Nanotechnology and Preventive Arms Control - Jürgen Altmann

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 31, 2006 1:35 pm    Post subject: Nanotechnology and Preventive Arms Control - Jürgen Altmann Reply with quote


Nanotechnology (NT) is about analysis and engineering of structures with size between 0.1 and 100 nanometres (1 nm = 10-9 m). At this scale, new effects occur and the boundaries between physics, chemistry and biology vanish. NT is predicted to lead to stronger but lighter materials, markedly smaller computers with immensely increased power, large and small autonomous robots, tools for manipulation of single molecules, targeted intervention within cells, connections between electronics and neurones, and more.

In recent years military research and development (R&D) of NT has been expanded markedly, with the USA far in the lead. US work spans the full range from electronics via materials to biology. While much of this is still at the fundamental level, efforts are being made to bring applications to the armed forces soon. One quarter to one third of the Fed-eral funding for NT goes to military R&D, and the USA outspends the rest of the world by a factor 4 to 10.

NT applications will likely pervade all areas of the military. Very small electronics and computers will be used everywhere, e.g. in glasses, uniforms, munitions. Large-scale battle-management and strategy-planning systems will apply human-like reasoning at increasing levels of autonomy, integrating sensors, communication devices and displays into an ubiquitous network. Stronger but light-weight materials, more efficient energy storage and propulsion will allow faster and more agile vehicles in all media. NT-based materials and explosives can bring faster and more precise projectiles. Small arms, muni-tions and anti-personnel missiles without any metal can become possible. Systems worn by soldiers could monitor the body status and react to injury. Systems implanted into the body could monitor the biochemistry and release drugs, or make contacts to nerves and the brain to reduce the reaction time, later possibly to communicate complex information. Autonomous land vehicles, ships and aircraft would become possible mainly through strongly increased computing power. By using NT to miniaturise sensors, actuators and propulsion, autonomous systems (robots) could also become very small, principally down to below a millimetre – fully artificial or hybrid on the basis of e.g. insects or rats. Satel-lites and their launchers could become small and cheap, to be used in swarms for earth surveillance, or for anti-satellite attack. Whereas no marked change is expected concern-ing nuclear weapons, NT may lead to various new types of chemical and biological weapons that target specific organs or act selectively on a certain genetic or protein pat-tern. On the other hand, NT will allow cheap sensors for chemical or biological warfare agents as well as materials for decontamination. Most of these applications are ten or more years away.

Using criteria of preventive arms control, potential military NT applications are evaluated. New conventional, chemical and biological weapons would jeopardise existing arms-control treaties. Armed autonomous systems would endanger the law of warfare. Military stability could decrease with small distributed battlefield sensors and in particular with armed autonomous systems. Arms racing and proliferation have to be feared with all applications. Strong dangers to humans would ensue from armed mini-/micro-robots and new chemical/biological weapons used by terrorists. Negative effects on human integrity and human rights could follow indirectly if body manipulation were applied in the military before a thorough societal debate on benefits, risks and regulation.

To contain these risks, preventive limits are recommended in seven areas:
• Distributed sensors below several cm size should be banned.
• Metal-free small arms and munitions should not be developed. The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces should be kept and updated as new weapons sys-tems would arrive.
• A moratorium of ten years for non-medical body manipulation should be agreed upon.
• Armed autonomous systems should optimally be banned, with limits on unarmed ones; if the former is not achievable, at least for the decision on weapon release a human should remain in the loop.
• Mobile systems below 0.2 - 0.5 m size should be banned in general, with very few exceptions.
• A general ban on space weapons should be concluded.
• The Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions should be upheld and strengthened.

As the leader in military NT R&D, the USA has a crucial role concerning proliferation as well as arms control. Since the most dangerous military NT applications in the hands of opponent states or terrorists could threaten also the USA, preventive limits should be in its enlightened national interest.

In the long term, preventing misuse of NT and associated powerful technologies will re-quire very intense inspection rights and criminal law also on the international level, calling for strengthening all elements in the international system that move in this direction.


Jürgen Altmann
Experimentelle Physik III
Universität Dortmund
D-44221 Dortmund
Tel. +49-231-755-3520, -3513

Deutsche Stiftung Friedensforschung DSF
Am Ledenhof 3-5
49074 Osnabrück
Fon 0541-600 35 42
Fax 0541-600 790 39
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