The military agenda: the role of science, engineering and technology

Presentation by Dr Chris Langley, SGR, as part of a Debate at the Royal Institution on 11 May 2005


Questions about national security are uppermost in many people's minds today, especially in the wake of various terrorist attacks across the world and the war in Iraq. Current global military spending is around $1 trillion. Unilateralist and in some cases pre-emptive military strategies have tended to marginalise other ways of thinking about securing peace. In wealthy countries like the USA, France and the UK, significant military R&D budgets drive a weapons-based, high-technology military agenda. In the UK £2.7 billion is spent on military R&D per annum. But has such a view and the ever increasing numbers and kinds of weapons systems and their support technology really made the world a safer place? Is the significant military support of science, engineering and technology the best way to seek peace, social justice and environmental sustainability? What ethical issues arise? How are science, engineering and technology influenced by the military support they receive? In the Report Soldiers in the laboratory questions such as these are asked and the complex and mutually supportive worlds of the military sector, science, engineering and technology put under the microscope. Join the author of this Report and the panel in examining the role of the military within science, engineering and technology.


Notes for the Debate

I should like to thank everyone for coming to this talking point meeting this evening and to also thank the Royal Institution for providing the opportunity for us to discuss an issue which does not normally feature on the radar screen of discussions about science and engineering.

President Eisenhower who was also a general in the US army said in 1961:

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist"

President Dwight Eisenhower - 17 January 1961

1. I would like to use Eisenhower's warning to be the theme for our conversation this evening and to ask some questions about and to challenge the largely unexamined role of high technology, weapons-based systems and their support technologies in the security agenda of countries like the UK and the USA. I should also like us to think about global peace and to look at security from far wider perspectives than those we are used to hearing.

My intention is to leave you all, including my panel colleagues, with a number of questions and comments which we can re-visit and discuss and challenge in more detail this evening.

This year is an important one not only because of the recent election and the Iraq question, but also because the Trident nuclear programme is to be discussed - probably again without full parliamentary participation. And in addition the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is having its 5-year review conference this month. These discussions all involve some attention to questions of science and technology in the pursuit of military objectives.

The provision of a military means of seeking security and the interactions between the various participants in this process is complex and involved and we will, at best, only have the opportunity to touch on some of the issues tonight.

For more in-depth discussions as well as examples of some of the areas about which I shall speak I suggest that you obtain a copy of the Scientists for Global Responsibility Report Soldiers in the laboratory.

To set the scene:

2. A series of major changes have occurred in the manner in which the military operates, especially in the West in recent years - the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs - which involves a range of high technology approaches using electronic information and communication systems in order to formulate the strategies used both in the battlefield and to assess pre-conflict situations. Pivotal to this revolution is power projection entailing as it does information dominance, and the use of a vast array of sophisticated weapons.

This revolution provides a great deal of the framework for the national security agenda of countries like the USA and the UK. Such an agenda moreover envisages total victory and High Intensity Conflict - these phrases are to be found in many military tracts produced by the military corporations, the media and the defence ministries.

It is also an agenda which sees outer space as being a legitimate platform for waging war and for undertaking surveillance operations. It is obvious that such a revolution owes a great deal to the expertise of those in science, engineering and technology.

3. The technology-directed military R&D budgets of the UK and USA are significant spenders of taxpayers' money - around one-third of UK public sector R&D spending is for military objectives. Globally the spending on military R&D was around US$60 billion in 1998 and will have rocketed post-September 11th. Many believe that such a focus on technology itself fuels arms races across the world.

4. The 2004 UK Ministry of Defence Whitepaper 'Delivering security in a changing world' describes plans to slim down the numbers of people in the various forces whilst also increasing spending on military technology. The MoD plans to increase successive military budgets up to and including 2007/08. In the USA the military budget has escalated to more than $400 billion per year, which approaches Cold War levels of spending by the USA.

5. We should remember too that military R&D, funded by us all, produces 'solutions', which are in the main, weapons and their various platforms, for the military corporations to then sell back to defence departments.

6. The direction and extent of military spending which I have hinted at raises serious ethical and social issues - examples include the 'total surveillance project' being a plank in the Bush Homeland Security programme. [Examples: from nanotechnology and the DTC IT projects.]

7. The universities have become more and more commercially oriented and science is now far more instrumentalist - that is, geared toward specific end products, than even twenty years ago - this trend has facilitated the military sector-university partnerships launched in the UK in 2002, at present involving 29 UK universities. These multimillion-pound projects include Defence Technology Centres presently numbering four; Defence Aerospace Research Partnerships of which there are 6 up and running, and Towers of Excellence of which there are four active. In addition the military corporations fund a variety of teaching and broad-based research activities in the UK universities - Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems, two of the most powerful corporations for example are heavily involved in these activities. But I should stress that these brief examples are only a glimpse into the little-known funding activities of military interests.

8. In the UK and the USA this spending of substantial sums of taxpayers' money on military R&D produces a situation that I should like us to take a closer look at. Some of the key issues for us to examine are:

First: The growing reliance on technology in both the national and international security agenda of countries like the UK, France and USA produces 'technology-directed' blinkers. These reduce the opportunities and funding for conflict resolution and for a deeper understanding of what actually creates and maintains conflict and unrest.

In addition, the technological mindset not only raises the expectation of the public and governments for a quick and clean outcome to military intervention but reduces the opportunity for multilateral diplomacy.

Examples: person-centred command and control structure replaced by a variety of networkcentric IT projects; biodefence and missile defense.

Second: There is a disproportionate presence in a variety of the university consortia that I mentioned of a small number of 'specially favoured' powerful military corporations - this compromises both openness and a wider view of national and global security concerns.

Third: Even in the G8 nations the significant spending on military R&D reduces funds available for more nuanced and broadly-based ways of approaching security such as climate change mitigation, poverty, resource issues and the Millennium Development Goals - which includes improving the lives of those living in areas of the world which have suffered from conflict. Some signs of change in the UK but much more needs to be done.

Fourth. There are social and ethical dilemmas with the UK-US special relationships, especially the one recently renewed concerning nuclear technology, these are in urgent need of examination.

The US Department of Defense lists various areas of interest and these are very similar to the military objectives embraced by MoD. Examples: low-yield nuclear weapons, expansion of AWE, missile defense, Trident nuclear weapons due for decision in 2005 and the change to the pre-emptive strike of UK and USA.

Fifth. Research in science and engineering is ever more globalised now and this has prompted a number of concerns, not only in the USA, about how various projects might carry threats to security - in particular the militarisation of space and the biosciences.

Sixth. Post-Cold War arms race driven by a technological imperative with consequent arms proliferation does little to produce peace and global security.

The spread of small arms in particular destabilises many regimes and also supports crime in urban settings. The UK and USA are major arms dealing countries. Codes of conduct on international arms sales are inadequate to prevent weapons being sold to countries which violate human rights and destroy the environment

Seventh. Spin-out - that is civilian products emerging from military investment in R&D is both lengthy and far more complex than the simple-minded version which appears in the literature of the military sector at various times.

So what is my take home message:

  • The UK national security stance is largely weapons-based and high technology.
  • It relies heavily on the US in both its framework and attitude.
  • Such an agenda involves a disproportionate input from a small number of very powerful military corporations. Such an agenda also soaks up expertise in science and engineering which is badly needed elsewhere, for example to deal with the crises of climate change and environmental destruction.
  • The use of high-technology approaches to security, based upon the notion of pre-emptive military action leaves little room for either multilateral diplomacy or for long-term approaches to global security. Most importantly - it does very little to make our world a safer place in view of just where the threats to us all are actually coming from.