Military-University Partnerships: The role of science and technology in setting the security agenda

Presentation given by Dr Chris Langley, SGR, at the 9th Annual Conference on Economics and Security at the University of Bristol on 23-25 June, 2005


National governments spend significant sums and scarce resources in the name of 'defence'. The global military burden stood at US$956 billion in 2003 and the two major military spenders, the USA and UK allocate large sums to military R&D. In 2003 the UK military sector spent £2.7 billion on military R&D. The economic standing and the output from the expertise residing in the science and engineering bases, largely determines the military advantage of both 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 UK's military posture - a predominantly high technology, weapons-based one. We describe how such an agenda is framed by the military sector's perceptions of security, and how this view marginalises broader, more inclusive notions of national security. Case studies of US and UK science and engineering programmes are used to describe the recent military-university partnerships which, it is contended, drive a high technology, weapons-dominated system and a disproportionate approach to the security of the UK. The paper contests the current security agenda in the UK and shows how the expertise of the science, engineering and technology communities could be used instead to address the various global drivers of conflict and the looming environmental crises, and thus create a sustainable peace and strengthen sustainable goals.


I should like to give you a view not from an academic perspective but from those who are concerned about the many changes which have been underway in science and technology in the past twenty years, and in particular the role of the military in the governance of science and technology. I will draw upon the Scientists for Global Responsibility Report which I wrote and some of the findings. I have copies of the Executive Summary available.

Theodor Adorno wrote:

"The power of modern weaponry shows that we are cleverer, but not wiser than our ancestors."

Adorno was a trenchant critic of the blind pursuit of domination by humans over other humans and over nature. His critical eye saw that fear drove such domination and also that science was brought in to create ever more sophisticated and expensive weapons to ensure such domination. Whilst he wrote in the times of a Nazi onslaught in Europe his analysis of this domination is as relevant today as it was seventy years ago. 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. Today I wish to point out the role played by science and technology in the creation of a weapons-based high technology approach to security. This agenda tackles only a fraction of the many causes of fear - some very real and some largely imagined - in the early part of the 21st century.

Public spending on military objectives collectively viewed as 'defence' is significant. In addition the use of scarce resources and the environmental costs of the pursuit of such a national security programme is an area in need of sustained and critical analysis. World military spending in 2003 increased by around 11 per cent in real terms. This itself is cause for concern since it represents a marked rate of increase, and it is even more noteworthy considering that it was preceded by an increase of 6.5 per cent in 2002. Therefore, over these two years the global military burden increased by almost 18 per cent in real terms, to reach US$956 billion (in current dollars) in 2003. It is now close to US$1 trillion. High income countries like the UK and the USA account for around 75 per cent of world military spending, but the burden 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 to around US$400 billion per annum. Government expenditure planned for 'total public spending on defence in the UK' was £33.8 billion in 2003-04.

The two major military spenders, the USA and UK allocate significant sums to military R&D. I will draw upon the Report, Soldiers In The Laboratory which was recently launched by Scientists for Global Responsibility to describe how a relatively recent revolution in military affairs has been supported by a number of military sector endeavours in the UK. Such changes have occurred in a society where universities have also profoundly altered, to produce a heavily commercialised environment for science and technology and also a society which prioritises economic goals over global social and environmental objectives. Changes which have been announced by the Blair government as part and parcel 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 and climate change. However, the broad UK security agenda remains locked in the embrace of the Cold War in its reliance on high technology.

The militarisation of science and its various disciplines became very prominent at the time of the Second World War, not least with the Manhattan project, 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 with its reliance on information and communications technology and other 'cutting edge science' and technology. The USA controls around 90% of the world's military satellites. 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. The driver of the Revolution in Military Affairs is the USA.

The role of the USA is central to understanding the global military environment and the ways the UK government frames its security agenda. Here I want to share with you some of the findings of the Report Soldiers In The Laboratory to illustrate how the military support of science and technology in the UK seen together with the role of the USA - especially given the variety of special relationships which successive UK governments have forged - provides an impetus for narrowly focused high technology weapons-based national security agenda. Increases in military spending in the UK are partly driven by the maintenance of interoperability with the US military apparatus. I shall return to a brief critique of some of the problems this approach creates at the end of this presentation.

A number of new partnerships drawing on and supporting expertise in the universities and military corporations have been set up in the last five years - largely as a result of the DTI's Foresight programme and the framing of national security objectives identified by successive governments. Three such partnerships, often complementary to one another are currently underway. At present they involve 29 universities across the UK:

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

These three kinds of consortia are in addition to other collaborations between one or more military companies and the universities, such as the University Technology Centres set up by Rolls Royce, the Boeing manufacturing initiatives and the swathe of BAE Systems university research and teaching programmes.

Defence and Aerospace Research Partnerships (DARPS)

DARPS are industry-led university partnerships which are funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Department of Trade and Industry and Ministry of Defence as well as industry. Rolls Royce is a major player in six of the eight recently announced, which are:

  • 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 £18 million, and more detail is supplied in the SGR Report which I mentioned earlier. Announcing these DARPS, millionaire science minister Lord Sainsbury said that "....we need to build effective partnerships between industry and academia - partnerships that will stimulate and focus research, provide a framework for technology transfer and the effective exploitation of results, and help to maintain and develop the UK's world-class science and technology base".

Towers of Excellence

This form of projected collaboration is between researchers in the former DERA research establishments now re-branded as DSTL and QinetiQ, universities and the military industries and was launched at the Farnborough Air Show 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 - with perhaps civilian usefulness.

Currently there are in total four Towers:

  • Guided weapons
  • Radar
  • Underwater sensors
  • Synthetic environments which at present only involves Cranfield as the university component.

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 industry and the 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 £5 million per annum for between 3 and 5 years, this sum is to be matched by other consortium members.

The following DTCs have been launched:

  • 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 some of the same universities help create reductionist, high technology solutions to what are increasingly complex conflict situations, often found in many of the poorest parts of the world today. Reliance on such a technological imperative makes it more difficult for governments to elect to use 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 on security into those that remain - not good news for independent advice for government.


I have provided you with a very brief tour of some of the many ways in which technology currently plays a significant role in the framing of the security agenda in countries like the USA and the UK. I should now like to briefly revisit Adorno's comments, with which I began, and to suggest some of the issues that deserve our attention:

Firstly, the culture of seeking a national security posture based largely on technological means sidelines more complex and difficult ways of addressing what imperils 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.

Second, many within the military policy area feel that technology as a major means of seeking security raises high expectations in government and in the minds of the public for clean and essentially neat resolutions to problematic situations or areas of conflict. 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.

Thirdly, even in rich nations the high cost of technological approaches to security reduces the budgets for other perhaps more effective ways of dealing with security threats like disarmament, peacebuilding and the areas of climate change mitigation, clean energy technologies and measures to tackle resource depletion and degraded environments.

Fourthly there are a host of ethical issues which the technological imperative raise: these include the fact that the power projection model used by the USA and to a lesser extent by the UK can inflame resentment in the poorer parts of the world and drive conflict. This tendency is supported by arms proliferation often through the international arms trade and associated problems; most importantly, it decreases the opportunities for a civil and just society to be built. 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.

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 the domination which Adorno identified as a profound problem and which urgently needs our attention. A just world, where fear is reduced, calls for far more multinational peace promotion and not for unilateral and pre-emptive power projection.