“We need a new concept of security due to technological change and climate change”
May 10, 2016
Technology is evolving at an unprecedented rate. Even though Moore’s Law, the rule-of-thumb that computer chips double in power every two years, is drawing to a close, computers will continue to rapidly transform our world. These transformations have a profound impact on the security of nations, even though they are not well understood.
As we look towards the future, we risk spending tremendous amounts of our precious resources preparing for wars that will never happen and miss out on the chance to prepare for life and death challenges which are almost a certainty. The technology-fueled changes in the nature of national security mean that we can take our eyes off the past and re-focus our attention on real threats. – even the ones that don’t match up with our assumptions.
There are two major issues that need to be discussed openly and cooperatively between the Republic of Korea, Japan, the People’s Republic of China and the United States.
First we must consider whether technological change will render many weapons systems inappropriate in the years to come and ask ourselves whether a more profound rethinking of military issues is required, perhaps one that moves beyond the traditional nation-state assumptions we have used so far.
Second, we must consider whether we must limit the development of weapons systems, and rather turn increasingly to rigidly enforced weapons limitation treaties for fundamental ethical reasons because of the increasingly destructive potential of the next generation of weapons. We need to ask ourselves whether we will even have the budgets to pay for conventional weapons over the next twenty years in light of the tremendous costs of adaption to, and mitigation of, climate change. Could it be that we must reach binding agreements to limit, or ban, weapons so that we can effectively devote our precious resources to the basic steps required for human survival?
How technology is changing the nature of security
Will the nature of military conflict be so transformed by emerging technologies that most of our weapons systems will cease to play a meaningful role in the near future? We can’t assume that our conflicts will end or that deterrence is unnecessary. As technologies that can kill tens of thousands become cheaper and more accessible to small groups, even to individuals, we should certainly continue to think about how we will respond.
However, it is not clear that the battles of the future will be between nation states per se, which are rapidly fragmenting. Nor is it at all clear that the weapons we employed in previous conflicts will be helpful in such conflicts.
Three of the most important transformations are: 1) the emergence of drones and robots; 2) the sophistication of cyber warfare and 3) the emergence of 3D printing and other means of transmitting objects through non-conventional means.
The conventional military is made up of tanks, fighter planes, missiles and battleships and aircraft carriers, all of which are extremely expensive and vulnerable to these new weapons.
In the case of drones and robots, we are in the stone age of this new technology and we should expect it to transform our world. Drones will lead the charge, although we should not underestimate the potential of robots in the future. Drones will get far smaller and more deadly quickly, and they will be increasingly self-guided, even at a micro or nano scale.
Imagine the next generation of drones, a swarm of 10,000 including everything from missiles with massive explosives to small drones less than a centimeter in length armed and ready to blow up when they reach a critical target. This swarm can move in on an aircraft loaded with fighter planes that cost a total of 8 billion USD to build and reduce it to junk in a few hours.
Robots, or autonomous killing machines, will play an even greater role. Without a human being in the loop to direct lethal attacks, these machines may cause even more deaths of the innocent, known in military jargon as “collateral damage.” We may look back on our current era of drones, where the United States is apt to kill thirty innocent people for every person it takes out with a missile, with warm nostalgia. It is unlikely that the designers of these killing machines, who are already hard at work, will build in a version of Asimov’s ethical Laws of Robotics.
So also cyber warfare will pose tremendous challenges and may even drive us back to conventional technologies that cannot be hacked. Needless to say, it may be possible to simply take over all the weapons (including nuclear weapons) of an enemy and use them against him with future cyber capability.
Moreover, such capacity is likely to be exploited by factions or other non-state actors, rather than nation states, creating the potential for extensive conflicts that involve the complex matching up of likes with likes on a global scale that defy the most basic assumptions about state to state conflicts that have undergirded national security policy in East Asia. War may not unfold as a contest between nation states in this highly unstable and fragmented global social order, even though average citizens may think that is what they are looking at.
3D printing is such a new technology that we do not fully understand its military applications, but already it has been identified as a game-changer in industry. 3D printing offers the potential to create objects – devices, weapons, machinery – simply by virtue of the digital description which is fed to a 3D printer. 3D printing is an extension of CNC routing, milling, extruding, and cutting technology that has existed for almost two decades on the factory floor, but it differs in its small scale and its universality – a 3D printer can sit on a desk, and can create any dimensional object by building it up out of tiny droplets of thermoplastic resin. Already, people have uploaded patterns for making untraceable guns by this means. The resin medium is a limiting factor, but there is no reason why printers cannot be designed to use other materials, or why an initial stage might not include synthesizing such materials, thereby simplifying logistics.
These new forms of conflict do not favor organized governments and we will see increasing fragmentation within nation states in the years to come. Whatever control governments who lead in these technologies have right now will slip through their fingers. Cyberwarfare is blending together with virtual reality, gaming, advertising, propaganda and art to form a bizarre continuum that will be a serious challenge to control and to regulate.
We should not feel any loyalty to established weapons systems and we should be willing, even delighted, to toss them in the trashcan if they cease to serve their purpose. It is irresponsible and unpatriotic to prop up some defense system merely because of the money to be made, or egos invested.
Climate change shifts the debate on security
Even in the case that conventional military technologies can be justified, we have to be honest with ourselves and recognized that granted the tremendous cost of adaptation to, and mitigation of, climate change, we will not have the funds left to continuing to develop conventional weapons.
We must completely rethink our concept of security in light of rapid climate change that threatens our very survival. We will be forced to radically increase spending on the mitigation of emissions, the cleaning up of polluted water and soil and the restoration of forests and other natural spaces on Earth. Even in the best scenario, we will need to spend trillions of dollars to adapt our cities and our daily lives to extreme weather. The alternative is massive, chaotic migration to small, temperate areas of the world, that will make today’s refugee crisis look manageable.
There simply will not be any funds left over for conventional military spending. We will be forced to establish global arms control regimes that cut back drastically on military weapons just for the pragmatic reason that we cannot afford it any more. Even when distasteful, we must reach agreements to eliminate nuclear weapons globally, to vastly scale back on fighter planes, tanks and other conventional weapons, because we must completely remake our economies. Much of the spending on intelligence and diplomacy must be similarly rerouted to addressing the serious threat posed by climate change through sophisticated monitoring that can be directly applied to our economic planning.
I do not make this argument as an idealist, which I am not, but rather as a pragmatist who sees a reality that most people do not want to think about. It is the duty of the military to face the true security threats. It is not the duty of the military or the government to sustain a vast military-industrial complex that does not address security threats like climate change.
The exponential development of technology forms a new threat unprecedented in human history which requires us to completely revise the very concept of security. To some degree, that was the awareness behind the establishment of the United Nations and other efforts to end war as a means of resolving conflict. It is not so much a desire for a perfect world as a recognition that with the advent of nuclear weapons, and now a host of other destructive tools, the damage done by war is simply too great and must be regulated.
Albert Einstein was the most articulate exponent of this point, and although we have not destroyed ourselves in nuclear war yet, the threat has only increased and the emergence of new highly destructive weapons that are increasingly accessible makes the threats quite real.
The rapid development of technology has simultaneously created an even greater threat: climate change. Technology has us using more and more energy and we are oblivious to the consequences for our ecosystem.
But to truly restrict the ability of nations to conduct war, to restrict the development and use of weapons requires a highly organized global system not unlike what was envisioned in the League of Nations, or for that matter the Nonproliferation Treaty. The fact that we are heading in the opposite direction today, with the United States committed to spending $348 billion in the next eight years, without considering overruns, on “modernizing” nuclear weapons, is not a reason to give up hope. The fact that the United States is developing small nuclear devices that blur the line between conventional weapons and nuclear weapons, thereby increasing the chance of escalation of any conflict to nuclear war, is deeply disturbing, but not the end of the world.
The time has come for the United States, and all the nations of Northeast Asia, to bravely take a step in the opposite direction, and summon a collective will to make the reflexive use of new technologies to harm Earth’s citizenry rarer than the use of nuclear weapons in war. Climate change must be the site of our last battle.