New Technologies and the Qualitative Arms Race

Working Paper submitted by the India at the Third Special Session 
of the United Nations General Assembly devoted to disarmament, 1988


1. Paragraph 39 of the Final Document of the Tenth Special Session of the General 
Assembly,  the first special session devoted to disarmament (General Assembly resolution S-10/2), had the following provision:
"Qualitative and quantitative disarmament measures are both important for halting the arms race. Efforts to that end must include negotiations on the limitation and cessation of the qualitative improvement of armaments, especially weapons of mass destruction and the development of new means of warfare so that ultimately scientific and technological achievement may be used solely for peaceful purposes".

2. A decade has passed since the adoption of the Final Document. During this period, efforts 
for "arms control" in both bilateral and multilateral forums have focused primarily on the quantitative expansion of arsenals. At no stage have the qualitative aspects of the arms race been addressed, even though it has been known for some time now that a very large part of the huge sums currently spent on armament by the major Powers is devoted to making qualitative improvements in the existing weapon systems and to developing new systems. As a matter of fact, most of the nuclear "arms control" agreements provide for the upgrading of the existing weapon systems and specify "permitted" areas for further improvement of weapons. This kind of arms control, which does not address itself to the structural nature of the arms race, has not curbed and cannot curb or reverse this race. Real disarmament cannot be achieved without addressing the problem of the qualitative arms race.

3. The total expenditure on military research and development (R and D) -90 percent of it 
by the five nuclear-weapon States and the Federal Republic of Germany - is estimated to be approximately one tenth of the trillion dollar total global military expenditure. Military R and D today is 25 percent of the total expenditure on R and D. The scale of expenditure on military R and D and the pace of technical change in the military sector are unprecedented historically. This is the result of the emergence in the post-Second World War period of a large number of industrial and research establishments devoted exclusively to the design, production and refinement of new weapon systems. Development of weaponry is now no longer an undirected, accidental by-product of the advancement of science and technology. Instead, it has become an all-embracing purposive preoccupation, where every new scientific and technological development is examined for its potential military applications and steps are taken to translate that potential into real weapon systems.

4. There are certain historical imperatives for the growth of science and technology. These, 
in turn, influence patterns of production, consumption, distribution, policies of Governments as well as relations among nations. Progress in science and technology and the changes that it brings about are a part of the historical process and no attempt to halt that process because of the unwelcome nature of some of these changes is likely to succeed. However, dedicated deployment of science and technology for military purposes, irrespective of its consequences for humankind, is another matter. It is the latter that is mainly responsible for the new destructive dimensions acquired by the arms race. It is the duty of the international community to put a restraint on such an orientation.

5. New weapon systems are often developed without reference to the political climate or 
even the prevailing security doctrines. Quite often this takes place without reference even to the actual weapons developed by the adversary. Each side presses ahead with the development of weapons designed to counter hypothetical weapons, sure in the belief that the other side would be doing the same. Technological possibilities of developing weapon systems often acquire an inexorable character and inevitably get translated into reality. The history of weapons development in the post-Second World War period is replete with examples of such a self-propelled momentum overtaking whatever meager results “arms control” measures may have achieved.

6. It is thus evident that the prospects for real disarmament will remain bleak so long as this 
technological arms race is allowed to continue unabated. The pressures of competitive technological armament obstruct further progress in disarmament and even threaten to destroy the limited progress made so far. The current controversy over the 1972 ABM Treaty, because of the pressure of development of new space weapons, is an obvious illustration.

The new arms race

7. Today, the world stands on the threshold of a new arms race. A number of technologies 
that have the potential of transforming completely the methods of war-fighting and the nature of warfare are in advanced stages of development. The maturity and application of these technologies would have far-reaching implications for international security and would be a major setback to efforts for disarmament. The following are some of the areas in which new and emerging technologies with far-reaching military applications are taking shape:

(a) Nuclear Weapons

Intensive research and development work by laboratories has led to a major breakthrough in the design of nuclear weapons. The past few years have seen increased interest in the so-called “third generation” nuclear weapons.

The first generation nuclear weapons are based on fission; the second generation on fusion. The second generation weapon design has increased the sophistication and improved the yield-to-weight ratio of nuclear warheads. The central feature of the third generation nuclear weapons is the ability to pick and choose specific effects of nuclear weapons and enhance them, while suppressing the unwanted ones. The neutron bomb, or the enhanced radiation weapon, is the precursor of the third generation nuclear weapons.

A number of third generation nuclear-weapon designs are being actively explored. These include the X-ray laser in which the energy of the nuclear explosion is channeled into focused beams of intense X-ray radiation. The gamma ray laser microwave weapons and nuclear devices that can generate powerful electromagnetic pulses are other third generation concepts that are being explored.

Concurrently more accurate and precise modes of delivery of nuclear warheads are being explored to avoid the large collateral damage, inevitable in less accurate delivery. The maneuverable re-entry vehicle (MARV) is one such technology that is likely to dramatically increase the ability to deliver nuclear weapons with pin-point accuracy. The Earth-penetrating nuclear warhead design is another example of militarily usable nuclear explosions.

New directions in the  use of nuclear energy for military purposes are also evident. Plans to deploy compact and powerful nuclear reactors in space are in advanced stages of development. The new military space missions for reactors include the powering of beam weapons, battle stations and supporting satellites. Accidents in already existing nuclear space systems have not been uncommon. Increased use of nuclear power in space could have dangerous ecological consequences.

(b) Defense against nuclear weapons

A variety of new and exotic technologies are being developed under the program to build defenses against nuclear missiles. These include technologies for weapon systems, surveillance, acquisition and tracking, battle management.

The weapons systems being developed include kinetic energy weapons. Kinetic energy weapons derive their destructive energy from the momentum of propelled objects. Electro-magnetic rail guns, which can propel objects to very high speeds, are another kind of new weapon under development. 

In directed energy weapons, consisting either of lasers or of particle beams, energy propagated at the speed of light is used to destroy or disable targets. These weapon systems can be based on Earth or in space. Laser systems powered by both chemical and nuclear sources are being developed.

Although these new technologies and weapons are being projected as “defensive”, they also have offensive possibilities. The y could be particularly useful as anti-satellite weapons. Some of them could also be used against Earth-based objects.

(c) Chemical and Biological Weapons

In the past, the problems and costs of effectively integrating chemical and biological weapons into military doctrine and organization have acted as barriers against widespread military enthusiasm for chemical and biological warfare. But new technological developments could remove these barriers and facilitate greater use of chemical and biological weapons. One such technological innovation is the “binary” munitions for nerve gases.

The past few years have seen the enormous explosion in mankind’s knowledge of the molecular and cellular processes of life. There is also the emerging ability to manipulate these processes through genetic engineering and biotechnology. If these abilities are tapped for military purposes, there could be a new race to develop hideous weapons for chemical and biological warfare.

(d) Electronics, computers and artificial intelligence

The impact of the revolutionary developments in electronics and computers on military technology and strategy is already pervasive. The impact is seen in the transformation of weapons into “smart” systems, such as precision-guided weapons systems and cruise missiles. There is also the existing large-scale use of high performance computers in command, control and communication and intelligence functions.

The ongoing revolution in electronics and computers is further transforming the nature of warfare. Weapon systems are moving from the “smart” to the “intelligence” phase. Unprecedented capabilities for command, control and intelligence (C³I) systems required for enhanced war-fighting capabilities are under development. A whole range of surveillance and target acquisition systems, sophisticated sensors and high-speed automated data handling system are being built.

Of particular importance is the development of fifth generation computers and artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence techniques are likely to be used initially in aiding soldiers in handling enormous information in a very short time in a complicated environment. Artificial intelligence techniques are also being considered for the development of autonomous vehicles and automated battle management systems. The impact of the new developments in computer hardware and software extend from conventional warfare to nuclear war-fighting and strategic defense.

(e) Conventional Weapons

The words “conventional weapons” could already be a misnomer with the increasing accuracy, lethality and range of “conventional” weapon systems. There is an increased versatility in both launch platforms and warheads. The advances in weapon technology have already led to the conceptualization of strategic warfare without nuclear weapons. The use of ICBMs is being contemplated with conventional weapons. New types of delivery systems, such as trans-atmospheric vehicles and space planes capable of speeds ranging from 5 to 30 times the speed of sound and large payload capabilities, are being developed. These vehicles can operate in both atmosphere and space and can negotiate intercontinental distances in 10 to 15 minutes. The space planes, capable of horizontal take-off from and landing at normal airfields; lend themselves to greater use and flexibility in utilizing near-Earth space for military purposes and in carrying out a variety of offensive missions in a short span of time on Earth. 

Implications of the new arms race

8. These developments have far-reaching implications for international security and peace. 
If allowed to proceed unchecked, they would bring about radical changes in the means of war-fighting and in security doctrines. They point to a highly complex strategic environment fraught with risks of staggering proportions. One consequence that can be predicted confidently is a fresh spiraling of the arms race at a qualitatively different, if not higher, level.

9. It is also evident that they carry a much greater risk of outbreak of war, particularly
nuclear war. Many weapons already operate in a semi-automated or fully automated mode. Automation of entire weapon systems, however, would result in a quantum jump in the dangers.  Improvements in C3I facilities and the deployment of surgical weapons may create an illusion of stability. However, in reality, control would become increasingly decentralized and real time for decision-making would be drastically reduced to durations too short to permit human beings to play any interactive role.  The risk of war as a result of an accident, or misjudgment would be much greater.  

10 Furthermore, most of the new weapons systems are offense-dominated.  And even the
defensive one have the effect of making offensive strikes possible with greater impunity. Together with the immensely increased accuracy and lethality of these weapons, this is likely to increase the incentive for preemptive strikes.  There is, therefore, going to be greater likelihood of early use of such weapons.  These new developments could lead towards a renewed arms race in both offensive nuclear weapons and building defenses.  Further, these developments threaten to introduce these weapons into outer space, which has so far remained free from them.

11. Moreover, a reasonably accurate assessment of the capabilities of new weapon systems, force
levels, force targets and force postures and deployment is going to be extremely difficult in a period of rapid technological change. There would, therefore, be a tendency to proceed on the basis of “worst-case” scenarios, which would result in an increase in the instability of the security environment.

12. Discreet and selective deployment of tailored nuclear weapons with little collateral effect may
tend to increase their perceived utility and hence their usability.

13. The increasing lethality and accuracy of non-nuclear weaponry has brought such weapons
closer to small nuclear weapons. But the non-nuclear nature of the powerful new weaponry may tend to make it more acceptable morally and politically, and hence more usable as compared to nuclear weapons.

14. The distinctions between tactical and strategic weapons, and conventional and non
conventional weapons would become blurred leading to erosion of thresholds. 

15. The existing barriers against chemical and biological warfare could be eroded as a result of
the new technological development. The unleasing of chemical and biological warfare technologies is fraught with grave consequences for the security of mankind.

16. These new trends have complicated the problem of the monitoring and verification of 
emerging weapon systems. Many of these systems will be smaller in size, more mobile and more flexible in terms of carrying out a variety of missions. The most threatening in this regard are the cruise missiles. Other examples are the anti-satellite weapons, which can be fired from a variety of mobile platforms and dual-purpose delivery vehicles. In fact, we may have already come to the point of no return in this regard.

17. The new weapon capabilities are likely to be available only to the two super-Powers and their
allies for a long time to come. It would, therefore, provide them with hegemonistic capabilities, increasing their predisposition to engage in coercive diplomacy.

18. The new technologies pose a serious threat to the existing arms control and disarmament
agreements by offering technological and strategic incentives to nations for breaking out of the current restrictions. They would also introduce new complexities for disarmament agreements under negotiation, making new agreements difficult.

 Need for action

19. The real challenge in the field of disarmament is to devise arrangements for controlling the
new arms race, which has already started on the basis of new and emerging technologies. The time for doing so is now. For, otherwise, it will be too late. The third special session devoted to disarmament is the most suitable occasion for discussing this problem and for taking timely action for managing it.

20. The problems posed are far from simple. It is neither possible nor desirable to put a stop on 
the growth of science and technology. To distinguish technology as constructive or destructive is a complex task. Nor is it easy to sharply categorize research from development or from testing for development. However, we have no choice but to act. Faced with the growing threat of the largest and the most elaborate military R & D program ever undertaken, namely that relating to ballistic missile defense systems, it is critical that we face the issues of the qualitative arms race directly and squarely.

21. If pursued in the context of a comprehensive disarmament program seeking to eliminate weapons of mass destruction and reducing conventional armaments to the minimum needed for defense, the efforts to control the qualitative arms race would be of great significance and indeed necessary.

Suggestions for action

(a) Increased transparency

22. Reliable information on what is happening on the other side can remove a major reason for persisting with the qualitative refinement of arsenals on a unilateral basis-namely, the fear of being caught by surprise by technological breakthroughs by the adversary.  Conversely, lack of such knowledge frequently leads to exaggerated productions based on “worst case” assumptions and creates pressure for undertaking whatever the adversary might be presumed, at worst, to be doing.
23. Moreover, it is the right of the public to have access to information at the global level on issues of life and death.  And the Member States owe to their peoples to provide access to such information.  Further, increased public awareness of the implications of technological developments with military applications is the most effective way of putting a measure of restraint on these developments.  It is also the duty of the world scientific community to be alert in this regard, to anticipate developments and to make the world aware of their implications.

24. The following suggestions are, therefore, put forward for achieving greater transparency and understanding in this critical and sensitive area:

(i) Technology assessment and forecasting panel: The Secretary-General should have at his disposal a technology assessment and forecasting panel consisting of a small group of eminent scientists and strategists. The task of the panel will be to identify and monitor those developments in the field of new and emerging technologies which have military applications, assess their likely impact on international security, and make projections based on such monitoring and assessment. The Secretary-General should consult this group from time to time. On the basis of such consultations and periodic reports to be submitted by the group, the Secretary-General should disseminate their assessment and forecasting, on a wider basis, including through reports to the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Conference on Disarmament.

(ii) National Panel of Experts: Each Government member should make more or less similar arrangements at the national level. It should constitute a panel of scientists which should report periodically to the Government and should be available for consultations from time to time. It should widely disseminate the information and assessment provided to the panel. The Governments, in turn, should submit an annual report to the Secretary-General. The Conference on Disarmament should also impress upon all member Governments that, whenever an emerging technology appears to have the potentiality of leading to the development of new weapons and new means of waging war, the details of such technologies should be given wide publicity.

(iii) Unit in the Department for Disarmament Affairs: A unit should be established in the Department of Disarmament Affairs to monitor and study the implications of new technologies with potential military applications. The Secretary-General’s panel should be able to draw upon the information and study compiled by the unit.

(b) New technology and technological missions

25. There should be greater international co-operation in the field of research in new and emerging technologies with a view to deploying them for peaceful purposes. For this purpose, new technology projects and new technological missions should be undertaken under the aegis of the United Nations. This will result in avoiding duplication of efforts in this high-cost area, fostering trust and  promoting global progress and stability.

(c) Banning of technological missions clearly designed for developing new weapons

26. Negotiations should also start for banning those technological missions which are clearly designed for the development of new weapons and means of warfare. For example, there should be a ban on the development of ballistic missile defense systems.

(d) Guidelines in respect of new technologies with potential military applications

27. Guidelines should be drawn up under the aegis of the United Nations in respect of new technologies with potential military applications. To begin with, the guidelines could be voluntary in nature. They should be observed by Governments, where they are directly responsible for carrying out military R and D, and also recommended for observance by private laboratories and research institutions. Emphasis in the guidelines should be on transparency, the widest possible dissemination  of information nationally and internationally, consultations with and reports to national authorities and the United Nations. They should also include such regulatory measures as may be found feasible. The Secretary-General should set up a group of experts for evolving a set of guidelines.