Strategic Technologies for the Military: Breaking New Frontiers


Ajey Lele

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    To my son, Nipun


    This book is for everyone interested in the future of ‘security’. It is a bit about technologies which are finding their way on the battlefield right at this moment. The other bit is about the appreciation that how possibly such technologies could challenge the existing concept of the battlefield. The technologies addressed in this book are dealt with from a point of view of a person interested in this field and do not necessarily require technical background to understand them.

    The first problem faced by the author is the enormous length and breadth of the field in respect of every technology discussed here. Also, these technologies find their basis in various branches of sciences from physics to biology. It was a delicate task to appreciate the ‘art’ behind every ‘science’ which finally gets translated into ‘technology’. A huge mass of source material exists in respect of various technologies discussed here. However, when it comes to contextualising them at the backdrop of security, many gaps were found. This book is an attempt to contribute towards filling few of them.

    I owe thanks to Mr Narendra Sisodia, Director General, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) for allowing me to undertake this work and providing constant encouragement.

    I also would like to thank my parents for their support. Finally, thanks are due to my wife Dr Pramada not only for being there but also for useful discussions on various facets of science and technology.

  • Conclusion

    For states, preparing for war is an endemic progression. In the 21st century when states face both conventional as well as asymmetric threats, the logic for remaining geared-up all the time for any eventuality becomes more relevant than ever before. This book discusses a few important strategic technologies which are expected to help states for the preparation and subsequently to conduct future wars.

    For many centuries now, technology has been playing a dominant role towards deciding the overall ‘culture’ of war-fighting. The writings of General Carl von Clausewitz and the 18th century German idealist Immanuel Kant project that if war preparation is scientific, then the conduct of war, a fundamentally different activity, may be seen as artistic. This book has made an attempt to look at the scientific developments in a few fields at the backdrop of their relevance to warfare which could be termed as a social act in some sense.

    It has been found, in most of the technological areas discussed, that the issues related to civilian and military research and development (R&D) are merging together. It is argued that technologies that are the result of World War II, such as radar, the electronic computing, and so on, found their further utility in the civilian field and in a way revolutionalised the civilian technology field. In the 21st century, the trend appears to be reversing and the military applicability is now based on the results achieved in the civilian field. As per the available figures, the global spending on civilian R&D is almost 10 times more when compared to the global spending on military R&D.1 Hence, albeit the book discusses the developments and research undertaken in the military field, in reality the military demands could find quick solutions more from the civilian research. Hence, military analysts need to pay continuous attention at the developments taking place in the civilian area, too.

    1 Michael Brzoska, ‘Trends in Global Military and Civilian Research and Development and their Changing Interface’, 4, (accessed on 21 July 2008).

    In the 21st century, for the induction of any military technology, it is important to address two specific issues—‘arms control’ and ‘likely environmental damages’ that such technology may cause. In earlier chapters, the issues related to disarmament and arms control are discussed at relevant places. This has been done mainly because these issues form a part of the larger global discourse on security. Issues related to environment and global warming do not strictly form a part of the global discourse on defence but are extremely important and capable of stalling induction of any new technology in defence. Also, these issues are getting increasingly projected under the larger rubric of human security. Hence, it is essential to have knowledge about the environmental concerns in regard to modern military technologies. Military leadership need to factor in these issues in their technology assessment process. It is important to factor in these issues before planning the induction of any new technologies. Militaries need to take care that they do not come under any global flak for induction of environment unfriendly technologies.

    This chapter has four parts. The first part discusses the environmental concerns in regard to the technologies discussed in the previous chapters. The second part deals with the challenges ahead. The third part offers a ‘bird's eye view’ in regard to various technologies discussed in earlier chapters and the last part presents a few India-specific recommendations.

    Environmental Concerns

    It could be said that the 20th century was an amazing time to be alive. Telephones, aircrafts, cars, the personal computer, supercomputers, the Internet, human exploration of space and of course the harnessing of the atom, all these things were unimaginable in 1900, but by the year 2000 they became a routine.2 During the 20th century, mankind was able to establish the basic laws of nature and the growth of technologies took place in specific areas. The 21st century is predominantly being seen as a century where the applicability of basic sciences would be enhanced further by undertaking research in various ‘applied’ fields. Multidisciplinary research and amalgamation of a few technologies for the evolution of new techniques is expected to be the key area of focus of the 21st century. Unfortunately, this century also suffers from the curse of global warming and at times every new invention is being suspected for its environmental compatibility. Scientists and environmentalists are studying various emerging technologies from the point of view of understanding the damages they could cause to the environment. Here an attempt has been made to understand the environmental significance in respect of the few technologies discussed in earlier chapters.

    2 Graeme Stemp-Morlock, ‘The Biggest Challenges of the 21st Century’, Cosmos Online, 18 February 2008, (accessed on 7 August 2008).

    Wars are killers in many ways. Over the years, wars have played a dominant role towards destruction of environment in some form or other. Incessant aerial bombings have destroyed biodiversity and flora and fauna of various regions. Particularly, the war in Vietnam is a case in point. The environmental pollution caused by the burning of oil wells particularly during the 1991 Gulf War is well documented. Over the years, environmental damages are essentially being caused because of bombing of factories (particularly chemical factories), oil refineries, dams and storage facilities. Also, landmines have played a key role towards causing damage to arable land.

    Now, with the advent of new technologies, it has been noticed that the environment gets polluted not only because of the destruction carried out by various types of weapons to the critical infrastructure on the ground, but also because of the content of the munitions. History of warfare is replete with examples about how the weather conditions play a significant role towards the spread of chemical constituents of the weapon. However, the effects of such a spread used to be of temporary in nature though it has caused damages not only to human life but also to agriculture and water reservoirs.

    The ante was raised by global community particularly after the 1991 Iraq war about the long-term destruction caused to mankind and the environment by the ingredients used in munitions. The US Air Forces' armour-piercing projectile weapons were made from depleted uranium (DU).3 The health and environmental consequences of DU weapons are severe and enduring because of radioactive and chemically toxic nuclear waste product contained in it. DU is extremely long lived and hence the environment and the humankind could face its devastating effects for years to come.

    3 Ajey Lele, Weather and Warfare (New Delhi: Lancer, 2006), 170–78.

    In general, the society has learned that the past failures to forsee environmental consequences have been costly. It has happened in the case of semiconductor industry (metals, solvents), synthetic chemicals (PCB, DDT, Freon), applications of natural compounds (chlorine, asbestos) and energy (air pollution, global warming, nuclear wastes).4 This has taught the scientific community and environmental watch groups that small adjustments early in the trajectory of technology have large consequences. Hence, now the global community is trying to introduce the environmental perspective early into the culture of emerging technologies. Military analysts and technology developers need to factor in such type of global concerns about usage of military hardware while developing new weaponry with emerging technologies. At the same time, it needs to be emphasised that many emerging technologies provide opportunities to develop new techniques to measure, check, administer and minimise contaminants in the environment.

    In respect of nanotechnology, concerns are being raised about the potential risks from exposure to materials containing nanoscale particles (commonly known as nanomaterials). At present, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA or the agency) is involved in identifying the impact of nanotechnology on human beings and environment. Currently, the work is under progress to determine the effects of direct exposure to nanomaterials or their byproducts, associated with dispersive nanotechnology uses, on a range of ecological species (fish, invertebrates, birds, amphibians, reptiles, plants and microbes). Also, the research is being undertaken regarding the interaction of nanomaterials with microbes in sewage treatment plants in sewage effluent and the natural communities of microbes in soil and water.5

    Nanotechnology could be put in use to assess environmental contamination arising from a variety of sources and to carry out environmental remediation of the contaminated sites say radioactively contaminated sites or sites contaminated because of other reasons like spill of chemicals or in some cases because of some human induced viruses. It is expected that the high surface-to-volume ratio, high reactivity and small size of some nanoscale particles (for example, nanoscale iron) may offer effective and inexpensive solutions to environmental contamination. By infusing engineered nanoparticles into the ground, these characteristics can be employed to enable the particles to move more easily through a contaminated site and bond more readily with targeted contaminants.6

    4 Dr. Vicki Colvin, ‘Nanotechnology: Environmental Impact’, (assessed on 1 June 2008).

    5 The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, ‘Nanotechnology White Paper’ (External Review Draft, Science Policy Council U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, 2 December 2005).

    In respect of chemical terrorism, nanotechnology offers solutions against the usage of chemical agents like VX, HD, GD and GB. Some nanoparticle oxides like CaO, Al2O3 and MgO interact with such chemicals much faster than microparticles and are ideally suited for fast decomposition of such warfare chemicals.7

    Apart from nanotechnology, another technology that is expected to raise significant concerns about the environment is biotechnology. It is known that the future of biodiversity is highly dependent on reduction of greenhouse gases. Stabilising greenhouse gas levels is highly dependent on the type of energy used for various activities. The reduction of greenhouse gases requires replacing essentially all current fossil fuel based transportation and electricity production. Biologists advocating stabilisation needs to understand the costs and environmental consequences of possible alternatives. Of late, biofuels is emerging as a major answer to the global economic crisis. However, there is a need to factor in the potential impact of biofuel production on environment. Also, there is a need to keep a check on carbon released by the combustion of these fuels. To make biofuel production meaningful from the point of view of helping global energy crisis, it may require usage of enormous land area (almost up to twice the current area used for agriculture). Such usage would have a major impact on the remaining natural habitat and biodiversity.8

    A major criticism often levelled against such large-scale fuel production is that it can divert agricultural production away from food crops, especially in developing countries, and would challenge global food security. The most quoted example in the recent past is that of food shortages and price increases that Brazil suffered a few years ago. These were blamed on the ProAlcool programme (fuel ethanol). However, it is premature to jump to any specific conclusion on this subject. It needs more probing and analysis.9

    6 John F. Sargent, ‘Nanotechnology: A Policy Primer’, CRS Report for Congress, 20 May 2008, 4.

    7 Sulabha K. Kulkarni, Nantotechnology: Principles and Practices (New Delhi: Capital Publishing Company, 2007) and Sridhar K. Chari, Info-Nano-Bio Technologies, Their Coming Convergence, and the Implications for Security, NIAS Report, 2003, 258–259.

    8 Thomas E. Lovejoy and Lee Hannah, eds, Climate Change and Biodiversity (New Delhi: TERI Press, 2005), 390.

    On the positive side, biotechnology may help us to repair the environmental damages. Its ability to genetically engineer plants and bacteria to remove some contaminants from soil and water may aid in environmental cleanup. On the medical front, researchers believe that having the complete human genome to work with might help them to understand how environmental contaminants lead to cancer and other diseases and to figure out why some people are more susceptible than others.10 Such techniques if developed suitably may find some utility to the armed forces during their recruitment of human resources.

    Various environmental concerns have been raised in respect of genetically modified food crops. Scientists are concerned that engineered organisms might harm people's health or the environment. Possibilities exist that the engineered crops might contaminate the food supply with drugs, kill useful insects or could even endanger precious natural resources. From the point of view of military biotechnology, these issues may not be of direct relevance but since militaries are likely to use the benefits of biotechnology in their ration supplies to the troops such issues need to be factored-in before inducting any such food products into the military.

    Near Space technologies are mostly not expected to use any fuel; hence, unlike aircraft, such platforms would not cause emissions into the air as fuel is burnt. Normally, the concentration of burnt fuel from aircrafts is so diluted11 that when it reaches the ground it cannot possibly be responsible for causing any environmental problems. However, the same is not the case with aircrafts which fly in stratosphere.12 This is the place where the ozone layer exists. Usually aircrafts flying at such high altitudes could add to the depletion of the ozone layer. Near Space platforms are normally expected to reach altitudes above stratospheric heights but a few may even remain in stratosphere; and every flight of Near Space platform will travel via stratosphere. If the number of such platforms increases significantly in years to come, then a necessity would arise to analyse the impact of such platforms on the ozone layer.

    9 ‘Food or Fuel?’ (accessed on 14 July 2008).

    10 Robert Pool, Environmental Contamination, Biotechnology, and the Law (Washington: National Academies Press, 2001), 2.

    11 (accessed on 17 July 2008).

    12 The stratosphere is situated between 10 km (6 miles) and 50 km (31 miles) altitude above the surface of the earth.

    In respect of autonomous weapon systems, the debate has already started on ethical implications of such military apparatus. The present status of artificial intelligence is yet to make such robots capable of distinguishing between civilian and combatants, and this could be one of the reasons why we are yet to see huge deployment of robotic systems in wars. Incidentally, the 2003 Iraq war and further deployment of allied forces in Iraq saw a reasonable amount of induction of robotic systems, both in the form of UAVs or robotic machines on ground. Since the war is far from over and new induction of robotic machines is still continuing, it would be too premature to come to any conclusion about the environmental impact of such systems. Historically, it has been observed that the march of heavy military equipment on the terrain causes substantial damage to the ecosystem (more in respect of desert terrain). The robots in operation with a few militaries in the world indicate that such systems are not exceptionally heavy to cause substantial damage to the earth beneath it. However, they could put some pressure on ecosystem by damaging flora and fauna. The damage may increase when numbers of such systems are likely to increase in years to come and the nature of damage would depend on the physical structure and deployment patterns of such systems. War zones may remain littered with unserviceable robots (with batteries of various makes) and this further could add on to the environmental degradation of the region. Such issues have barely been addressed by environmentalists till date but in future it is likely to attract the attention of many environmentalists.

    The Challenges

    There could be several technical, cultural and environmental challenges that military scientists may face and they could be outside the scope of their ongoing research. Unfortunately, military research being inherently secret in nature, it may be difficult that the scientific community and military technology managers would share some of their experiences with others. But, it is important to share some of the experiences and ideas, which in the long run, if developed improperly can cause a considerable damage to humanity itself.

    The advanced technologies discussed here promise considerable savings over the long term, but they require significant investments in research and development. Also, a few of the technologies discussed here essentially can be categorised as enhancements applied to existing weapon systems and not as an innovative work in itself. Whichever way it may be, further growth in various technological fields discussed here is likely to strengthen the defence apparatus of states in the immediate as well as distant future. Understanding the impact these technologies may have on their military doctrines, the states need to remain prepared for the integration of these technologies once they are fully operationalised in their military hardware. In view of this, there would be a need to give strategic direction to the complete technology adaptation programme for individual states.

    Looking at the present state of growth of strategic technologies and investments made by states in the field of R&D, it is possible to argue that all future conflicts could be lopsided affairs in which the US would wield advanced weapons to gain swift victory against a puzzled foe. However, this may not be possible for two reasons: first, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq has shown that the technology per se never helps in gaining a total victory, it needs to be backed up by a sound conflict resolution policy, and second, the US investments may look very big but the investments alone do not always offer solutions. At present, many of these technologies that ‘constitute the technical part of the militarytechnical revolution are also being developed independently by many other states’.13 During the course of this study, it has been observed that states like Japan, China, Russia and a few European nations are developing various strategic technologies by doing significant investments with a well articulated roadmap.

    Any major breakthroughs in various strategic technologies are likely to disrupt the existing military industrial complex and military planning. In many cases, war doctrines may have to be rewritten. Interestingly, states are also looking at the same technologies for devising counter-measures to the weapons created by them. The major challenge likely to emerge would be in the form of devising techniques to control certain unhealthy (even when viewed from militaristic point of view) applications of such technologies.

    Technological advances have been an integral part of military development throughout history. Over the years, many dazzling technologies have found a place in the armed forces of various nation-states. Many technological predictions have been made, but all of them have not come true. Most notably, in spite of the revolution in military affairs and tremendous impact that the technological revolutions have made on modern militaries, still it is felt that the militaries have remained subservient to technology. The modern technologies have not reduced the amount of ‘work’ but, rather significantly, have changed the type of work performed by the soldiers. A few of the technologies discussed in the previous chapters demonstrate the potential for radical transformation. They will not only assist the militaries in their task, but may also perform the task on behalf of the militaries if the militaries desire so.14

    13 Steven Aftergood, ‘Monitoring Emerging Military Technologies’, Journal of the Federation of American Scientists 48. no. 1 (January/February 1995), (accessed on 24 February 2008).

    Delivering success from strategic technology is challenging. For states the most important issue should be time sequencing of activities. For states like India, which fall in the category of developing states having a strong technology base, there is a need to establish a process that could exploit this rapidly changing technology domain. The purpose should be to develop a technology strategy that would help to plan a road map for near-term and long-term needs. There is a need to look for international collaborations and modalities like transfer of technology, and so on. At present, the status of various strategic technologies being developed by a few states are at different levels of attainment and states should benefit from the research and development carried out by other friendly states.

    Technology Prophecy

    Previous chapters have discussed a few promising strategic technologies with military relevance. The following paragraphs offer a bird's eye view in regard to military efficacy of these technologies.

    Near Space technology is one of the least addressed areas of technology in the space technology arena. However, change is seen in the offing. States have understood that the financial costs of sustaining space dominance are enormously high but at the same time military demands are increasing multifold in this field. Given its economical viability, Near Space technology has the capacity to fill in the void and can be regarded as a ‘suitable’ replacement in a few areas of investment-intensive space technologies. The biggest militaristic advantage this technology offers is the launch-on-demand possibility. It is envisaged that this technology can play a major role in satisfying the tactical level demands of the militaries like communication and intelligence gathering. The technology also offers options for logistical support.

    14 Marcelo Dascal and Itiel E. Dror, ‘The Impact of Cognitive Technologies: Towards a Pragmatic Approach’, Pragmatics & Cognition 13, no. 3 (2005), 451–57.

    Military robotic technology is expected to change the nature of warfare in the coming decades. Modern militaries see robots not only as force multipliers but also as a promising ‘force’ in itself. There exists a very thin line between the science of robotics, the science of artificial intelligence and cognitive sciences. At present, robots are being increasingly used for services like perimeter defence system, intelligence and reconnaissance or even as a weapon system (UCAV/UGAV). Futuristic battlefield is going to depend hugely on deployment of standoff weapons, and virtual presence technology and robotic technology is expected to find increasing applicability on the battlefield. Robots also show promise for employability in counterterrorism scenario.

    Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) technology, which essentially consists of laser and microwave weapons, is one such area of military technology where scientists have achieved little success in comparison with the investments made. However, the trends during the last few years are encouraging particularly in the area of laser weapons. The technology development in coming years is expected to exceed its current use which is by and large restricted to target designation to improve the accuracy and performance of costly precision bombs. New laser weapon systems offer wide range of applicability from battle tanks to spacecrafts. Apart from its employment in conventional role the laser weapons have wider applicability—starting from its usage as a non-lethal weapon to satellite jammers to its employability in missile defence shield. The challenge is to successfully associate laser technology with the operational needs, keeping financial viability in mind.

    Nanotechnology has been regarded as one of the most promising technologies of the modern era and it is finding relevance in almost every field of the military. It offers vital military applicability in various areas like development of sensors, soldier protection kits and improvement in C4ISR structures. The technology has great significance towards development of more powerful but lightweight batteries, smart fabrics, and so on. It has got direct military applicability towards making toughened armour, producing tiny surveillance devices, improving the performance of UAVs/UCAVs and enhancing interfacing and targeting for soldiers and fighter/bomber pilots.

    Biotechnology is a technology which is expected to offer tremendous benefits to military in regard to simplifying its logistical requirements. However, from military point of view, biotechnology is a double-edged sword. The technology is useful in many ways for defence because of the vast applicability it offers in wide-ranging fields—from medicine to biocomputing to biofuels. At the same time, this technology is raising fears among many for its potential for developing designer bioweapons. However, the silver lining is that the science of biotechnology itself could offer countermeasures to such heinous weapons.

    Technologies studying soldier cognition and developing human computer interface are yet to evolve. However, once fully developed, they will have greater applicability in defence forces and will have a potential to change the present concept of war-fighting altogether.


    A few India-specific observations derived from various chapters are summarised in the succeeding paragraphs in the form of recommendations for Indian policy makers and military leadership with a purpose not to subordinate the ongoing planning process but just to suggest a method for progression.

    Recommendation 1

    In states like India, quality research work is being carried out only by a few clusters15 on various emerging technologies. However, no harmonisation of this work is being done to use it for strategic requirements. Though the expertise is available and various projects are being undertaken, the knowledge is scattered in snippets in various laboratories and an attempt needs to be made to complete the ‘collage’ from a security perspective. There is a need to start the process of dialogue and coordination among scientists and policymakers to get maximum benefit out of the investments made in both civil and military sectors. This may not be an easy task, but it is more pertinent than ever before to address the various emerging threats.

    Recommendation 2

    Near Space technologies have shown a lot of promise. Particularly, for states like India that have no global military aspiration, a technology is needed which can serve their limited purpose within the region and is a ‘suitable’ replacement for investment-intensive space technologies. Such relatively inexpensive vehicles flying in the Near Space environment could also complement satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles and could have immense utility for reconnaissance and communication applications. Such technologies, when fully developed, would also satisfy the ‘launch-on-demand’ necessity.

    15 This observation is made as a result of the author's personal visits to a few of the reputed technological organisations within India and discussions with scientists and academicians.

    Recommendation 3

    A revolution in nanotechnology has a potential to change the basic tenets of war-fighting. Currently the study of this technology falls in the realm of multidisciplinary research. The challenge in front of the military technocrats is to look for accomplishments of nanotechnology in various civilian fields and juxtapose them on military. This technology is still evolving and, for India, there has been a need to engage its military in the process of research, development and planning since the beginning. Currently, in India, a number of good works are being done in the area of aerogels. Military industry/DRDO needs to investigate it further for its military applicability.

    Recommendation 4

    Biotechnology brings out some amazing possibilities for military particularly in the area of sensor technology, biocomputing, protection of C4ISR and bioengineered materials. Medical applications of this technology have direct applicability for defence. Military medical community and civil medical community need to work together in this field. This could avoid duplication of work and would permit judicious utilisation of medical infrastructure and human resources.

    Recommendation 5

    Militaries are fuel guzzlers by design. For states like India overall energy requirements are bound to rise multifold in years to come. In such a scenario, military may think of investing in biofuels as an alternative source of energy. Available unused military land could be used to undertake biofuel related farming operations.

    Recommendation 6

    Laser weapons and microwave weapons show a great promise as weapons of future. Indian defence establishment is working on various utilities of solid state and gas dynamic lasers. With its proven overall technological base, India could think of investing in various other important laser-based technologies. Space-based lasers (SBL) have utility in negating ballistic missiles and is also capable of performing a variety of other collateral missions. India with its ‘no first use’ (NFU) nuclear policy needs a robust mechanism to address issues related with its nuclear deterrence. India could invest in SBL to cater to its strategic needs in the region.

    Recommendation 7

    Current usage of military robots by India is mainly in the form of UAVs or for landmine/explosive search. India is one of the worst sufferers from terrorism in the recent past and has lost many of its soldiers and civilians in such conflicts. There is a need for India to invest in those techniques of robotics which would make them more autonomous from the point of view of replacing soldiers (to an extent) from terrorism-related operations and intelligence gathering.

    Recommendation 8

    There is a need to look at nanotechnology, information technology and biotechnology together for their military utility.

    Recommendation 9

    The technologies discussed in earlier chapters are going to be multidisciplinary and they would, in future, be found extensively both in civil and military areas. Considering the huge investments in civilian research, it would be wise for defence scientists to borrow the results of researches carried out in civilian areas so that the cost and performance benefits can be obtained in the most cost-effective way.

    Recommendation 10

    There is a need to develop a mechanism for healthy exchange of research and development ideas and outputs among the civil and military R&D establishments. A nodal agency could be established to synergise the R&D efforts in various areas of technologies discussed here independently as well as in an integrated way.

    Recommendation 11

    Induction of various strategic technologies is going to pose a significant challenge to the arms control and disarmament regime. Proactive approach in this field will prove beneficial.

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    About the Author

    Wing Commander Ajey Lele is currently a Research Fellow with Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. His research interests include Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), Space Security and Strategic Technologies. He is a post graduate in Physics as well as Defence and Strategic Studies. He has obtained PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

    He has authored two books titled Bio-Weapons: The Genie in the Bottle (2004) and Weather and Warfare (2006). He has also contributed articles to reputed journals, websites and newspapers.

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