Nanoscience focuses on the design and creation of molecular systems that work on the nanoscale. It manipulates materials at an atomic level in a way that alters how substances work at the macroscale.
It is a science that includes several disciplines, including chemistry, physics, biology, material science, and engineering. Because of this wide field of application, it is also being applied to develop the weapons, armour, and defence systems of the future.
The development of such nano-weapons varies from tiny robotic machines and highly reactive explosives to electromagnetic super-materials and stealth coatings.
The advances in this branch of technology will create new hazards and consequences, which global institutions will regulate and counteract, much as the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954 attempted to limit nuclear research. But any legislation and protocols made will always need to be updated to keep up with the fast pace of the research being conducted.
Nanotechnology has been widely and quickly used in the defence industry over the last two decades, with China, the United Kingdom, Russia, and most notably the United States all funding the military use of nanomaterials. While the US government is a clear national leader in the development of nanotechnology, it is being increasingly challenged by foreign competition as recognition of this science has grown in publicly and commercially funded research.
The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative
In order to direct funds toward the advancement of nanoscience and associated technologies, with a strong emphasis on utilizing the potential of nanoweapons, the US government established the National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2000. Since then, the US has expanded its initial plan to coordinate the use of nanotechnology across all branches of the military. The US government alone invested over $19.4 billion in nanoscience between 2001 and 2014 with many in the private sector also seeing value in nanomaterial technology.
Looking ahead, the United States plans to maintain its position as global leader in nanotechnology through national cooperation, productivity, and competitiveness, specifically in passing the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003.
China and Nanotechnology in Defence
The Chinese defence budget is still some way behind that of the United States, but as the world’s second largest investor in nanotechnology the Chinese military is a key player in the development of nanomaterial-enhanced weapons.
For example, in 2018, researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing published a study showing how modified carbon nanotubes could withstand a weight of over 800 tonnes on a sample measuring only 1cm3. While this could have multiple uses in the construction or manufacturing sectors, the defence applications are also clear and being worked on. This is in line with Chunli Bai, Vice President at the Chinese Academy of Science's stated aim of closing the gap between ‘basic research and application’ in order for China be more globally competitive.
Much of this research focuses on relatively benign advances, such as more durable coatings with enhanced chemical resistance and electro-conductivity. Or nano-structured silicate used as an insulating material but manipulated in such a way as to significantly reduce weight.
This is a common theme for nanotechnology in both civilian and military sectors where nanomaterials are used to improve existing designs. Adding properties such as low weight, increased flexibility or rigidity, enhanced durability, added sensing devices, self-repair, or the manipulation of electromechanical properties. For military purposes this can be applied in many ways, such as improving ship and aircraft performance, strengthening tank or personal body armour protection, or by creating more secure communication systems.
However, defence industry development has always been top secret, meaning that little is known about exactly what progress is being made by any nation. As a consequence, nanotechnology breakthroughs which could upset the balance of power make everyone nervous.
As Margaret Kosal, author of Military Applications of Nanotechnology: Implications for Strategic Security, noted way back in 2014, “A lack of transparency about an emerging technology not only negatively effects public perception but also negatively impacts the perceived balance of powers in the existing security environment.”
Nanomaterials have seemingly endless possibilities in both civilian and military life. Yet like all progress in technology, the consequences are never truly known in advance.