We know that emerging innovations within cutting-edge science and technology (S&T) areas carry the potential to revolutionize governmental structures, economies, and life as we know it. Yet, others have argued that such technologies could yield doomsday scenarios and that military applications of such technologies have even greater potential than nuclear weapons to radically change the balance of power. These S&T areas include robotics and autonomous unmanned system; artificial intelligence; biotechnology, including synthetic and systems biology; the cognitive neurosciences; nanotechnology, including stealth meta-materials; additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing); and the intersection of each with information and computing technologies, i.e., cyber-everything. These concepts and the underlying strategic importance were articulated at the multi-national level in NATO’s May 2010 New Strategic Concept paper: “Less predictable is the possibility that research breakthroughs will transform the technological battlefield…. The most destructive periods of history tend to be those when the means of aggression have gained the upper hand in the art of waging war.”

As new and unpredicted technologies are emerging at a seemingly unprecedented pace globally, communication of those new discoveries is occurring faster than ever, meaning that the unique ownership of a new technology is no longer a sufficient position, if not impossible. They’re becoming cheaper and more readily available. In today’s world, recognition of the potential applications of a technology and a sense of purpose in exploiting it are far more important than simply having access to it.


“What keeps me awake at night is, are we going to miss the next big technological advance? And perhaps an enemy will have that.¹”


While the suggestions like those that nanotechnology will enable a new class of weapons that will alter the geopolitical landscape remain unrealized, a number of unresolved security puzzles underlying emerging technologies have implications for international security, defense policy, deterrence, governance, and arms control regimes.

How, when, where, and in what form the shifting nature of technological progress may bring enhanced or entirely new capabilities, many of which are no longer the exclusive domain of any single state, is contested and requires better analytical tools to enable assessment and understanding. Contemporary analyses of these emerging technologies often expose the tenuous links or disconnections among mainstream scholarship on international security, understanding of the military technological innovation and acquisition processes, and fundamental understanding of the underlying science. Currently variables and metrics are neither well-characterized nor well-quantified, particularly for specific-defense related concepts.

Conceptually, technologies can be seen as evolutionarily advancing current capabilities or those pressing to the ‘bleeding edge’ that enable disruptive, revolutionary capabilities developments. The ability to differentiate or gain insight into such has thus far not been explored or analyzed robustly with respect to strategic implications beyond a technologically-deterministic lens. The novel scientific principles that underlie the character of these uncertain technologies and their convergence with political and social institutions reveal conceptual and empirical confusion associated with assessing the national security implications. There also is palpable confusion over the technical and strategic distinguishability and dominance of prospective offensive and defensive systems.

The widespread enthusiasm for emerging technologies is reflected not only in official rhetoric but is also codified in respective national technology strategies and the global upswing of dedicated funding. Military-related programs in potential peer competitors in Asia (China), in states posing regional security challenges in the Middle East (Iran), in the former Soviet Union (Russia), and in rapidly developing areas (including South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Brazil) offer comparisons for advanced, allied states (U.S., western Europe, Japan, ROK) in order to understand the national meanings, organization, and strategic implications surrounding the development and fielding of emerging technology. As one example of the rhetoric: During a visit to the Kurchatov Institute, Russian President Vladimir Putin commented “This [nanotechnology] could be the key to developing new, modern, and super-effective military systems.²” He later warned of “[a] new round of the arms race is developing in the world,” while calling for the development of Russian science, including nanotechnology, which could be used to develop new types of weapons.

Some states, such as China and those in the Middle East, that have devised new technology strategies are experiencing profound economic and societal transitions. But they differ with respect to critical socio-political and economic criteria for national prosperity and competitiveness (e.g., demography, research and development [R&D] infrastructure and sustainment, and resource endowments versus dependence).

Claims for the potential impacts of technology can seem fantastic; at times, differentiating rhetoric from reality can be difficult. Of critical importance in considering the national and international security implications of technology is that anticipated scenarios should be plausible within constraints of physical viability as well as likely within institutional capacities and tacit capabilities.

The extent to which these emerging technologies may exacerbate or mitigate the defense challenges that states will pose in the future to U.S. and regional interests needs to be examined. How, when, where, and in what form the shifting nature of technological progress may bring enhanced or entirely new capabilities, many of which are no longer the exclusive domain of the United States, is contested and requires better analytical tools to enable U.S. assessment, preparation, and response. To better enable new capabilities and to defend the nation against emerging threats in a new security environment, the role of emerging sciences and technology for U.S. defense and foreign policy should be analytically assessed, theoretically-developed, and understood, i.e., how emerging technologies reconcile with or challenge traditional models for national security, e.g., deterrence, offense-defense balance, strategic security, regime theory, and nonproliferation.

The penultimate goal should not be to predict specific new technologies, which is rarely a high-fidelity pursuit except in retrospective cherry-picking of scenarios from favorite science-fiction stories, and one should be skeptical of any one or group that claims thy can do such. The aim should be to develop implementable and executable analytical frameworks to explain variable approaches to the development of strategically significant emerging S&T programs, to understand the impact of emerging technology on security in the 21st Century, to enable mechanisms for the world to govern the implications of its own ingenuity, and to inform U.S. defense and foreign policies.

In thinking about the future of warfare, one often encounters two ideological camps: those who prioritize the role of technology and those who don’t. One must always be cognizant and skeptical of slipping into a technological deterministic mindset. That is the notion that technology alone, or is even the most important factor, can determine the outbreak or outcome of conflict. The wars of the last decade should also remind us that co-option of broadly available commercial technologies may present the most significant operational threat, e.g., cell-phone activated IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, to deny or dismiss the role of technology in effecting the outcome (as well as outbreak) of war and conflict is also perilous. Neither purist ideology is manifested in the operational world. Contemporary analyses often expose the tenuous links or disconnections among mainstream scholarship on international security and war (or strategic) studies, understanding of the defense technological innovation and acquisition processes, and fundamental understanding of the underlying science.

Critically and frequently lacking – in comparative social science and humanities & historically-based studies of emerging technologies – is robust technical security studies, including consideration of the role of tacit knowledge and skills that are not readily quantifiable as part of distinguishing the rhetoric of new technologies from the reality. Critically and frequently lacking – in comparative technical or engineering-based studies of emerging technologies –are consideration of political, historical, institutional, organizational, economic, and social factors.

There is a need to think strategically beyond current challenges. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, the nation has struggled – and continues to do so – to deal with the proliferation challenges of new technologically-enabled weapons. Anticipating the types of threats that may emerge as science and technology advance, the potential consequences of those threats, and the probability that new and more disperse types of enemies will obtain or pursue them is necessary. The potential synergies between biotechnology and other emerging technologies, like additive manufacturing and the cognitive neurosciences, not only suggest tremendous potential for advancement in technology for military applications but also raise new concerns. When asked what are the current approaches and thinking on means for deterring emerging technologies of concern (beyond cyber) to the U.S., then-USSTRATCOM Commander General Robert Kehler (USAF) responded that “surprise is what keeps me up at night” and cited current uncertainty in how to assess and address emerging and disruptive technologies.

In the global information age, the most technologically advanced military power no longer guarantees national security. Globalization and the information revolution, including the Internet and other communication leaps – have led to much greater visibility into the availability and potential for science and technology. Science is and will continue to enable new technological developments becoming accessible and affordable to a larger number of nations and within the grasp of non-state actors:   advanced technology is no longer the domain of the few. Understanding these changing paradigms and the implications for modern warfare starts with an awareness of the factors driving the capabilities, understanding the underlying science and the challenges of foreign policy, considering the changing nature of technological progress and the changing nature of conflict, and the relationship between science and security domestically and internationally. The importance of bridging the technical and the human domain is increasing; the challenges are organizational, strategic, and enabling the right people to implement and execute it.

Photo credit: Time Magazine

¹General Robert Cone, Commander US Army TRADOC, from Mike Morones, “Interview with GEN Robert Cone,” Defense News, 16 December 2013.

²Reuters, “Putin Promotes Nanotechnology in Russia,” 18 April 2007.

Dr. Margaret E. Kosal is Associate Professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Institute of Technology and Director of the Sam Nunn Security Program (SNSP). Her research explores the relationships among technology, strategy, and governance.