3.5. Technologies as Challenges for Arms Control

Chair: Dr Oliver Thränert

Panelists: Mr Stefan Mogl; Dr Steven E. Miller; Dr Nils Melzer

Rapporteur: Mr Benno Zogg, Center for Security Studies

Modern technology is advancing at an ever faster pace and becomes more accessible. Many innovations look peaceful at first but could be put to military use as well. Three areas of technology are of particular relevance in that regard: biology and chemistry, nuclear technology, and robotics and automated systems. Three leading questions address each of these fields: What is the latest state of development? What military applications are foreseeable? What challenges do they pose to arms control?

Biological and chemical weapons had long been considered a topic of the past, well regulated by the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 respectively. The use of chemical weapons in Syria brought the topic back to public awareness. It further revealed that current mechanisms do not allow for an attribution of use of chemical weapons to a specific actor. Another challenge to arms control is the growing convergence of biology and chemistry. These advancements – CRISPR gene editing or CNSA chemicals in neuroscience for example – offer great opportunities in medicine and industry. However, they also have the potential to make agents more potent, lethal, difficult to detect and fight when put to military use. Using these technologies as weapons requires a conscious decision, which is strictly prohibited by aforementioned conventions. Even though there is some democratisation of the technology, it still requires strong commitment and resources to develop such weapons, which will not make them terrorists’ first choice. Maintaining a firm political will to uphold the conventions remains critical.

Nuclear technology has a distinct character: It was used for military purposes from the beginning, its destructive effect immediately demonstrated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At an early stage, it was assumed that nuclear technology would spread to dozens of states, which has not occurred. There are strong efforts towards non-proliferation yet also to allow states to put nuclear technology to civilian use. Since two processes, enrichment and reprocessing, are crucial for both nuclear energy production and the building of a bomb, states’ motives are crucial. The states parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime establish full transparency through IAEA monitoring. In addition, states in possession of nuclear technology manage the issue by denying access to technology. Demand for the development of nuclear technology is surging, with 60 states expressing interest in the last decade. On top of the challenge to manage the intentions of these countries to use nuclear power, technological advancement will further render arms control more complex. New technology may facilitate access to nuclear power or make it cheaper, yet at the same time, under a functioning control regime, may create new chokepoints and increase the barrier to the use of such technology. Recent examples of technological advancements for centrifuges are carbon fiber, whose production and distribution are strictly monitored and in the hands of few companies; 3D printing; or laser enrichment to manufacture fissile material.

A third field of importance is robotics. An arms race can actually be expected, and is actually already happening in these fields, but it is not of the high intensity as a nuclear arms race. There are revolutionary applications of technological advancement in robotics already at use: automatic defence systems; robots to diffuse IEDs or conduct search-and-rescue missions; artificial intelligence in the civilian sphere, namely the internet of things; or robotic surgery. It is likely that the military will make use of many of these. International law is challenged by the generic nature of this technology – compliance with cyber regulations, and attribution of breaches to specific actors, would be nearly impossible to achieve. Classic disarmament logic can thus hardly be applied, so there are ways needed to cope with such technology. This requires more effective implementation of existing international law, and the need to interpret legal terms like ‘use of force’ or ‘sovereignty’ in cyberspace in this new context. Before creating new international law, there should be a forum for the ethical discussion of the wide effects of these technologies, to use it as a good servant, and to master it in this expected revolution in social history.