The Future of Conflict: Neurowarfare

By Grant Turner

Image Credit: Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Chemical and Biological Technologies Department /DVIDS

Join any conversation on emerging technologies, and a familiar list of topics will quickly dominate. Hypersonic missiles, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, the Internet of Things, 5G and 6G, cyber/information warfare and cyber security implications are indeed important. However, there is much more that escapes attention. 

Of particular concern are the realms of biotechnology and psychology. Of course biological and psychological warfare have been around in one form or another for about as long as war has existed. The scientific pursuit of biological and psychological weapons has similarly been around for some time, and has been receiving greater attention since the 20th century.  

So what has changed to make these fields of exploration jump to the top of the dystopian checklist?

In just a few decades, humanity has progressed leaps and bounds in integrating and operationalizing psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, biology, chemistry and physics. Separately, these disciplines were already capable of crudely manipulating or destroying anything from parts of organisms to large populations (as the imperial projects of the last two centuries have demonstrated). 

These traditionally siloed disciplines increasingly work together, leaving the attentive observer with a single conclusion: if it were automobiles, this is the Model-T era of truly refined manipulation, control, and destruction of targeted elements of organisms or populations. 

Surely “manipulation, control, and destruction of targeted elements of organisms and populations” is hyperbole? 

What if it became possible to remotely control the muscle movements of another person, or communicate with them via brainwaves? Elon Musk’s Neuralink could just be the publicity stunt of an eccentric billionaire, but what will the national security applications be of breakthroughs that let a user alter another human’s mood, emotions, DNA and biology, behaviors, biases, or politics

Admittedly, the science and technology cited above are still quite crude (some more than others). However, they are representative of massive bodies of ongoing research and technology that are increasingly making breakthroughs once thought impossible or distant. Further, few are currently trying to integrate or weaponize the pieces. Not all governments and corporations are ignorant of this potential, nor will they be for much longer. 

As of 2021, the neuroscience and technology (NeuroS/T) market is worth more than $175 million annually, with growth rates ranging from 3% to 18% depending on the sector. Between 2025 and 2030, Asia is set to overtake the market, which not only has technological and security consequences, but also creates immense economic leverage.

In the US, a wide range of emerging technologies are primarily being pursued via the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the intelligence community’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). 

Many of these technological projects are “dual use” items. This means that even if their research is explicitly medical, they will almost certainly be applied in warfare, intelligence, and national security. 

Current and near term NeuroS/T falls into two broad categories: optimizing human performance, and influencing or impairing opponents.

On the optimization side, there is a race to create super soldiers and intelligence officers. This entails gathering large amounts of complex data on optimal performance for given individuals or groups in various contexts, and then using a combination of devices, chemicals, nanotechnology, and gene editing to not only maintain optimal performance, but to also improve it for everyone. 

This includes making better leaders and better followers, enhancing the ability to learn and act (both physically and intellectually), enhancing mental and physical health and resilience (including guarding against enemy genetic, nano, and microbial attacks), enhancing the senses, and interfacing remotely with machines and other humans.

As for influencing others, such technologies can be used to sway or destabilize target populations during counterinsurgency campaigns. This is similar to the more expansive and ongoing DoD Minerva project, or the growing fields of neuromarketing and neuropolitics.

As another example, microbes and other methods to deliver low-doses of chemicals to highly specific parts of the brain can induce various feelings and predispositions in a target. In other words, dose an adversary’s diplomat or military leader before a key meeting to make them more agreeable, erratic, prone to aggression or another desired mindset to disrupt their plans.

Finally, in what seems straight out of science fiction, tiny robots can be aerosolized and thus taken in through a variety of human membranes. In the not so distant future, the nanotech can then be remotely activated (even by cell and satellite) to travel to and interface with specific parts of the body. 

Once in place, these nanobots form a vast array of sensors, transmitters, and receivers which can be used to remotely read from the brain and write into the brain. According to Dr. James Giordano of Georgetown University, such technology will go from the drawing board to testing by 2025 via DARPA’s Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology program.

Countries such as Russia and China logically have their own versions of DARPA and IARPA and are pursuing the same kinds of technology. For whatever human rights and ethical violations the US has committed over the years, China and Russia are far less concerned with scientific and medical ethics, let alone human rights. Between investments and a willingness to do whatever they feel needs to be done, their advances will almost certainly outpace the US.

For better and worse, non-state actors such as corporations, universities, and terrorists, are also capable of researching and developing biological, psychological, and social tools of all sorts. Even individuals can get involved with increasingly basic things like biohacking, social network analysis, psychometrics, neural devices, and social/psychological manipulation.

The bottom line is that between the medical, business, and tactical uses of the technologies being developed, and the relatively open nature of modern research, it won’t be long before the “emerging” tech is just everyday tech. Is America, or even the world ready?

Countries should consider “neurorights” as Chile has proposed. As Dr. Giordano states, “we need to be discussing what the threats are, how to predict or prevent them, how to recover from the effects of realized threats, and assess what is forgivable in the face of gains.”

Researchers, developers, end users, policymakers, and average citizens alike have little to no training concerning the ethics of the creation and use of such technology, let alone how that power has been employed in the past.

For now, there are three ways to prepare everyone for this new era. The first is to ensure that unbiased, easy to understand courses on morals, ethics, and critical thinking are being taught in K-12 education, with a strong focus on human rights, human nature, science and technology, civic participation, and human potential. 

The second is to ensure that professionals of all stripes have both the aforementioned broad foundation, and that they know how their knowledge and industries impact society as a whole. 

Lastly, security leaders like the readers of Realist Review will need to educate themselves and wrestle with the implications of these paradigm-changing technologies. This world of tomorrow will be today before anyone knows it. 

Grant W. Turner is a regular contributor for the Review and currently a graduate student pursuing an MA in Statecraft and International Affairs at The Institute of World Politics. 

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