Nanotechnology promises to revolutionize many aspects of our everyday lives. Molecular manufacturing will miniaturize the battlefield, transforming the way future wars are fought.
The U.S., of course, aims to be the first nation to develop nanoweaponry and has been in the process of developing such technologies for at least 4 years. MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN) was established in 2002 with $50 million of funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It aims to “create a 21st century battlesuit that combines high-tech capabilities with light weight and comfort…that monitors health, eases injuries, communicates automatically, and maybe even lends superhuman abilities.”
The ISN is a multidisciplinary facility with 7 research teams, each of which is working on different aspects of the battlesuit of the future.The objectives of one of the teams are to “demonstrate new organizational principles between polymers…develop nanotruss polymeric structures…design and synthesize segmented copolymers that mimic spider silk…[and] design and optimize lightweight material assemblies” for the development of “energy-absorbing nanomaterials…[to] provide protection against ballistics and directed energy”.
Another team is developing mechanically active materials and devices, such as “block polymers [for] self-assembling nanostructures with enhanced switching speeds…[to] achieve control of a material’s properties…allow[ing] a transformation from a flexible and compliant material to a non-compliant material that becomes armor…[and which] can also be transformed into a reconfigurable cast that stabilizes an injury such as a broken leg…apply pressure to a wound, function as a tourniquet, or even perform CPR when needed”.
There is a focus “on using nanotechnology to improve the way we detect and treat life-threatening injuries”. For example, “biomedical monitoring will be able to use ultrasound to detect a hemorrhage…and cauterize vessels to staunch the bleeding…nanomaterials [will] instantaneously change their properties…thereby controlling the delivery and release of life-saving medications.” The future battlesuit might also contain “mechanical actuators…as exo-muscles for augmentation of a soldier’s physical strength…electronic polymers [as] ultrasensitive sensors for detecting explosives, nerve gas, nitric oxide and the DNA of specific biological agents…[and] responsive fabric coatings [to] neutralize…bacterial contaminants”.
MIT researchers are collaborating on some of these projects with several large companies, including DuPont and Raytheon, one of the world’s largest defence contractors. DARPA, whose “mission is to maintain the technological superiority of the U.S military…by sponsoring revolutionary, high pay-off research,” has other projects in the pipeline.
One of these planned projects is the development of remote-controlled cyber-insects. Pentagon scientists are aiming to make microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) which can be placed into pupa-stage insects, and have asked for innovative bids from interested parties.
“Through each metamorphic stage, the insect body goes through a renewal process that can heal wounds and reposition internal organs around foreign objects,” states the research proposal document.
The MEMS would be integrated into the nervous sytem of the developing insect, allowing the mature organism to detect chemicals such as explosives, or transmit data about its surroundings. DARPA believes that there could eventually be “assembly-line fabrication of hybrid insect-MEMS interfaces”. Some experts think the idea is feasible, while others say it is “ludicrous”. In the past, DARPA researchers tried using bees and wasps to detect explosives, but the “instinctive behaviours for feeding and mating [of the insects]…prevented them from performing reliably”.
A few of the technologies mentioned above are already available. DARPA has recently funded the successful development of neural implants that can control the movements of dogfish, and MIT materials scientists have developed a morphing material which changes shape when an electric current is passed through it.
The ISN’s vision of the future soldier and DAPRA’s plans for remote-controlled cyber-insects are but two aspects of the wider transformation of the U.S. military into a lighter and more agile force. The U.S. is now the world’s sole hyperpower, with unprecedented military strength and global reach. If a rival power, such as China, for example, were to develop sophisticated nano-weaponry, it would undoubtedly gain military superiority over the U.S. or any other nation-state. There will, therefore, be a new arms race. It will be a race to develop an army equipped with nano-weapons, nano-enabled biotechnology and nano-computing. Given the current political climate, it seems unlikely that there will be any regulation of these new technologies.