The Ethical Implications of Nanotechnological Weaponry

Moira Carroll-Mayer, Bernd Carsten Stahl and Ben Fairweather


This paper urges discussion of the ethical issues to which the nanotechnologically enabled autonomous weapons policy gives rise. For the first time in history society is faced with the reality of digitised, nanotechnologically enabled autonomous weaponry, weaponry that without human intervention takes the decision to select and strike the target. The US and the UK under Joint Vision 2020 and Operation Watchkeeper respectively have as their goal the replacement of conventional weaponry with digitised largely autonomous weaponry, such transformation scheduled for completion some time within the next 15 years. Some autonomous weaponry is already on the field and more, for example self-replicating nanoassembler weaponry is anticipated. Little is known, outside the policy-making cadre, of these developments or of the means by which they are to be implemented. Accordingly the paper will discuss the concept of C41SR or the “system of systems” within which the autonomous weaponry will ultimately operate.

The advent of autonomous weaponry poses serious challenges for just war codes of conduct under which war has been conducted for centuries. The just war doctrine of command responsibility through which culpability for criminal actions on the field of war is punished demands the involvement of a human to whom responsibility can be ascribed. The autonomous weapons policy upon its current trajectory is irreconcilable with that doctrine. The concept of self-replicating nanoassembler weaponry, a form of autonomous weaponry avidly pursued in US DOD laboratories, also challenges the just war principles of proportionality and discrimination on the battlefield.

The research for this paper was undertaken employing critical research methodology. This decision was prompted by awareness that the topic, the ethical implications of the nanotechnological weapons policy implies a presence of tension between the interests of wider society and those of the hegemony. Critical research is rooted in a concern for ethics and the presence of social tension therefore the subject area of the paper provides the ideal milieu for critical research.

The research followed two distinct routes, one built upon a critical review of the literature emanating from military, political and scientific sources and the other upon the findings of a critical discourse analysis of the text of Joint Vision 2020.

The critical review of military, political and scientific literature facilitated a thorough investigation into the ethical issues to which the nanotechnological weapons policy gives rise. Importantly too the review enabled the research to establish whether and to what degree hegemonic bodies involved in the weapons policy address the ethical issues as perceived by those outside the policy making cadre.

The critical discourse analysis of Joint Vision 2020 assists understanding of how the nanotechnological weapons policy is forged, legitimised and made to seem unproblematic in society. The discourse analysis additionally rendered results substantiating allegations that the hegemony veils the development and ethical implications of nanotechnologically enabled autonomous weaponry from wider society

This paper penetrates the mist surrounding the nanotechnologically enabled autonomous weapons policy and paves the way for the confrontation of the most serious ethical dilemma to have arisen in the history of technological development.