Breakthroughs in neuroscience shaping the new frontier of weaponry

From neurotropic drugs that can manipulate moods of the enemy or intelligence that can forecast crowd behaviour, new arms control efforts are needed.

Within the arena of security and defence, one sees a long history of technological developments in weaponry by states and non-state actors, many of which are stunning in their capacities. Within recent decades, such weapon developments include missiles that can reach the other side of the world with almost pinpoint accuracy. We now have software code and malware that can begin discombobulating factory equipment in far away places almost instantaneously. Micro air vehicles the size of insects can now carry out reconnaissance missions in otherwise inaccessible urban areas and caves. There are robotic weapons that can sense, think, and act on their own, or consider the explosive yield of a nuclear detonation, which was 50 megatons for the Soviet Union’s 1961 Tsar Bomba nuclear weapons test, well over 3,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.

Another class of weaponry, which I would include among the stunning applications of technologies to national security and defense, is neuroweaponry. Building upon Merriam-Webster’s definition of a weapon as “a means of contending against another” and “something used to injure, defeat, or destroy,” Wurzman and Giordano characterise neuroweaponry as achieving one or more aspects of the Merriam-Webster definition by “altering the functions of the nervous system, so as to affect cognitive, emotional and/or motor activity and capability.” Given this definition, neuroweapons are not new; they include chemical or biological weapons designed to disrupt breathing or the nervous system, such as nerve gas, pharmaceuticals to help sleep-deprived troops remain awake, for example stimulants, or enemy agents to fall asleep, sedatives, or sleep deprivation techniques to improve results from interrogation.

What is new, are breakthroughs in neuroscience that are ushering in innovative weapons possibilities within the national defence and security apparatuses of states. In addition to continuing concerns about extant neuroweapons, serious ethical reflection, policy debate, and international cooperation seem quite necessary in the realm of emerging neuroweapons.

New and possible future neuroweapons include the enhancement of neural and cognitive capabilities of intelligence personnel and troops through brain-machine interfaces (BMI) and machine-brain interfaces (MBI), respectively. There will be improved forecasting of crowd or enemy behaviour through BMI and applications of brain imaging technologies to representative or key individuals. Applications of neuroscience will be able to better recognise and potentially manipulate people-group identities and norms across cultures.

The deployment of neuropharmacologic, neurobiologic, and neurotoxic agents could be used to dull aggression or disrupt self-perception among enemy troops and neurotropic drugs could alter the moods or perceptions of foreign diplomats. Pharmaceuticals could be used to improve the performance of one’s own troops in the field.

McCreight raises the issue of whether neuroweapons might be an emerging new dimension of warfare. Assume land, sea, air, outer space, cyberspace, and human cognition and autonomic behaviour are six dimensions of war. McCreight questions whether neuroweapons might be part of the sixth dimension of war or even be a seventh dimension because neuroweapons seem to be “rooted in psychology, perception, and interpretation of phenomenon that go beyond behavioral and autonomic responses and actions.”

Consider what may be the greatest understatement in the neuroweaponry literature: “The use of such neuroweapons … is unlikely to result in lasting peace.”  Can current and future developments of neuroweapons be handled globally in a relatively cooperative manner in which, possibly, taboos emerge on the creation, deployment, and use of such weapons? Alternatively, will such weapons developments occur under more militaristic conditions? New and greater efforts will be needed in this emerging weapons space for the former trajectory to win out over the latter.
The national security establishments of some nations are influenced by what Buzan characterises as the technological imperative: “States … face the constant worry that their rivals will gain a military advantage by being the first to adopt a decisive technological breakthrough. Such conditions create relentless pressure on states to lead, or at least to keep up with, the pace of change by continuously modernizing their armed forces.” Weapons developments are rationalised within national security establishments of some states under the “shadow of the technology imperative” and thought of as follows:

“If we don’t research and develop the weapons, they will, so we must”.

Of course, when multiple states follow such a rationalisation, the resulting technology and arms rivalry is unlikely to be collectively rational for the group of weapons-developing nations. At minimum, such technology races can be quite costly, even if the new class of weaponry is never used. At worst, such weapons can potentially increase the risk of war in a crisis and preemptive strike reasoning: “we better attack and cognitively disable their troops before they attack and cognitively disable our troops”.

Arms control efforts in neuroweaponry are not only warranted, but even urgent, given the potential high costs associated with arms technology rivalry and the uncertain trajectories that may unfold in neuroscience and its defence applications in the years ahead. Already, arms control policy and commentary associated with the Biological Toxins and Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention are taking note of developments in neuroscience and neuroweaponry , but such efforts seem small given the magnitude of what might lie ahead.

The opinions expressed throughout this article are the opinions of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Vision of Humanity or the Institute for Economics & Peace. 

Charles Anderton

Charles H. Anderton

Charles Anderton is Professor of Economics and Garrity Professor of Ethics and Society, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. His recent publications include ‘Principles of Conflict Economics: The Political Economy of War, Terrorism, Genocide, and Peace’ and Economic Aspects of Genocides, Other Mass Atrocities, and Their Prevention.

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