this year, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Christof Heyns, recommended a moratorium on lethal autonomous robotics.
The greater protection of force – by using UAVs, cyber or invisibility cloak – means also that the political costs traditionally associated with the resort to force in foreign territories will be significantly reduced. The use of these new technologies enable disguised forms of attacks, which make it difficult for victim states, particularly the technologically inferior, to identify where the attacks originate from with certainty. The implicated allegations recently made by the US against Chinese authorities for their involvement in cyber attacks are testimony to this technical challenge. A consequence is that the technologically advanced will find it attractive to choose discreet means to deploy military forces in order to achieve their political objectives without risking warfare.
However, the widespread introduction of nanotechnology into weaponry may not end with this familiar, simplistic picture of military asymmetry between the technologically advanced and the less advanced. Nanotechnology is not a difficult technology to acquire. Indeed, many less developed states and emerging economies such as Mexico, Thailand, India and Iran are investing heavily on nanotechnology industries. China is also one of the leading states in nanotechnological developments.
There is no clear indication as to the extent these investments are poured into weapons development. The challenge for them would rather be acquisition of the existing weapons technologies, like stealth, laser and robotic technologies, with which applications of nanotechnology need to be combined. But at the same time, these countries are not bound by the same resource constraints as the major weapons producers, such as large-scale infrastructure and manufacturing contracts. In that sense, emerging economies could take advantage of a greater flexibility in developing entirely new armament manufacturing capabilities that effectively incorporate latest nanotechnological innovations and developments.
Nanotechnology may thus serve as a potential ‘game changer’ in the military landscape. One of the major factors that are currently hindering military applications of nanotechnology is the pre-existing military mindset. Weapons development is driven, in large part, by the current operational needs, rather than future operational possibilities. Nanotechnology is like a transistor – it in itself does not do any good nor harm, but the application of nanotechnology and their integration into a larger system produce novel functions and effects.
It is expected that nanotechnology will soon be found in many consumer products, which will accelerate the pace of military applications of nanotechnology in both technologically advanced and less advanced states. Utilizing nanotechnology to advance military capabilities to ultimate forms – in precision strikes or cloaking technology – may prompt us to reconsider how warfare should be defined or should be fought. The ‘United Federation of Planets’ in the world of Star Trek made a conscious decision not to develop or use cloaking technology, perhaps a reflection of Gene Roddenberry’s philosophy of what the future space warfare should look like. It may be that we are only standing at the verge of this philosophical debate to reconsider the fundamental meaning of warfare and the need for a modern version of the chivalric code.