Nanotechnology & the New Arms Race

Nanotech Cover

Posted: June 12, 2017 | By: Gregory Nichols


The 100th anniversary of the day the United States entered into World War I is a good time to evaluate how the scientific enterprise is often used to develop technologies that find their way into combat and how those technologies change the face of warfare itself. World War I saw the introduction of the flamethrower, the tank, the airplane and radio into war as well as the first largescale use of chemical weapons. [1]

Each of these technologies were developed many years before the outbreak of the war in 1914, but World War I was the first venue in which they could be adapted to combat. Likewise, radiation was first discovered in the late 1890s, but it was not until World War II that it was weaponized. Unfortunately, these examples illustrate that many technologies, even if originally developed for beneficial purposes, are often weaponized in some way.

The advent of a new technology, nanotechnology, promises improved economies but also presents challenges to the security environment by creating a new arms race sparked by scientific research.

Figure 1: Some nanomaterial characteristics that could affect risk. (Courtesy of the U.S. Government Accountability Office/Released)

Nanotechnology as a Weapon of War

In general, nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter using specialized tools to create new structures and materials with at least one dimension measuring between 1 and 100 nanometers. At this scale, materials have unique physiochemical properties, and it is this aspect of nanotechnology that can either create wonderful benefits for humanity or potential weapons of war. Military spending on nanotechnology has been reported by several countries, including China, France, India, Iran, Israel, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Russia, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. [2] Breakthroughs in nanotechnology have already led to new developments in camouflage, stealth and armor, [3] and this development will continue. However, there is also continued concern for the misuse of nanotechnology. Civilian and military research on emerging technologies has been overlapping, which has caused some to fear a reduction in transparency and that nanotechnology could be misused to make weapons of mass destruction. [4] Weapons made with nanotechnology (nanoweapons) could potentially be found in five different forms:

  1. Augmented varieties of existing weapons types
  2. Tiny machines, such as robots, that could create new types of destruction
  3. Hyper-reactive explosives due to extremely small particle sizes and unique physicochemical properties
  4. Pathogens and chemicals linked to nanomaterials creating new types of hybrid chem-bioweapons with more efficient delivery systems
  5. Materials with superior electromagnetic properties that could cause disruption to the electrical grid and communications infrastructure

In 2008, at the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference in Oxford, participants were given a survey regarding their opinions on different types of disasters that could happen by 2100. One quarter of participants answered that molecular nanoweapons would be responsible for the death of at least 1 million people, and 10 percent of participants believed at least 1 billion people could die from the same fate. [5] It has even been argued that nanotechnology could be used to create the next generation of nuclear weapons. [6] More recently, there has been concern regarding the convergence of nanotechnology with other emerging technologies, such as biotechnology and synthetic biology, to create a new type of biological weapon. [7] Nanotechnology seems to be a key target for many nations in terms of changing the landscape of politics and war.

United States

The United States has taken the lead in nanotechnology research, particularly for defense applications. So far, most of these developments have used nanotechnology to enhance existing weapons types. For example, a patent was filed in 2009 for an advanced armor-piercing projectile partially constructed of a material known as NanoSteel, [8] which is composed of nanoscale particles of austenitic and ferritic stainless steels. [9] The U.S. military accounts for 90 percent of global military nanotechnology research and development spending, [2] establishing the Department of Defense (DoD) as the largest military spender on nanotechnology research in the world. In 1995, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. David Jeremiah stated that military applications of molecular manufacturing have greater potential to change the balance of power than even nuclear weapons. [10] The DoD has spent approximately $5 billion on nanotechnology research since 1999, [11] and most of the funding has been directed to eight organizations: the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Office of Naval Research, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Defense Threat Reduction Agency, U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering.

The DoD has established two institutes solely dedicated to defense-related nanotechnology research. The Institute for Nanoscience was established at the Naval Research Laboratory in 2001 to conduct multidisciplinary research at the nanoscale, and the U.S. Army established the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies in 2002 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to conduct basic and applied research to create new materials, devices, processes and systems and to transition promising results toward practical products useful to the warfighter. [12] In 2016, the DoD announced a $75 million investment in the Revolutionary Fibers and Textiles Manufacturing Innovation Institute at MIT, where nanomaterials will play a significant role. [13]

China, Russia and Iran

The worldwide growth of nanotechnology has been unprecedented compared with other technologies. China, Russia and Iran have demonstrated extremely strong growth as evidenced by increased collaboration in science, education and business ventures centered on nanotechnology. In late 2016, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work commented that Russia and China were competitors because they are developing advanced capabilities that worry the United States. [14] In particular, a new type of race regarding nanotechnology has been brewing between the two powers for more than 15 years, with each exploring the use of the technology for military applications. [15]

China has been interested in military applications of nanotechnology for nearly as long as the United States. In 1996, Maj. Gen. Sun Bailin of the Chinese Academy of Military Science wrote an article, “Nanotechnology Weapons on Future Battlefields,” in which he described potential applications of nanotechnology in warfare. [16]

In 2002, a major nanotechnology conference supported by the People’s Liberation Army General Equipment Detachment and the National Defense Science and Engineering Committee was held in Beijing. [17] China has several programs aimed at developing new technologies for a variety of uses. Most notably are the 863 Program (National High Technology Research and Development Program), which stimulates the development of advanced technologies in a wide range of fields, singling out nanotechnology as a priority, and the 973 Program (National Basic Research Program), which “seeks to improve capacity for innovation” and also has projects involving nanotechnology. [18]

Additionally, Russia has focused efforts on nanotechnology in two major areas. First, through its Rusnano Corporation, Russia aims to commercialize major achievements in nanotechnology and turn them into viable businesses.

Rusnano was formed in 2011 following the reorganization of the Russian Nanotechnologies Corporation, which was a state-owned entity established in 2007. The platform for Rusnano uses the capacities of Russian science and the transfer of advanced foreign technologies. [19] Second, in 2012, Russia established the Russian Foundation for Advanced Research Projects, which focuses on high-risk research and is modeled after DoD’s DARPA, to develop weaponry and defense systems that could be used by 2025/2030. [20] One project, the Integrated Protective Soldier Systems, will combine nanotechnology with advances in body armor and exoskeleton technology to create a force-multiplier for Russian troops.

In 2007, Russia announced the development of a bomb nicknamed the Dad of All Bombs. It is four times more powerful than the previously most powerful bomb, the U.S. Massive Ordinance Air Blast (MOAB) nicknamed the Mother of All Bombs. [21] This weapon is the largest non-nuclear bomb, containing less explosives than the MOAB with the ability to create a blast radius twice as large as that of the MOAB. What sets this bomb apart is that the explosives were designed with the use of nanotechnology.

The working theory is that the smaller particles are more reactive and thus a smaller volume is needed to produce an equally large, if not larger, explosion than the same or larger volume of explosives with larger particles. Weapons technology such as this could revolutionize how ordinance is manufactured.

Iran has been actively engaged in nanotechnology research since 2002 when the Nanotechnology Initiative Council was founded. [22] In 2004, a center for nanotechnology research was established in Isfahan, which is a defense and research focal point of Iran where the Iranian nuclear program is based. [18] The steady growth of nanotechnology development in Iran, even in the face of economic sanctions, has moved Iran into the top ranks of nanoscience placing it among the likes of the United States and China. [23]

Stopping an Attack

Nanotechnology is often referred to as a “dual-use” technology in that most of the legitimate uses of the technology could also be misappropriated. Not all of the interest in nanotechnology gravitates toward weapons development. Quite a bit of the nanotechnology research worldwide seeks to understand applications of nanotechnology for non-military use as well as countermeasures, particularly for CBRN defense. As with any technology, there is the chance that individuals or groups could use nanotechnology for nefarious purposes – if they have not done so already. The challenge is twofold: how to deter the weaponization of nanotechnology without stifling beneficial research; and, if nano-enabled weapons are developed and/or used, how to detect and counter them.

Most experts agree that existing treaties and policies regarding humanitarian protections and those that ban the development and use of chemical and biological weapons are mostly sufficient to cover the use of nanotechnology for weapons developments. However, holes still remain as the concept of nanotechnology could possibly evade parts of some of these conventions. [24,25,26] Still, until the legal/regulatory debate is ironed out, the possibility of nanoweapons lingers. Several recommendations from the Partnership for Peace Consortium’s Security Challenges Working Group provide a good starting point for being prepared for the use of nanotechnology in weaponry:

  • Raise awareness of developments that could threaten the security of a state, society and individual
  • Increase awareness of the dual role of emerging technologies and their unintended consequences
  • Promote partnerships with [nongovernmental organizations], think tanks, academia and industry to increase analytical capacities available to policy institutions
  • Identify and address [emerging security challenges, (ESC)] issues now, even if the threat seems to be remote
  • Build ESC into national curricula and have it addressed within national institutions [27] A key way to minimize the likelihood that nanotechnology will be misused is to create a culture of responsible research and innovation, which is “an approach that anticipates potential implications and societal expectations with regard to research and innovation” and aims “to foster the design of inclusive and sustainable research and innovation.” [28] Responsible research and innovation involves researchers, citizens, policy makers and organizations working together to improve research and innovation outcomes aligning with societal values and expectations. Creating communities of practice centered around what it means to innovate responsibly ensures that researchers and innovators are held accountable for their actions, keeping them in check against the needs of the communities they serve.


Existing military applications of nanotechnology primarily include defensive gear, countermeasures, armor, medications, new high-yield explosives and enhancements to existing classes of weapons. It does not appear that fundamentally new types of weapons have been developed with nanotechnology. However, with global military interest and high levels of defense spending on nanotechnology, particularly with nations such as China, Russia, Iran and the United States, a true nanoweapon is bound to be developed and possibly even used at some point in the near future. The first step to ensuring that more advanced weapons development does not occur is to promote awareness of the potential for nanotechnology to be used as a weapon and to create a culture centered on responsible research and innovation with the hope that nothing further would be needed. The second step is to begin
preparing for attacks involving advanced nanoweapons in case the first step fails.


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