Military partnerships: the role of science and engineering in the national security agenda

Notes of a Presentation by Chris Langley, SGR, at the conference, 'Science and the international humanitarian law: Science to the service of war and the responsibility of scientists', Paris, September 2005


The economic standing and output from expertise residing in the science and engineering bases largely determines military advantage of nations. Such military power also engenders social and economic inequalities across the world. This paper explores, using recent research, the complex network of mutually supportive strands which underpin the military posture of the UK - a predominantly high technology, weapons-based one. Such an agenda is framed by the military sector's perceptions of security. This view marginalises broader, more inclusive notions of national security. Some examples of science and engineering programmes are used to describe the recent military-university partnerships which, it is contended, drive a high technology, weapons-dominated system. The paper contests the current security agenda in many G8 countries including the UK and argues for a far broader approach to security, one which addresses the various global drivers of conflict and the looming environmental crises. And thus creates a more sustainable peace and strengthens sustainable goals.

Notes for the Meeting

The various bombings in Madrid , Bali and London , the attacks on the cities of Iraq , the resurrection of nuclear weapons as part of military strategy and the Missile Defence project have all placed threats to our lives at the forefront of our minds.

I should like to provide you with a brief overview of some aspects of the role which science and engineering have in supporting the national security agenda, using mainly the UK as an example. I'll suggest how this process raises a number of important implications for peace, social justice and security within a global context.

We live in ever growing social, political and economic connectedness and I strongly feel that we should look at far more appropriately connected ways to seek security - ones that stress social justice and sustainability.

Today I'll draw upon the Report Soldiers in the laboratory which I wrote for Scientists for Global Responsibility. Copies of the Report's Executive Summary are available for anyone who is interested.

Military objectives supported by the latest technologies have played a pivotal role in the domination of the countries of the North over those of the South. What role is played by science and technology in the creation of a weapons-based high technology approach to security and to the shaping of attitudes to 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 in need of sustained and critical analysis.

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.

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 the USA to around Euros 340 billion per annum - much being allocated to weapons and their 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.

These two major military spenders, the USA and UK allocate significant sums to military R&D - supported by those with expertise in science and technology. A great deal of such R&D has gone to support a relatively recent Revolution in Military Affairs. This revolution has been stimulated and undertaken by the USA and is mirrored by the UK . Its key driver is the aversion to casualty risks in conflict. 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 ).

These revolutionary processes have occurred in a society where universities have also profoundly altered, to produce a heavily commercialised environment for science and technology. The UK government prioritises economic goals over global social and environmental objectives, science and technology being seen as the key to such economic targets. Changes which have been announced by the Blair government as part of the UK 's presidency of the European Union and the G8 make it appear that there is at long last some recognition of the international importance of tackling poverty, at least in Africa . Although our government talks a great deal recently about climate change, little serious and sustained action has been forthcoming. The USA administration continues its denial of climate change stimulated by human activity. It seems that many find it too difficult to see poverty, climate change and global inequalities as being closely tied to issues of security. The broad UK , American and EU security agenda remain locked in the icy embrace of the Cold War in its over-reliance on high technology weaponry.

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. This period from the end of the Cold War to the present time saw the growth of the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs, it being especially stimulated by the first Gulf War. Here was a war with a highly developed reliance on information and communications technology and high resolution targeting. and other 'cutting edge science' and technology, coupled with a marked aversion to casualties. The USA controls around 90% of the world's military satellites and is a country central to understanding the global military environment and the ways other governments frame their security agenda and foreign policy.

This Revolution moved away from person-based command and control structures and embraced a view, from a variety of sources, which marginalised other ways of framing and approaching conflict, including multilateral diplomacy and more nuanced ways of understanding conflict and its resolution, and how best to build peace.

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 provides an environment for a 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. At present they involve 29 universities across the UK , and a small number of powerful military corporations also participate in the 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, including the University Technology Centres set up by Rolls Royce in European countries including the UK ; the Boeing manufacturing initiatives and the swathe of BAE Systems university research and teaching programmes. 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 a research council (EPSRC) and government (DTI) 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:

  • Rotocraft aerodynamics
  • Advanced metallic airframes
  • High integrity real time systems
  • Modelling and simulation of turbulence and transition for aerospace
  • Design
  • Advanced aeroengine materials
  • Research in data and sensory fusion
  • Unsteady modelling for aerodynamics

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 are in the main to address military objectives. I should explain that given the dual nature of much aerospace research the products may have a civilian market but one has to realise that the innovation pathways and end products are going to be seriously influenced by the military participants.

The second kind of consortia are:

Towers of Excellence

This collaboration is between researchers in the former government military 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 a positive disincentive for the pursuit of technology for its own sake - thereby reducing likely civilian usefulness.

Currently there are in total four Towers:

  • Guided weapons
  • 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 - in broad terms to identify friend from enemy in the conflict zone and thus reduce casualties.

# Data and Information Fusion

# Human Factors Integration

# Electromagnetic Remote Sensing

# Autonomous Systems Engineering

Such high technology 'incubators' as these various partnerships, involving the active participation of many of the same universities tends to lock the outcome of research so supported into a military product. Such a trend helps create reductionist, high technology solutions to what are increasingly complex conflict situations. Reliance on such a technological imperative makes it difficult for governments to choose a more long-term, holistic and non-offensive approach to security issues. Additionally, 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.

This is a brief and rather hurried tour of some of the many ways in which science 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:

Firstly, military spending on the present global scale stimulates poverty and the economic burden of such spending reduces the funds available for other pressing needs. Such spending therefore stimulates many of the problems which actually drive conflict and insecurity.

Secondly, the culture of seeking a national security posture based largely on technological means sidelines more complex and difficult ways of addressing what threatens peace. Technology can, many believe, actually increase asymmetric threats rather than reduce them. The use of weapons and their support technologies at best may conclude a war but does nothing to stimulate peace and security, and to foster democracy post-conflict or indeed create a global civil society. Additionally, are we happy that a small group of powerful military corporations none of whom are elected by us, together with government departments decide in private upon a nation's security agenda without any full and informed discussion of long-term needs and objectives?

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. By exploiting advanced technology it is imagined that accurate weapons targeting, low civilian deaths especially from 'friendly fire' and a rapid culmination of hostilities 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 technological solutions can actually stand in the way of 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.

Fourthly, even in rich nations the high cost of technological approaches to security reduces the budgets for other, perhaps more effective low key ways of dealing with security threats, such as for example disarmament, peace building and addressing the various problems created by climate change, providing clean energy technologies and measures to tackle resource depletion and degraded environments.

Fifthly, there are a host of ethical and humanitarian issues which the use of technological means to ensure security raise: these include the fact that the power projection model favoured by the USA and to a lesser extent by the UK can inflame resentment in many parts of the world and drive conflict. This tendency is supported by arms proliferation often through the international arms trade. Most importantly, it decreases the opportunities for a civil and just society to be built. Look at the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq which demonstrate the US and UK approach to the complex problems represented by these countries. Additionally, we have seen that international treaties are being weakened by the unilateralist stance of the most offensively-armed and technologically advanced country in the world - the USA.

Many feel that 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. The lessons of Madrid, London and Bali still have to be learnt, by some politicians.

The Report Soldiers in the laboratory suggests a number of straightforward ways in which the technological imperative can be reined in and the steps needed to reduce our over-reliance on military power and its projection. It's clear to many that we should develop more multinational peace promotion and not unilateral and pre-emptive power projection. We should engage a far wider audience for security in its many forms rather than a reliance on outmoded weapons-dominated approaches. Scientists, engineers and technologists have a vital part to play here, both in their expertise being used for positive goals and also as citizens of our global community, actively contesting what constitutes national security programmes.