5 Ways Nanotechnology Will Change Warfare

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You may not have heard the term “nanotechnology,” but chances are you use several nanotech products every day without realizing it. First outlined as a concept in 1959, nanotechnology involves the manipulation of matter at the molecular level, yielding materials that take on very different, sometimes amazing qualities. This technology is now used in hundreds of everyday consumer products, in everything from smart-phone touch screens to clothing. So it should be no surprise that the U.S. military has for years been studying ways to use nanotechnology to its advantage. Some nanotech products, such as better protective vests for soldiers, are already on the battlefield. Other concepts — think cloaking devices for ships — are still years away. But the ultimate future of nanotechnology in warfare may be too horrific to imagine, with some futurists predicting a nanotech war might be a scenario worse than nuclear Armageddon.


5. New Materials Will Lead to Better Protective Vests and Uniforms

The Improved Outer Tactical Vest is lighter and much stronger than old protective vests.

A soldier wears a nanotech-based tactical vest while on patrol in Iraq; USAF photo

Protecting soldiers in combat while maintaining their mobility is a big concern for military leaders and nanotechnology has already produced lighter, stronger body armor. The newest generation of Improved Outer Tactical Vest (IOTV) can stop rifle rounds and shrapnel more effectively, yet is 3 pounds lighter than vests manufactured just a decade ago. Nanocomp Technologies Inc. is manufacturing an ultra-thin material from carbon nanotubes. Nanocomp says that 100 sheets of this material, which resembles carbon paper, has the thickness of a few business cards, but can stop a 9mm bullet. Future vests will likely do much more than stop projectiles. The U.S. military has partnered with MIT, through the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, to develop vests that may be as light as spandex, but can also monitor a soldier’s health, help compress wounds and administer first-aid drugs, and immediately sense and react to chemical and biological threats.


4. Miniature Drones Will Increase Surveillance Options

Nanotechnology is making possible ever-smaller drones.

The Nano Hummingbird weighs less than a Double A battery; DARPA

During the last decade unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have become an almost ubiquitous part of U.S. military operations. The demands of the War on Terror are pushing the technology in different ways, including miniaturization. UAV manufacturer AeroVironment has developed a new generation of Nano Air Vehicles that resemble large hummingbirds. These drones weigh less than a Double A battery and are able to conduct surveillance even indoors. Other researchers have demonstrated insect-sized drones the size of a quarter.


3. Nanotechnology Will Create a New Class of Ships and Vehicles

The U.S. government is working to develop vehicles that drive like a Humvee but could transform into a vertical-takeoff aircraft.

Nanotechnology may help make possible Transformer-type ground-to-air vehicles; DARPA

Half a century ago, a little-known U.S. defense agency known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), developed the earliest versions of the Internet and the Global Positioning System. Today, borrowing a page from popular culture, DARPA operates something known as the Transformer (TX) Program, which is striving to build a Transformer-type vehicle that can drive like a truck but rearrange itself into a helicopter. One of the problems is that the hinges and hardware needed to make this transformation are very heavy, which has obvious drawbacks. New nanomaterials that change shape when voltage is applied could make these vehicles possible in the near future. Other future advances in nanotechnology might make it possible to build large ships that could be operated by a crew of a few dozen, rather than thousands of sailors. Finally, you have the Holy Grail in nanotechnology for the military: Cloaking devices made of metamaterials that could hide troops, vehicles or even a ship. The technology is still in its infancy, but every month seems to bring another demonstration of scientists showing off advances in this field.

Current applications of nanotechnology aren’t as exciting as a fleet of Transformers, but that makes them no less useful to the military. Ships and submarines are plagued by the unrelenting corrosive power of salt water and it costs the Navy hundreds of millions of dollars every year to maintain and repair the fleet. Nano-enhanced ceramic coatings are being applied to metal hulls and machinery to reduce wear and tear and extend the life of ships. The U.S. Air Force is looking at ways to use carbon nanotube polymer composites to make aircraft wings that can change shape to improve flight characteristics.


2. Nano Computers Would Have Countless Uses on the Battlefield

Nanoprocessors will revolutionize the computer industry.

Microscopic nanocubes developed in research for nanoprocessors; BASF

According to Moore’s law, computer-processing power doubles roughly every two years. Today’s microcomputers bear this out, but nanotechnology promises to revolutionize computers. Microprocessors could soon be replaced with nanoprocessors using exotic biochemical and quantum technologies. Nanocomputers could be incorporated into bullets, creating a projectile capable of correcting its path in flight, like a mini cruise missile. Or imagine tiny computers the size of dust particles that could be released into buildings or into the air to monitor enemy activity. These smaller, more powerful nanoprocessors will also result in great leaps in artificial intelligence, leading to more advanced robots.


1. Nanotechnology Could Make War Unthinkable, Leading to Peace

Could the threats posed by nanotechnology lead to the end of war?

Some scholars believe the perils of future warfare will lead to lasting peace; Jonathon Colman

The policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) during the Cold War era helped prevent nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union by promising to utterly destroy both sides regardless of who fired the first missile. Some experts believe that the use of nanotechnology in the military could have a similar deterrent effect. Some futurists worry that nanotechnology will create scenarios even more frightening than nuclear war. Imagine a country — or terrorist group — releasing armies of malicious nanobots that can self-replicate at a geometric rate. Nanotechnology pioneer Eric Drexler contends in his book Engines of Creation, “…to destroy all life with [nano] replicators would require only a single speck made of ordinary elements.” This kind of awesome power would have to be wielded with the utmost care or the dark science fiction scenarios of machines wiping out mankind could be our future.

Ironically, these very threats posed by nanotechnology advances could make countries more reluctant to engage in war in the future. Of course, we heard this same argument decades ago, about how the destructive power of the atomic bomb would result in lasting peace.



Here’s an excellent reference from the University of Wisconsin, explaining the difficult subject of nanotechnology in laymen’s terms.


Written by

Mike Phelps earned a B.A. in history from the University of Connecticut and an M.A. in military history from Norwich University. He published a book about the War on Terror called A Short History of the Long War.