The place of science, technology and engineering in the national security agenda: time for an assessment?

Notes for a Seminar given by Chris Langley, SGR, at Kings College, London, November 2005


The economic standing and the output from expertise residing in the science and engineering bases largely determines the military advantage of nations. Such military power also plays an important part in engendering social and economic inequalities across the world - factors which imperil peace and security. Currently science and technology play a major role in framing notions of a narrowly defined form of security, one which depends upon high-technology, weapons-based approaches. This view marginalises broader, more inclusive notions of how to build security. Given the kinds of global conflict which have marked the early 21st Century, it is surely time to review the scientific, ethical, political and strategic impact of relying so heavily on narrowly technological means of safeguarding peace?

Drawing on the Report Soldiers in the laboratory some examples of recent science and engineering programmes in place in the UK , involving military-university partnerships, will be examined. Such partnerships it is contended, help drive a high technology, weapons-dominated agenda which attempts to provide the military capacity necessary to win conflicts decisively. But is such an approach appropriate to building and maintaining peace and stability?

The current security agenda in many G8 countries, including the UK, which places a major reliance upon technology in preference to political and other means needs to be challenged and far more effort and funding given to broader approaches to security. Such approaches need to address in radical ways the various global drivers of conflict and the many environmental crises which we all face.

Notes for the Seminar

I should like to thank the organisers of this seminar, especially John Stone and Fleur Adolphe, for inviting me here to speak about some of the issues thrown up by the involvement of science and technology in national security and to pose some, I trust, interesting questions.

I'll draw upon the Report Soldiers in the laboratory which I wrote for Scientists for Global Responsibility, which is a membership supported group of scientists, architects and engineers and those who wish to see science and technology contribute better to peace, social justice and environmental sustainability. Copies of the Report's Executive Summary are available for anyone who is interested.

I wish to examine, rather briefly in the time available, some of the ways in which science, engineering and technology interact with military needs. And to ask a number of questions which address pressing problems which are also related to global security - these include global climate change, water and other resource depletion, political violence and terrorism and global health inequalities.

This is a very complex and multilayered area and so it may be helpful to provide a sort of A to Z to help identify some of the landmarks, and these handful of overheads might put my presentation into context.


The place of science, technology and engineering in the national security agenda - time for an assessment?

Four dominant themes

SET are powerful knowledge systems which are shaped by a variety of factors, not least how and by whom they are funded - this creates a distinct culture

Pursuit of security in the richer countries such as the UK and USA is increasingly dependent upon high technology, weapons-based, cutting edge SET

Military funding of SET and the networks by which the security agenda is constructed leads to a particular and dominant mode of dealing with conflict and its drivers

Military funding also tends to reduce the options for non-weapons based means of building peace and safeguarding it. Such funding also draws expertise away from non-military areas which also have a role in security

These are discussed in-depth in the Report

The nature of wars has changed over the past twenty years - they tend to occur within a country, especially those which are poor, rather than between countries. In 2003 there were fourteen wars, 21 severe crises and around 45 crises across the world, and 2004 will show the same broad picture. The concomitant rise of international terrorism, the drivers of which are poorly understood, is not addressed satisfactorily by high technology means of waging war.

Total European Union expenditure on government military R&D is largely represented by a small group of nations - UK, France, Spain, Germany and to a smaller extent Italy - these countries accounted for 97% of the total government military R&D budget in 2000.

Defence R&D spend in 2000-01 was highest in the UK (over 33%) followed by France (23%) - in Austria this proportion was less than 0.5% and just over 1% in Finland and Portugal.

This year the USA will spend around US$500 billion on its military capability.

My overall intention in writing the Report and speaking to you tonight is to tease apart some of the ways in which science, technology and engineering shape current military strategy and to touch upon some of the ways in which the military are involved with science and related disciplines in the UK. I should add that this does not deny that technology does indeed have a part to play in a whole range of defence strategies but it is the support provided by science, engineering and technology of a heavily weapons-based high technology strategy that is being questioned, as is the disproportionate role of military interests in the support of those disciplines which I'll come back to later.

Finally, I'll suggest how this process raises a number of important implications for peace, sustainable approaches to issues, social justice, science and security within a global context.

Military objectives supported by the latest technologies with their R&D infrastructure, have played a pivotal role in the position of the countries of the North over those of the South. How do science and technology actually help to create a weapons-based high technology approach to security and perhaps more importantly to the shaping of attitudes about how best to address potential war and other forms of conflict? Does such an approach adequately deal with the many causes of fear - some very real and some largely imagined - which drive conflict today?

Public spending across the world on military objectives collectively viewed as 'defence' is significant. In addition the use of scarce resources and the environmental costs of the pursuit of high technology security programmes are areas which I think are in need of sustained and critical analysis. One important consideration which such high technology approaches engenders is financial costs - arms and the means of delivery in the UK is famously and consistently unable to provide on time and at a reasonable cost - look at the delayed and increasingly expensive projects such as the Nimrod MRA-4 reconnaissance aircraft, the Astute class submarine and the Brimstone anti-armour missile. The National Audit Office has pointed to a number of over-runs at the Ministry of Defence and has been critical of its financial acumen. In the USA the Missile Defense programme is not only largely untested high technology but also profoundly expensive, in 2004 estimates were that it had cost to date in excess of US$100 billion, with no really workable system in place. Additionally many have pointed out that technology transfer from military investment to civilian markets is at best weak.

World military spending increased by almost 18 per cent in real terms for the years 2002 and 2003, to reach almost Euros 800 billion in 2003. The figure rose to around Euros 1 trillion in 2004. High income countries like the UK, France and the USA account for around 75 per cent of world military spending, the burden however is shared unequally across the world - this is especially striking when military spending is expressed as a proportion of GDP. In the UK and USA this proportion is around 2 - 3%, but in the Middle East it is 10 to 11% and in African countries which are in the main poor it is mainly above 3%.

The main reason for the increase in world military spending is the sustained and massive increase in the USA , which accounts for around half of the world total. After a decade of reductions in military spending in the period 1987-98 and a modest increase in 1998-2001, the changes in US military doctrine and strategy after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 have set in train year on year increases in military spending in the USA to around Euros 400 billion per annum for procurement and R&D rose in a similar fashion as you will recall. Much being allocated to high technology weapons and their elaborate support technologies. In the UK the Government expenditure on 'defence' was Euros 50 billion in 2003-04, and is due to increase each year up to 2009, increases which are partly driven by the maintenance of interoperability with the US military apparatus. At the same time there are a series of planned cuts in personnel numbers.

The two major military spenders, the USA and UK allocate significant sums to military R&D - supported by those with expertise in science and technology - recall my overheads earlier. And this is the area which I should like us to focus on.

A great deal of such R&D has gone to support a relatively recent Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). A revolution stimulated largely by the first Gulf War. Its ethos and call on science and technology is mirrored by the UK military community. Its key driver is the aversion to casualty risks in conflict and the attraction of the technical fix. In theory such drivers have no limits to military investment.

This revolution has led to the provision of a variety of military-academic partnerships in the UK (some of which also involve the active participation of the USA government and military corporations). Such partnerships take place in a society where universities have also profoundly altered, to produce a heavily commercialised environment for science and technology.

I should like to step to one side here and remind us of the military, largely technological, supremacy of the USA , supported by R&D. Some key facts would include :

  • the USA controls around 90 per cent of all the world's military satellites and is seeking dominance in space
  • there are several different kinds of satellite guided precision munitions, several of which were used in the Gulf Wars and in Kosovo
  • the US Air Force has five different kinds of stealth bombers, no one else has a single operational version
  • thanks to the science base in the USA there are more than 700 aerial unmanned vehicles in Iraq alone. They range from the three foot Raven to the Global Hawk with a 44 foot wingspan.

This glimpse shows some of the crucial roles which are played by science and technology

The militarisation of areas in science became very prominent at the time of the Second World War, not least with the Manhattan project, it remained high during the Cold War, and after a brief dip, took off again during the Bush-led fight to 'overcome terrorism' in all its perceived manifestations, which has supported a variety of science and technology-led programmes which have marginalised those with goals other than military ones.

To the onlooker, Operation Desert Storm launched the RMA based heavily on information technology. The war connected the imperative for low casualties with R&D. This marriage was to address calls for improvements in high resolution targeting (such as laser-guided weapons) and other 'cutting edge science' and technology, amongst other things in order to increase accuracy and hence lower so-called collateral damage. This approach has been used to justify continued investments in a host of technologies, many of which turn up in the UK military-academic consortia about which more in a moment.

This Revolution moved away from person-based command and control structures removing the human from 'the loop'. It additionally embraced a view, from a variety of sources, which amongst other things marginalised some alternative ways of framing and approaching conflict, including multilateral diplomacy. And more nuanced ways of understanding conflict and its resolution, and how to best build peace tend to be lower on the agenda. Many think that political or otherwise peaceful means to suitable ends are endangered by high technology. The expectations of governments, the media and the public is for a clean solution, using high technology means to address complex situations. But there has been little in the way of discussion about these claims and the reality.

I now wish to share with you some of the findings of the Report Soldiers in the laboratory to illustrate how the military involvement with science and technology in the UK, seen together with the role of the USA, facilitates this narrowly focused high technology weapons-based approach to national security. I shall return to a brief critique of some of the problems, ethical and political, that this approach creates at the end of this presentation.

A number of new partnerships in the UK, drawing on and supporting scientific and technological expertise in the universities and military corporations, have been set up in the last five years. Three such partnerships, often complementary to one another, are currently underway. They involve a variety of aspects of the Revolution in Military Affairs. At present they involve 29 universities across the UK, with a small number of military corporations participating in most of these programmes. The programmes are:

  • The Defence and Aerospace Research Partnerships
  • Towers of Excellence
  • Defence Technology Centres

These three kinds of consortia are in addition to many other collaborations between one or more military companies and the universities, supporting research, public relations and teaching across Europe.

Recently a new alliance between the military sectors of the USA and UK for sharing expertise on information and communications technology has been announced - these also involve researchers in universities and the military corporations.

I'd like to very briefly mention a little more about these three consortia as they illustrate what areas are involved and where these partnerships take us:

Defence and Aerospace Research Partnerships (DARPS)

DARPS are industry-led university partnerships funded by the EPSRC and government (Department of Trade and Industry) as well as by industry. Rolls Royce is a major player in six of the eight recently announced. The research supported is in engineering, computation and data handling related to aerospace objectives.

The total value of the DARPS research programme for 2002-03 was around Euros 26 million. You can find more detail in the SGR Report which I mentioned earlier. Like the other military consortia the output from these partnerships is in the main to address military objectives. Given the dual nature of much aerospace research the products from the consortia could have both a civilian and military market but the innovation pathways and end products are going to be seriously influenced by the predominantly military objectives and participants.

The second kind of consortia are:

Towers of Excellence

This collaboration is between researchers in the former government defence research establishments, the universities and the military industries and was launched in July 2002. They are 'generally created at the level of the major sub-systems technology' . Six priority areas were identified: guided weapons, radar, electro-optic sensors, underwater sensors, synthetic environments and commercially available software for use in human-machine interface.

It is envisaged that up to 25 Towers could be created and the thrust of each will be in areas where there are seen to be particular commercial strengths, and where government/industry teams can pursue 'world-beating products' with an inbuilt disincentive for the pursuit of technology for its own sake - thereby reducing likely civilian usefulness.

Currently there are a total of five Towers:

  • Guided weapons
  • Opto-electronic sensors
  • Radar
  • Underwater sensors
  • Synthetic environments

And lastly:

Defence Technology Centres

Defence Technology Centres (DTCs) are envisaged as a major element in developing advanced technology for 'meeting the MoD's science and technology priorities'. The DTC programme was launched in February 2002 to extend the collaboration between the military industry and universities and thereby to develop new technologies conceived as 'solutions' to 'defence problems'. The Ministry of Defence will provide each DTC with funding of up to Euros 7.5 million per annum for between 3 and 5 years, this sum is to be matched by other consortium members.

The DTCs which have been launched are in computation, ergonomics and design and engineering of autonomous systems, areas also funded by the American Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Such high technology 'incubators' as these various partnerships and collaborations involve the active participation of many of the same universities and tends to lock the outcome of research so supported into a military product. Such a trend can be traced in the history of the development of nuclear power, lasers and in other areas in electronics.

It is worth recalling that forty-six engineering departments closed in UK universities between 1994 and 2001 - thus military support of the remaining engineering departments concentrates expertise into a narrow range of areas - not good news for sources of independent advice for government. In addition it leaves less scope for the harnessing of expertise to address other pressing problems such as clean fuel technologies and climate change problems.

This is a brief and rather hurried tour to give a flavour of the many ways in which science, engineering and technology currently supports the framing of the security agenda in countries like the USA and the UK. This process creates a variety of issues: ethical, scientific, humanitarian and political, that deserve our attention, we may wish to discuss some of them this evening:

Firstly, military spending on the present global scale stimulates poverty in those places where spending is disproportionately high and the economic burden of such spending reduces the funds available for other pressing needs. Such spending may well therefore stimulate many of the problems which actually provoke conflict and insecurity.

Secondly, the culture of seeking a national security posture based largely on technological means sidelines more complex and perhaps difficult ways of addressing what threatens peace. Many increasingly feel that technology can actually increase asymmetric threats rather than reduce them. The use of weapons and their support technologies at best may conclude a war but does little to stimulate peace and security, and to foster democracy post-conflict or indeed create a global civil society. Additionally, there has been little research on value for money when it comes to military support of science and technology - and little open discussion of what a national security posture should actually look like.

Like a number of commentators we suggest that reliance on complex technology especially in a networked environment increases systems vulnerability, and hence compromises how conflict is managed.

Thirdly, many within the military policy area feel that technology as a major means of seeking security raises high expectations in government, the military and in the minds of the public for clean and essentially neat resolutions to problematic situations or in areas of conflict, it also sidesteps political strategy. By exploiting advanced technology it is imagined that accurate weapons targeting, low civilian deaths especially from the effects of collateral damage and a rapid culmination of hostilities and ensuing peace will follow. The reality to date is otherwise. Additionally, how will such approaches safeguard society against threats such as those posed by international terrorists, for example?

In fact many believe technological solutions can actually stand in the way of a more human-centred ways of resolving hot-spots and dealing with the aftermath of war and does not help in understanding future areas where conflict may arise and how best to build and safeguard peace. This is an area which is treated in more detail in the Report.

Fourthly, even in rich nations the high cost of technological approaches to security which I briefly mentioned reduces the budgets for other, perhaps more effective means of dealing with security threats, such as for example certain forms of disarmament, peace building and also addressing the various problems created by climate change, providing clean energy technologies and measures to tackle resource depletion and degraded environments. Here the closing of university departments exacerbates the reduction in available expertise.

Fifthly, there are a host of ethical and humanitarian issues which the use of high technology to ensure security raise: these include the fact that the power projection model favoured by the USA and to a lesser extent by many including the UK can inflame resentment in many parts of the world and kindle and drive conflict. This tendency is supported by arms proliferation. Most importantly, it decreases the opportunities for a civil and just society to be built. I think that the continuing serious problems in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate the difficulties of depending upon the technical fix to deal with complex issues. Additionally, we have seen that international treaties tend to be weakened by the unilateralist stance of the most technologically advanced and dependent country in the world - the USA.

Added to these concerns, the two Gulf Wars together with the economic sanctions against Iraq, and the various campaigns of America and its allies are extremely likely to increase the terrorist threat to Europe and America and hence lessen global peace. It seems that the lessons of Madrid, London and Bali still have to be learnt by some politicians.

The Report Soldiers in the laboratory makes a number of recommendations about demilitarising science and technology, whilst retaining reasonable levels of R&D to ensure an appropriate national defence which addresses present and future threats. The Report also looks to increased investment in civil use of the expertise of science and engineering to properly tackle the urgent problems which we face today. Also it's clear to many that we should develop far more multilateral peace promotion and not unilateral and pre-emptive power projection. We should engage a far wider audience for building security. The health of science and technology is endangered by narrowing funding to sources which expect simple one-dimensional approaches to a variety of questions. Expertise needs to be used for positive goals. As citizens of a global community, we should actively contest what constitutes national security programmes and build a safer world.