Technology Is a Strategic National Security Component

January 1, 2015
By James Kadtke and Linton Wells II

Policy makers must join technologists in shaping this future.

Technology developments increasingly have strategic effects. They help determine winners and losers in economies, how nations interact and how our children think. The pace of innovation is accelerating while becoming more globalized. A number of prestigious studies have raised serious concerns that this increasing competition will result in a loss of U.S. technological pre-eminence. These trends are particularly worrisome for future U.S. military capabilities, which have been based on technological dominance for decades.

The accelerating science, technology and engineering (ST&E) revolutions have policy, legal, ethical and strategic implications for national security. These can be seen in five broad areas: biology, biotechnology and medicine; robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and human augmentation; information and communications technology (ICT) and cognitive science; nanotechnology and advanced materials; and energy technology. These are known collectively as bio-robo-info-nano-energy, or BRINE.

Many technology analyses address the 2030 time frame or beyond, and many dedicated people are involved with these technology issues, but the U.S. Defense Department needs to make policy and related choices in the next few years to shape the future competitive space favorably. These are issues for policy makers and commanders, not just technical specialists. The pace and complexity of technological change mean that linear predictions of current trends cannot be the basis for effective guidance or management for the future.

Each of the BRINE areas includes several key developments. Advances in biology, biotechnology and medicine are leading to personalized and regenerative medicine, new neuroscience, brain mapping, biomanufacturing and synthetic biology. Progress in robotics, artificial intelligence and human augmentation is enabling advanced unmanned and autonomous vehicles for battlefield and hazardous operations, low-cost autonomous manufacturing and autonomous systems for health and logistics. Advances in ICT and cognitive science are being driven by trends such as speed, mobility, commoditization/open source, big data, the cloud and the Internet of Everything. They are linked to brain research and complemented by advanced decision-support tools and exotic computing architectures such as quantum computers.

Improvements in nanotechnology and advanced materials include high-performance materials, multifunctional smart materials, highly energetic explosives and nanomaterials as components of advanced electronics and in medicine and biotechnology. This category also includes advanced manufacturing, such as 3-D printing. And, in energy, initiatives need to begin with demand reduction, whether through policy, process or design. Technological advances include improved renewable generation, exotic storage technologies, smart power grid management and better power sources for directed-energy weapons (DEWs). Accessible partner nation energy initiatives, such as uniform biofuel standards, could enhance operational flexibility.

The cross-fertilization of concepts and tools across the BRINE areas enhances the potential for disruption. Advances such as synthetic biology and 3-D printing, particularly in do-it-yourself communities, can have enormous effects but also are fraught with new risks. Developments in human behavioral modeling, neuroeconomics and brain mapping are creating powerful new tools for understanding ourselves and society, all of which are affected by developments in informatics. In robotics and artificial intelligence, human augmentation and direct brain interfaces could stretch the boundaries of what it means to be human, with potential threats and vulnerabilities that still are unknown. Cyberspace continues to expand and evolve at an unparalleled rate, and as the Internet of Things increasingly becomes the Cloud of Everything, many sociopolitical issues in the legal, ethical, security and regulatory realms are surfacing. Tactically useful DEWs that may change the face of modern warfare are emerging from developments in power supplies, pointing and tracking and advanced beam forming, including tools such as metamaterials. The convergence of energy and new materials, plus ICT in advanced design and manufacturing, can contribute to hypersonics. As autonomous systems such as commercial micro-unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and self-driving cars begin to interface with humans in intimate ways, a host of new, poorly understood vulnerabilities will accompany the new functionalities.

Respected organizations such as the National Intelligence Council, the Defense Science Board and several think tanks are looking at these technology trends in detail. Technology investment decisions need to be complemented by broad policy, strategy, legal, ethical, organizational and related actions.

The Defense Department should expand and institutionalize its capabilities for strategic foresight, adaptive management and technological intelligence. This is more than just better forecasting. These capabilities can enhance the department’s global awareness, improve strategic decision making and facilitate better investment decisions.

Officials should examine ways that the Defense Department can help shape the long-term security consequences of trends in international technology governance and standards bodies, such as the International Telecommunication Union and the International Organization for Standardization. Also, recognizing the growing importance for national security of private sector innovation and investment, the department should develop a policy, legal, contractual and values framework to let it leverage private sector resources better, both domestically and overseas.

The department needs to examine the effects of accelerating technology, generational change and cultural evolution on its future workforce, including jobs displaced by automation. It also should leverage innovative learning and private sector concepts to build new models for the national security workplace.

Many of these areas, and especially their convergence, will result in disruptive new capabilities for the Defense Department. They can improve warfighter performance, reduce health care and readiness costs, increase efficiency, enhance decision making, reduce human risk, improve biochemical defense, enable pervasive sensing and distributed command and control, and support expeditionary energy and base resilience. But U.S. planning must expect that many of these also will be available to adversaries who may use them under very different ethical and legal constraints than the United States would.

The globalization of ST&E is contributing to accelerating and converging technological change. If computing power per unit cost is doubling every 18 months, in five years it will increase 900 percent and in 10 years some 10,000 percent. Biotechnology is changing at an even faster rate, robotics are becoming ubiquitous, nanotechnology is on the verge of creating a commercial revolution, and energy production changes are having global impacts. Such broad, rapid advances mean that it will become harder to predict, much less control, the large-scale consequences of such technological change even in the relatively near future. In any case, linear projections of current trends simply cannot work in this environment.

Several studies have found shortfalls in past efforts at technology forecasting. One noted, “…the missed areas were all stimulated by developments outside the Defense Department and were more in the nature of very rapid technology exploitation in the marketplace, with unintended consequences for national security. As the Defense Department becomes a smaller player in the global S&T enterprise, such missed forecasts are increasingly likely unless more robust [methodologies] are employed that involve broad-based participation of subject matter experts beyond the Defense Department and the United States.”

The global distribution of ST&E capacities will be increasingly important. Most experts agree that the United States has benefitted from concentrations of innovation, such as Silicon Valley. But ST&E innovations increasingly will come from a distributed geographic landscape of national and private sector entities, many of which view themselves as direct competitors to U.S. interests. In the 1970s, Defense Department S&T personnel represented about 1/20th of the total researchers in the world, versus about 1/800th of the world’s total today. This trend only will intensify, and the opportunities and risks it provides need to be addressed as strategic issues. GeoInnovation, in which global technology and commercialization capabilities serve as a key variable for geopolitics, should be developed as a new strategic variable to monitor these trends and analyze their future impacts.

The Defense Department must start today to build the capabilities to understand and harvest benefits of the complex global ST&E environment. This will require foresight, which in turn requires persistent, pervasive and rigorous efforts to collect information, to analyze and synthesize it and, most importantly, to integrate the resulting insights effectively into decision making and planning.

U.S. investment in, and understanding of, key technological opportunities and risks should be as much a part of global strategy debates as geopolitics, demographics, economics and the nature of conflict.

This article is an outgrowth of an online Defense Department BRINE paper in which the authors address other important policy issues more fully. The paper also addresses policy, legal and ethical issues related to unmanned and autonomous systems, DEWs and biotechnology. It can be found at

James Kadtke is the special adviser on converging technologies at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy, National Defense University. Linton Wells II is a visiting distinguished research fellow in the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.

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