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Will bioethics shape a future arms race?

February 7, 2011

Information technology dominates current discussions about revolutions in military affairs. However, like most so-called revolutionary events in warfare, there is continuity in change. Unless we assume that technology stalls or warfare ends, there will be a technical “revolution” after the network-centric, unmanned, robotic era of warfighting technology is over. Though it may be foolish to try and predict the future, it’s probably reasonable to guess that biotechnology will follow information technology as an epoch-defining event (to the extent technological developments can be “epoch-defining”) for military conflict.

Since biotechnology’s civilian applications stem from medical development, presumably its first widespread military use will be in first-aid. Much of current military research into biotechnology, beyond biological warfare defense, goes into medical technology to heal wounds and improve treatment of soldiers. However, it’s hard to imagine military biotech will stop there, even if it may take a long time for it to get started. Performance-enhancing drugs (including blood doping and gene doping) will probably become more commonplace, too. After all, amphetamines were widely used during WWII, and news about their use among combat pilots returned during the Gulf War. Then there are the truly futuristic uses of biotechnology – human enhancement through neural implants and interfaces, purpose-grown replacement organs, advanced prosthetics, and the like. Finally, a lot of this research may involve embryonic stem cells or research, human testing, and developing artificial life forms (maybe at the cellular level).

Like information technology, much of biotechnology development will be dual use, serving both medical and military purposes. Also like information technology, dynamic interaction between military and civilian industries, public and private sectors, will drive this development. However, unlike IT, biotechnology will have to confront deeply held ethical positions and institutionalized opposition. The countries of the developed world, with strong research sectors, aging population and continued readiness to spend large amounts of money on improving the quality of human life (and the most advanced military forces) would, at first glance, seem to be the obvious beneficiaries of biotechnological revolution.

These wealthy, democratic societies, however, might be those countries where biotechnology also finds strong institutional and popular opposition. Despite brilliant minds, eager entrepreneurs, and strong potential markets, publics and policymakers in the United States and Europe are not necessarily primed to inaugurate biotechnological revolutions, particularly with regard to military application. The moral issues grappling with biotechnology and human enhancement entails can prove formidable barriers. Bioethical issues easily turn political in the United States, when it comes to human enhancement, experimentation and particularly issues involving embryonic tissue. As for Europe, European opposition to GMO crops demonstrates solid obstacles that might impair biotechnological research in the future.

C. Dale Walton, in his Geopolitics and the Great Powers in the Twenty-first Century, argues that those countries which let ethical scruples impede biotechnology and other fields of human enhancement research may fall behind in strategic capability. However, first-movers do not necessarily have the advantage, as anyone who’s read Horowitz’s The Diffusion of Military Power would realize. Currently, though the US and similarly wealthy and research-adept countries are primed for first-mover advantage. Much of biotechnological research passes ethical muster. But the organizational and bureaucratic obstacles military-grade biotechnology might face are double: there isn’t just the Department of Defense and service doctrine to deal with, but those bodies responsible for regulating medical testing and development, and what’s appropriate in the private sector. Will constraining civilian applications of human-enhancing biotech increase the difficulty of adopting it for military use?

Thus, the developed world may find itself doing much of the hard work of developing new biotech, only to have increasingly capable rising powers with less-regulated biotech sectors, less scrupulous governments and less transparent military research programs take the marginal steps towards refining it for military use and more flexible in adopting it for widespread use. Additionally, since biotechnology is dual use, research and final products will disseminate worldwide, making it easy for previously disadvantaged rising powers to take those marginal steps towards militarization, even if they lack the research capability to create advanced biotech from scratch.

I have no expertise in biotechnology, but this question has eaten at me lately, even though its occasion may not arrive for decades. However, as this interesting article from Neal Stephenson points out, some great technologically breakthroughs owe themselves to the schemes of belligerent, immoral maniacs, leaving the more stable, sane and moral market democracies to pick up with marginal improvements from where they left off. Perhaps, though, ethical norms concerning biotech will have changed by the time the technology is ready for widespread military application. Hopefully governments will not have to confront such dilemmas in our lifetimes.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 10, 2011 3:07 am

    Amphetamines were actually invented in the early 1930s as medical treatments. Their stimulant properties were picked up by the military, and the drugs then made their way into household use in the 1950s. There’s a (pretty) good history of their development, use, and cultural significance in a book called ‘On Speed’ by Nicolas Rasmussen.

    The military has continued the trend and regularly prescribes newer generation stimulants to pilots or soldiers who deemed to “need” the medication temporarily. Foremost among these newer stimulants is modafinil (Provigil) and its patent-gaming counterpart armodafinil (Nuvigil).

    Many chemotherapy drugs have been developed based on lessons learned from various chemical weapons uses and experiments. E.g. the Allied disaster at Bari ( led to the realization that sulfur mustard could be used as a chemotherapy agent in leukemia patients. (This discovery is mentioned in two different books, “Happy Accidents” by Morton Meyers and “The Emperor of All Maladies” by Siddhartha Mukherjee).

    I only bring these examples up to make the point that the military is as often shaped by medical (which is the true meaning ‘bio’ in bioethics) advancements from the civilian world as vice-versa.


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