Due to the intensifying geopolitical and technological competition, defence and security forces around the world now integrate civilian technology to stay ahead of their adversaries.
This has given rise to the trend of dual-use technology, which offers time-honouring modernization and economical solutions to complex security and defence requirements.
Dual-use technologies are predominantly civilian applications but can be used for military purposes. A broad category of such items includes but is not limited to drones, space, nuclear, software, lasers, sensors, navigation, avionics, propulsion, telecommunications and so on.
In the past, technology and innovation for defence and security were limited to military-industrial complexs and were responsible for leading, designing and developing technology for military use. For example, internet and the global positioning system (GPS) were primarily created for the military and funded by the US defence department. However, in the present times, the civilian technology sectors are steering global technological development and trends.
Economically strong states and private venture capitalists invest significant funds in technology research and development (R&D), rapidly boosting the civilian technology sectors. Drones, for example, provide a suitable alternative to jets. Their features like small size, diversity of options, user-friendly design and off-the-shelf availability make them a viable option. The recent examples of the use of civilian drones in the Russia-Ukraine war highlight its growing relevance. Both sides in the war have extensively used commercially available models of drones. These were cost-effective options for both sides.
The DJI Mavic 3, used by the Ukrainian army, costs about GBP 1,500. In February 2022, the Ukrainian army received over 1,100 drones for various units of defence forces. These drones have infrared sensing and visual surveillance and are lightweight. They have proven effective for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions and could even transport small bombs and ammunition. As a result, the inexpensive yet effective commercial drone army drastically increased battlefield experience.
Similarly, space technology is increasingly being used for civilian and military purposes. Satellites for navigation and communication are equally crucial for the global economy and military operations. Many states are not developing overtly military space programmes but are instead investing in civilian space programmes. Such quests have overlapping uses for both civilians and the military.
China’s recent use of weather balloons for surveillance shows that it is difficult to distinguish between civilian and military use of space. Although China claimed to be conducting weather research, the US Met department is sceptical of Beijing’s reasoning. This shows that the merger of civilian and military technology can also be used during peacetime.
Similarly, the dual-use concept is not limited to using civilian technology for security and defence purposes. It is also apparent in the case of conventional or nuclear-equipped missiles. A missile can have the dual capability of carrying nuclear or conventional warheads. This creates difficulty in discerning the intentions of a state when it deploys a missile. It also complicates the response options for air defence teams.
For example, India’s ‘accidental’ launch of BrahMos created a tense situation because the missile had dual capabilities. Similarly, Russia used the Kinzhal missile, a high-end, dual-capable missile in the Russia-Ukraine war. Employing dual-capable missiles complicates decision-making, which may lead to unintended escalations.
Although dual-use technology is advantageous for security and defence, it is detrimental to the civilian sector. It puts civilian technology under greater suspicion, possibly creating high-risk and sensitive issues. Such as the use of social media sites for surveillance by the government undermines user trust. Several civilian R&D companies are also concerned about using their technology for military purposes.
Google’s Project Maven is a prime example of a case where the US defence department aimed to use Google’s deep learning and artificial intelligence to track vehicles and people. Thousands of employees, including senior officials, protested the involvement of Google in the business of war and signed a petition against it.
There is a need to address the rise of dual-use technology as it intensifies the arms race and geopolitical competition. Although there are dual-use and arms trade control policies for military technologies that could be used for civilian purposes, an arms control regime that limits the use of civilian technology for military purposes is missing. There is a need to update the arms control regime that regulates the use and export of dual-use technology.
While such regulations are desirable, what makes the task challenging is the blurred differentiation between such technology. The dual-use nature benefits the military and is the need of the hour; therefore, this trend will likely grow.
Dual-use technology creates a defence ecosystem to address the shortcomings of military technology. Nevertheless, it is possible to ensure that emerging technologies follow ethical and legal standards and that such technologies have mechanisms for ensuring accountability and responsibility.
There is a need to confirm who would be held responsible: the manufacturer or the military commander. Similarly, a missile-related arms control regime must focus on employing dual-capable conventional and nuclear missiles. The dual-use doctrine has immense value but raises the risk of accidents, misuse and liability.
The writer is a research analyst in emerging technologies and international security. She tweets @MaheenShafeeq
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