Special Report

Nanotechnology promises to bring revolutionary changes in many areas, with the potential for great benefits. Nanotechnology (NT) is predicted to produce revolutionary changes, bringing far-reaching consequences in many areas. Scientists are using nanotechnology to create materials with properties that will revolutionize military technology, from processors to display screens and body armor to air filters. Molecular manufacturing will miniaturize the battlefield, transforming the way future wars are fought. It is generally agreed that advances in nanotechnology will drive the next paradigm shift in science and technology.

As with most new technologies, military applications of nanotechnology are likely to be the first to be realized. The main aims of military research into nanotechnology are to improve medical and casualty care for soldiers, and to produce lightweight, strong and multi-functional materials for use in clothing, both for protection and to provide enhanced connectivity.

Military types haven’t failed to notice that nanotechnology could make a big difference to how troops function, travel, and stay safe. The options range from what the well-dressed soldier will wear to methods for making aircraft that can change shape while the plane is in flight. Nanotechnology is an enabling technology for the new classes of sensors, communications, and information processing systems needed for qualitative improvements in persistent surveillance.

All of the world’s major military players are heavily involved in research and development of nano technological materials and systems. Militaries are busy in creating 21st Century battle suit that combines high-tech capabilities with light weight and comfort, that monitors health, eases injuries, communicates automatically, stop bullets, detect chemical, biological agents, monitor a wounded soldier’s vital signs, administer basic first aid, and communicate with Headquarters and maybe even lends superhuman abilities to soldiers.

Evolving technology

Body Armor made of Carbon Nano Tube (CNT) is 117 times stronger than steel, these can be used for bullet proof, helmets and safety device bullet-proof vests are basically made from high stiffness and toughness, woven or laminated, polymeric fibers stacked in a number of layers. Upon impact of the striking bullet, the fabric material absorbs the energy by stretching of the fibers and the stiff fibers ensure that the load is dispersed over a large area throughout the material. CNT is an ideal candidate material for bulletproof vests due to its unique combination of exceptionally high elastic modulus and high yield strain.

Nanotechnology is the study and manipulation of the new properties that emerge as material dimensions are reduced the limits of the nanoscale. Nano technology will bring transformation in military technology that will have major implications in new generation warfare scenario, where this technology might contribute in making visible things completely invisible and heavier material the most lightest.

The military use of nanotechnology will lead to higher protection, more lethality, longer endurance and better self-supporting capacities of future soldiers. Nanotechnology could greatly improve some of the existing technologies that will be fitted on military platforms and thus create new operational opportunities or, at least, help the engineers to deal with some shortcomings.

The use of nanotechnology enables existing weapon technologies – such as stealth, precision-guided munitions and UAVs-to evolve into their ultimate form. It will provide soldiers with the ultimate protection of invisibility during combat operations or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities.

These advances are beginning to have repercussions across all areas of technology, and many products containing nanoparticles are already on the market. Industries and governments across the world are investing heavily in nanotechnology. There are predictions that technologies such as medical nanobots and nano-enhanced reconnaissance and communication devices (such as micro-radar for miniature vehicles) will begin to be used from 2030 onwards.

The governments of the industrialized countries are spending billion dollars on research and development in nanotechnology. In 2001, the US Federal Government, determined to maintain technological supremacy in this area, created the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The NNI is the US Government’s interagency program for coordinating R&D and enhancing communication and collaborative activities in nanoscale science, engineering, and technology. President George W Bush increased funding for nanotechnology further in 2003 by signing into law the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act.

The US considers nanotechnology to have potential to contribute to the warfighting capabilities of the nation. Because of the broad and interdisciplinary nature of nanotechnology, it views it as an enabling technology area that should receive the highest level of corporate attention and coordination.

Heavy investment

The US Department of Defense (DoD) is a major investor, spending well over 30% of all federal investment dollars in nanotechnology. The DoD invests in nanotechnology for advanced energetic materials, photocatalytic coatings, active microelectronic devices, and a wide array of other promising technologies. The DoD nanotechnology program is based on coordinated planning and federated execution among the military departments and agencies. Nanotechnology currently represents a scientifically and technologically advanced research theme that has proven and expected value toward enhancing defense capabilities.

The Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN) is in the business of developing and taking advantage of nanotechnology to help soldiers survive in battle conditions. ISN was established in 2002 with $50 million of funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The ISN is a multidisciplinary facility with 7 research teams, each of which is working on different aspects of the battlesuit of the future.

A nano battle suit is being developed that could be as thin as spandex and contain health monitors and communications equipment. Nano materials can also provide strength that far surpasses currently available materials, providing bullet shielding that’s much more effective. These jumpsuit style outfits might even be able to react to and stop biological and chemical attacks. This protection and these devices would be integrated into one suit that would be more efficient and lightweight than current packs.

The use of these new technologies enable disguised form of attacks, which make it difficult for victim states, particularly the technologically inferior, to identify where the attacks originate from with certainty. The implicated allegations recently made by the US against Chinese authorities for their involvement in cyber attacks are testimony to this technical challenge. A consequence is that the technologically advanced will find it attractive to choose discreet means to deploy military forces in order to achieve their political objectives without risking warfare.

However, the widespread introduction of nanotechnology into weaponry may not end with this familiar, simplistic picture of military asymmetry between the technologically advanced and the less advanced. Nanotechnology is not a difficult technology to acquire. Indeed, many less developed states and emerging economies such as Mexico, Thailand, India and Iran are investing heavily on nanotechnology industries. China is also one of the leading states in nano technological developments.

There is no clear indication as to the extent these investments are poured into weapons development. The challenge for them would rather be acquisition of the existing weapons technologies, like stealth, laser and robotic technologies, with which applications of nanotechnology need to be combined. But at the same time, these countries are not bound by the same resource constraints as the major weapons producers, such as large-scale infrastructure and manufacturing contracts. In that sense, emerging economies could take advantage of a greater flexibility in developing entirely new armament manufacturing capabilities that effectively incorporate latest nano technological innovations and developments.

The US is now the world’s sole leader in nano technology, 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 US 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.

Nanotechnology may thus serve as a potential ‘game changer’ in the military landscape.

Enhancing capability

From Europe to Asia, all major world powers are now investing and researching into the use of nanotechnology for materials and systems for military use. Countries are showing increasing focus on developing nano-products to be used in today’s warfare.

Proposed and actively pursued military nanotech programs cover a wide range of applications to improve the performance of existing systems and materials and allow new ones. The main areas of research deal with explosives (their chemical composition as well as their containment); bio and medicine (for both injury treatment and performance enhancement); biological and chemical sensors; electronics for computing and information; power generation and storage; structural materials for ground, air and naval vehicles; coatings; filters; and fabrics.

Soldier capabilities can be enhanced by NT with strong, lightweight materials for soldier systems and system components adaptive, multifunctional materials for soldier systems and system components novel detection and protection schemes for bio-chemical warfare threats and identification of friend or foe.

Improved body armor is a major focus for military nanotechnology research. Several different technologies have been explored, some of which will be operational in just a few years time. The nano body armor will be fire, dust, stain, and fire repellant. Primitive NBC suit reduces solider capability because it can’t pass air. NT in cloths nonwoven composite fabrics can be made 25% lighter and stronger than current woven military uniform fabrics. In addition, they can be made to exhibit over three times the air permeability or breathability of the current woven military uniform fabrics. Uniform fabric will offer enhanced abrasion resistance, develop a fire and chemical-biological resistant fabric and offer combination water repellent-moisture absorbent composite fabric.

Nano fabrics are currently being researched for use in military camouflage. A development called ‘active camouflage’ allows the wearer or object to blend into its surroundings. Active Camouflage uses panels and coatings that can change their appearance, from luminance and reflective properties to colour. This technology is perfect for military purposes as it provides complete concealment from visual detection.

Further nano-silver socks and undergarments will remain hygienic for days in war scenario, where it is impossible to change undergarments. Soldier-worn systems could even sense the state of health of the wearer and react by releasing drugs or, using smart materials, by compressing wounds.

Another new nano-armor is called “smart” body armor. It weaves thin pads or cloth from fibers that can sense the impact of a bullet or shrapnel and automatically stiffen. This material would be even more resistant to penetration and less cumbersome than the ceramic-plate armor troops wear now.

Another development that is being used for military and protection purpose, is ‘liquid body amour’. Under normal conditions the new vest acts in a similar way to water. However upon impact it stiffens, thus providing adequate protection. The key component in the ‘liquid armor vest’ is shear thickening fluid (or STF) which is what provides the vest with its strong properties. STF is composed of hard particles, which are suspended in a liquid form. Nano particles of silica are highly important to the chemical make-up of this solution. Liquid body amour gives the wearer an impact resistant vest from bullet damage to pointed objects such as needles and swords.

Artificial muscles that could enable soldiers to leap tall walls, if not buildings, are in the works, too. One type uses nanotechnology and electricity.

In addition, future nano sensors would provide the soldier’s vital signs and location to medics via radio. Until the new nano-sensored garment is ready, soldiers will wear an adhesive chest patch fitted with sensors and a tiny radio. If a soldier is injured in the arm or leg, thanks to nano-fibers in the uniform, the fabric would constrict into a tourniquet. This will be a real lifesaver, because half of all battlefield deaths are due to massive blood loss before wounded soldiers can be treated.

Another method for creating super strong materials uses tungsten, not carbon, for the basic material. It is five times stronger than steel and at least twice as strong as any impact resistant material currently in use as protective gear. It has withstood the equivalent of dropping four diesel locomotives onto an area the size of a fingernail. Possible applications for this new nano material are ballistic protection personal body armor, bullet proof vests, vehicle armor, shields, helmets, and protective enclosures.

The 21st century soldier is weighed down with batteries for electric laptop computers, handheld computers, night-vision goggles, and optoelectronic rifle sights. That load could soon be reduced, due to anodes made of nano particle-size crystals. Soldiers could recharge the new batteries in a fraction of the time, and thus could carry fewer batteries on the battlefield.

Anodes with nano particles could be charged an order of magnitude faster than macro-size particles, if there’s plenty of lithium ion for their huge surface area. The technology would also be crucial in electric engines, whether they are driving commercial automobiles or unmanned ground vehicles. In experiments with the new anodes, researchers charged empty batteries to 80 percent capacity in just six seconds. If this technology succeeds, the new batteries would be remarkable. Used in a portable power tool, the new design would cost the same, offer three to four times more power per unit of weight, recharge 20 times as often, and gain a full charge in six minutes instead of two hours. Over its lifetime, such a battery could recharge 10,000 to 20,000 times, compared to the current standard of 600 to 700.

Electronics and computers will become much smaller and at the same time much faster and less power-consuming through the use of NT. Such systems-augmented by new levels of artificial intelligence-will be used throughout the military, even embedded in very small components (rifles, glasses, uniforms, mini- and micro robots, munitions). On the other hand, large battle-management and strategy-planning systems will encompass many layers and a high degree of autonomous decision making. Together with sensors, wireless communication components and small, lightweight displays, they would form an ubiquitous network on the battlefield.

Futuristic applications

Many applications of nano technology are under development and possible futuristic applications will completely change the battlefield scenario.

A new nano structured coating could be used to make paints for stealth aircraft that can’t be seen at night and that are undetectable by radar at any time of day. The coating, made of carbon nano tubes, can be used to cloak an object in utter darkness, making it indistinguishable from the night sky.

NT enable food will last more without getting rotten, these foods are ideal for war where supply of food is difficult. Nano- Silver packed food withstand days together without damage. These foods can be used in disaster recovery teams, in war and hash areas like very high altitude areas where fresh food is a difficulty.

Neutralizing a person’s memory can often be a more powerful defense than killing them. Micro fields flaring up in a succession of unnoticeable tiny brain bursts may wipe sections of a brain clean without anyone ever noticing. This will be the quality of next generation nano mind eraser systems.  Invisible to the human eye, nano diameter needles will be shot like clusters of bullets from great distances to “pin” people to a wall or freeze their physical movement. Nano needles, because of their tiny diameter, will be the ultimate non-lethal weapon, leaving no visible wounds and causing no permanent damage. This may be used as arrest intruder without harming or killing him.

Whilst the potential applications are basically unlimited, some potential military applications of nanotechnology are already quite advanced, and will come into play much sooner than others. One example of this is sensors – many sensors have already been developed which take advantage of the unique properties of nano materials to become smaller and more sensitive, compared to conventional technology. Portable, efficient sensors will be highly valuable to military field operatives.

With nano technology lighter, stronger and more heat-resistant materials will provide higher speed and agility for conventional ground, water and air vehicles, but may also allow new types of smaller vehicles, all with more efficient engines. Lighter energy-storage and conversion systems-such as fuel cells using nanoparticle-based membranes-could make all-electric military vehicles practical, including electromagnetic guns. For military uses of outer space, NT will provide many possibilities for markedly smaller satellites, together with smaller launch vehicles. Small satellites could be used in swarms for radar, communication or intelligence. Small satellites could damage or destroy other satellites-either by a direct hit with high relative velocity or through manipulations after rendezvous and docking. NT-enabled electromagnetic acceleration could also be used for kinetic-energy space weapons.

Nano technology is used for improving existing technologies and exploring new compounds. Using NT to create materials with properties that will revolutionize military technology, from processors to display screens and body armor to air filters.

Nano-weapons combined with bio-chemical and genetic weapons; provide the budding world religious or ideological dictator with far more ultimate power than a few nuclear weapons.

Whilst there are many benefits to military nanotechnology research, both on the battlefield, and in civilian life as these defence-funded discoveries filter back into general commercial applications, there are also several issues which should be handled with great care as the technology progresses.

As nano technology allows the further development of the “battlefield network”, where soldiers, command posts, scout teams and remotely operated or autonomous drones and vehicles are integrated with rapid, secure communication and control channels, there will be a tendency to delegate more and more decisions to semi-autonomous systems which respond automatically to developing situations.

In future there will be an enormous challenge to regulate the use of nanobots, miniature communications systems, etc. Widespread availability of these devices would inevitably lead to their use for criminal activity and terrorist attacks.

As most nano applications will take almost decades to materialize, very little is known about NT and its side effects. It is unknown if producing items this small could be dangerous to the manufacturers or the soldiers using them for protection, as it is not known if the nanoscale devices could penetrate cell membranes and skin on the human body.

One can hope that as research will continue to be done in this emerging critical field, its possibilities can have more positive protection usage for military than damage.

Going by its tremendous dual use impact, the global community must form an apex body like NSG and MTCR, to control and monitor the technological transfer and its development.

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