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Particle soldiers
Implications of nanotechnology in military applications

With the increase in advanced research and rapid use of nanotechnology for military purposes, the fundamental meaning of warfare is changing due to high level of success in developing lethal weapons and platforms which can withstand massive ordnance burst and cause high intensity damage.

Nanotechnology is giving the military application a new meaning which will give the user a range of options to destroy targets from thousands of miles away and use secret weapons which can be invisible to naked human eyes or even high speed sensors.

The world is becoming robotic and there is a keen interest that the weapons should be invisible. That can only happen if there is widespread research in nanotechnology for military purposes.

The nanotechnology (NT) will bring revolutionary changes in many areas, with the potential for both great benefits and great risks. Developments in the military could entail specific dangers, containment of which will need special analysis and effort.

Military research and development in NT is expanding rapidly. Potential future applications span all areas of warfare.

Special dangers to arms control and stability may arise from new biological weapons and micro-robots. For humans and society, non-medical body implants-possibly made more acceptable via the military-raise a number of problems concerning human nature.

Military activities often result in stuff being blown up. Blasts by high-tech weaponry could release toxic nano-particles (which already is the case with depleted uranium munitions) as well as large quantities of nano-engineered particles contained in both munitions and defensive weapons systems and armors.

Large-scale use of nanotech sensors could have an impact on the environment when these sensors start to degrade and engineered nano-particles leak into the soil.

Of considerable concern is the question to what degree military nanotech could lead to destabilization (when one military power develops a technology that others cannot effectively defend against) and undermine arms-control agreements like the Biological Weapons Convention.

From Europe to Asia, all major world powers are now investing and researching into the use of nanotechnology for materials and systems for military use.

The US Department of Defense’s spending on nanotechnology for military purposes. Countries are showing increasing focus on developing nano-products to be used in today’s warfare. Below there is a list of products which millions and millions of dollars has been put towards.

A nano-battle suit is being developed that could be as thin as spandex and contain health monitors and communications equipment.

Nanomaterials can also provide strength that far surpasses currently available materials, providing bullet shielding that’s much more effective.

These jumpsuit style outfits might even be able to react to and stop biological and chemical attacks. This protection and these devices would be integrated into one suit that would be more efficient and lightweight than current packs.

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.

Nanotechnological industry

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.

An all-out war between two powers possessing molecular nanotechnology would be disastrous to human life and natural resources.

Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) type principles may prevent many potential wars, since anything of value being fought over would most likely be destroyed in the process.

Military security implies the capacity of a nation to defend itself, and is defined as, a condition that results from the establishment and maintenance of protective measures that ensure a state of inviolability from hostile acts or influences.

Nanotechnology is the study and manipulation of the new properties that emerge as material dimensions are reduced the limits of the nanoscale.

The classical laws of Newtonian physics break down at this ultra-small scale and give way to quantum mechanics, resulting in remarkable differences in material behavior.

Scientists and engineers are able to exploit these unusual properties through nanostructured devices.

Nano effects

Nano is the direction of future technological progress, and military scientists and engineers have a duty to study these effects and apply what they learn to the protection of their people.

An overlap exists between so-called dual-use applications of nanotechnology such as advanced nanocomputers, energy production, and environmental remediation, etc., where military and industry can pool their resources and collaborate their efforts for mutual benefit.

All of the world’s major military players are heavily involved in research and development of nanotechnological materials and systems.

President Bill Clinton also advocated nanotechnology development. In a 21 January 2000 speech at the California Institute of Technology, Clinton stated, “some of these nanotechnology research goals will take 20 or more years to achieve. But that is why… there is such a critical role for the federal government.”

In 2001, the US Federal Government, determined to maintain technological supremacy in this area, created the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).

The NNI is the US Government’s interagency program for coordinating R&D and enhancing communication and collaborative activities in nanoscale science, engineering, and technology.

Military research

President George W Bush increased funding for nanotechnology further in 2003 by signing into law the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act.

Nanomaterials can be designed at the atomic level, lending more control over their properties, and making them better suited to their desired purpose. Most nanomaterials derive their enhanced abilities from the large increase in surface area that results when individual particle-size decreases.

Electronic active-camouflage provides the element of stealth. Metamaterial-based optical/EM invisibility suits & vehicle cloaks are close to reality.

Artificial muscles using deforming or contracting molecules provide organic movement in applications such as full-body robotic exoskeleton suits.

Nanostructured materials can make lighter armor, and extremely strong building materials. Nanofiber based duds offer enhanced protection against projectiles.

Much of the 60Kg load of a 21st century soldier comes from the many electronic devices needed for communications, etc.

One main goal of military research into nanomaterials is to reduce this load to 20Kg via the development of lighter, higher Gravimetric Energy Density (Wh/kg) batteries.

Nanotechnology offers a long list of potential alternatives for efficient, economical and sustainable power generation and storage.

Lithium-air (Li-air) is one next-gen rechargeable battery technology with the potential to replace the current tech standards, Lithium-ion (Li-ion), Nickel Metal-Hydride (NiMh) and non-rechargeable Lithium-Manganese Dioxide (LiMnO2).

Engineered nanomaterials and metamaterials that are stronger, lighter, have enhanced properties, are more heat-resistant and more compact are becoming possible.

Enhanced properties

Carbon nanotube/fullerene based materials offer a much higher strength-to-weight ratio than those currently employed.

Nanofabrics are currently being researched for use in military camouflage. A development called ‘active camouflage’ allows the wearer or object to blend into its surroundings.

Active camouflage uses panels and coatings that can change their appearance, from luminance and reflective properties to color.

This technology is perfect for military purposes as it provides complete concealment from visual detection. Interestingly, similar to a lot of nanotechnological breakthroughs, nature has been using the method for millions of years.

The cuttlefish uses a form of active camouflage to protect themselves from predators. Cuttlefish is known as the ‘chameleon of the sea’ due to its remarkable ability to change colour, which is what military corporations are trying to replicate.

Another development of nanotechnology, which is being used for military and protection purposes, is ‘liquid body amour’ in Kevlar vests.

Under normal conditions the new vest acts in a similar way to water. However upon impact it stiffens, thus providing adequate protection. The key component in the liquid armor vest is shear thickening fluid (or STF) which is what provides the vest with its strong properties.

STF is composed of hard particles, which are suspended in a liquid form. Nanoparticles of silica are highly important to the chemical make-up of this solution.

The combination of hard kevlar and the flowable STF components results in a material that is suitable for the future soldier. Liquid body amour gives the wearer an impact resistant vest from bullet damage to pointed objects such as needles and swords.

Indeed, the US DoD has shown the feasibility of creating a new class of weaponry-compact, powerful bombs that use nanometals such as nanoaluminum to create ultra-high burn rate chemical explosives an order of magnitude more powerful than conventional bombs.

Nanothermite or super-thermite is one example of such a Metastable Intermolecular Composite (MIC). Nano-weapons are any military technology that exploits the power of nanotechnology in the modern battlefield.

The United States, Russia, and Germany are currently in the R&D phase of nanotechnology-based mini-nuke devices.

Nuke devices

Some advanced technologies, such as super lasers could be used to trigger comparatively small thermonuclear fusion explosions in a mixture of tritium and deuterium.

An entire mini-nuke device could fit into a package weighing less than a few kilograms, and having an equivalent yield of less than a ton, to hundreds of tons of high-explosives (making them technically not Weapons of Mass Destruction.)

The devices would use very little to no fissionable material at all, resulting in virtually no radioactive fallout. By making nuclear weapons smaller, however, they become more likely to be used.

Just as nano techniques can be designed to deliver medicines to targeted locations within the human body, bioterrorists could use similar techniques to release highly toxic substances to the most vulnerable or desired target areas of the body.

Nano weapons will become obsolete almost immediately, needing to be upgraded or replaced continually.

As soon as a new weapon is designed and tested, it will be ready to go into service. Competition to develop or use molecular manufacturing could lead to a new arms race between nations.

Nanotechnology is likely to be extremely important in the future as it allows materials to be built up atom by atom. This can lead to the development of new materials that are better suited for their purpose.

There are several branches of nanotechnology, but most of them are in an early stage with the only nanotechnologies that are commercially available at present being ultra fine powders and coatings.

These are used in a variety of products including sunscreens and self-cleaning glass, but the list of materials being developed commercially using nanotechnology is likely to grow at a very fast rate.

Other forms of nanotechnology being developed include tiny sensors called nano-units, of which some simple types are available: ‘smart materials’ that change in response to light or heat; ‘nano-bots’ - tiny mobile robots that have yet to be developed but are theoretically possible; and self-assembling nano-materials that can be assembled into larger equipment.

Military applications

Military use of nanotechnologies in immediate use can be classified in three main ways. Militaries of many countries have established weapons with Nano-techs.

First, nano-materials massively damage the lungs. Ultra fine particles from diesel machines, power plants and incinerators can cause considerable damage to human lungs.

This is both because of their size (as they can get deep into the lungs) and also because they carry other chemicals including metals and hydrocarbons in with them.

Second, nano-particles can get into the body through the skin, lungs and digestive system. This may help create free radicals that can cause cell damage.

There is also concern that once nano-particles are in the bloodstream, they will be able to cross the blood-brain barrier.

Third, the human body has developed a tolerance to most naturally occurring elements and molecules that it has contact with. It has no natural immunity to new substances and is more likely to find them toxic.

Fourth, the most dangerous nano application use for military purposes is the nano bomb that contain engineered self multiplying deadly viruses that can continue to wipe out a community, country or even a civilization.

Militaries all around the world is about to embark upon the use of nano materials, nano bots and nanotechnologies that will make current Weapons of Mass Destruction look miniscule.

Alongside improvements in weaponry, come equal improvements in armor. Nanomaterials can be designed to create exceptionally strong armor.

Kryron Terminator ballistic body and vehicle armor, for example, is made from an aluminum alloy combined with carbon nanotubes. The ballistic armor plate is multi-impact capable, durable, lightweight, and available now.

Nanostructured materials can make lighter, stronger, and adaptive armor, and nanofiber based suits deliver improved protection against projectiles. “Smart-materials” may adapt to changes in light, temperature, pressure, or stresses, for instance.

As computers and electronics become nanocomputers and nanoelectronics, they will become a lot smaller/lighter and require much less power than they do today.

These improvements will lead to entirely new, once impossible, applications. Inexpensive, decentralized nets of sensors with computational and wireless communications abilities, known as “surveillance dust”, “smart matter”, or “smart-dust” due to its diminutive form-factor, will bring data-mining onto the battlefield, and into the age of NT.

Any algorithm that today requires a large supercomputer will be possible to run onboard a bullet or fit into an insect-size robot with room to spare.

Networks linking smart-dust, robots, UAVs, and other nanocomputer-enabled systems on the battlefield, paired with sensory/neural interfaces/
immersive virtual reality, will enable extremely high bandwidth telepresence.

Acceleration of the raw computational power available leads to a natural progression of Artificial Intelligence (AI) abilities.

Improved information processing modeled after the human brain may eventually give rise to machine systems with human-level thought processes.

A lead in current technologies, even current nanotechnology, is no guarantee of technological supremacy when it comes to molecular nanotechnology/nanofactories.

Advanced molecular manufacturing capabilities will, to a large extent, determine the future balance of power between nations.

Nanofactory-level molecular nanotechnology could bring between 100 to 1,000,000-fold increases in military capabilities. Nations lacking a molecular manufacturing ability will be at the mercy of opponents with this technology.

Molecular nanotechnology may dramatically alter the motivations for war. By making material wealth available to all nations, the incentive to attack an opponent to take what they have is greatly reduced.

This could result in reduced tensions, and increased national security. Conflict between advanced molecular manufacturing powers also carries with it a considerable amount of risk on both sides. Such a war would be disastrous to human life and the planet as a whole.

Sensible use

With this almost god-like control over the physical world comes immense responsibility for the human race to use this power responsibly; a test upon which rests the very fate of our species, and whose outcome remains to be elucidated.

Despite their potential as engines of destruction, nanotechnology and AI systems will lend themselves to more subtle uses than do nuclear weapons.

A bomb can only blast things, but nanomachines and AI systems could be used to infiltrate, seize, change, and govern a territory or a world.

Self-replicating assemblers could be used to build vast arsenals of advanced weapons, or fleets of small inexpensive attack robots, very quickly. In the wrong hands, this could be used to enable more malicious means of harming large numbers of people.

Ultra-long-term possibilities of nanowarfare are more difficult to predict, however a few possibilities can be seen from 2012.

Space is the logical next-frontier for technologically advanced human beings. Sci-fi sounding possibilities such as the redirecting of comets or asteroids to impact earth intentionally, robotic soldiers, and nanobots are among the technologically feasible.

This may also be a useful method of managing threats in an age of nanotechnological warfare. Nano weapons designed to attack the enemy would not be developed, while (less glamorous and often more complex) technologies intended to protect against these threats would be pursued from every conceivable angle.