Is neuroscience the future of warfare?

The ability to degrade an opponents mind? The rapid advancement of neuroscience has prompted renewed and growing interest within military and national security settings

James Giordano

Weaponisation of neuroscience

Broad and rapid advancements in neuroscience and its technologies (i.e.- neuroS/T) have prompted renewed and growing interest in and use of these tools and methods to exert influence and power on the global stage.

"The military is examining ways that brain science can be employed to augment warfighters’ and intelligence operators’ performance"

Brain research and the use of its information and products in medicine can affect soft power by gaining an advantage, if not hegemony, in world economic markets. In addition, neuroactive drugs, microbes, toxins and devices can be employed as weapons to directly to affect cognitive and physical abilities of both friendly forces (i.e.- optimization effects) and adversaries (i.e.- denigration effects).

Neuroscience can be utilised to affect the abilities of friendly and enemy forces. Source: Shutterstock 

The consideration of existing and emerging neurotechnological devices is a relatively new focus, with an increasing focus on brain scanning tools, directed energy, trans-cranial magnetic and electrical stimulation, and deep brain stimulation - all of which can be used in military and intelligence training, and operations.

 Defence Predictions and New Technologies

In the United States, programs within the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Intelligence Advanced Research Project Activity (IARPA), and several branches of the military are examining ways that brain science can be employed to augment warfighters’ and intelligence operators’ performance, and alter adversaries’ capabilities with regards to key cognitive and physical  tasks. Similar projects are being conducted by other NATO, Non-NATO Military Alliance (NNMA) nations, as well as North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China.  

SEE ALSO: IFS A&D: How defence is being redefined with new technologies [Interview]

China’s Grand Strategy

The combined use of neuroS/T in these ways is a major emphasis of China’s  Five Year Plan, as reflective of China’s Grand Strategy. The Chinese government has explicitly stated its goal to achieve major market shares in the brain sciences across applications, so as to establish a defined leadership in the field by 2030.

"The Chinese government has explicitly stated its goal to achieve major market shares in the brain sciences across applications"

These goals can be achieved through three facilitating elements:

First, the relatively seamless collaboration of the Chinese government, the academic/research sector, and industry (i.e.- the “triple helix”) enable both development and execution of funding streams and intellectual property laws that favour Chinese advancement. 

Second, variations in Chinese and western philosophies and ethics can create opportunistic windows to allow certain research practices that attract international scientists and engineers to Chinese institutions (i.e.- “research tourism”), and which further the scope and pace of scientific research.

Third, when taken together, these factors can, and likely will establish conditions through which brain sciences can be exploited to advance Chinese influence in economic, political, and military spheres. 

To be sure, the use of neuroS/T to exercise military power in kinetic operations is a concern; however, such uses are constrained, at least to some extent, by the current Biological Toxins and Weapons Convention (BWC) and Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Moreover, kinetic uses of these agents can be defined as overt acts of warfare, and as such could elicit retaliation that may be regarded as justifiable under international codes of war.  

Neuroscience in kinetic operations is held to the same standards as the Biological Toxins and Weapons Convention. Source: Shutterstock

Yet these apparent constraints also pose opportunities toward which China has gained considerable purchase. The distinct characteristics of China’s triple helix, IP laws and ethical parameters guiding and governing research and development have also afforded capabilities to exercise commercial veiling of academic and industrial biotechnology research and development with broad dual-use applications.

SEE ALSO: How will drones affect infantry tactics?

Within this system, the growing and contentious use of new techniques and technologies can side-step existing restraints of the BWC and CWC. For example, gene editing can enable modification and/or creation of microbes and substances that are not currently categorized as pathogenic by international conventions. However, the use of such agents can pose risk to public health, safety, and security, and exert influence in multiple domains and dimensions.

Mass disruption and gene data risk

Additionally, the increasing  availability, handling capacities, and use of massive data enhance the viability of information gained by neuroimaging, biomarkers, and behavioural and narrative assessments, and can increase the precision with which methods of neuroS/T can be employed to affect the thoughts, emotions, actions, and/or health and security of particular individuals or groups.

These approaches need not be used as instruments of mass destruction, per se, but rather as means of mass disruption, which can incur ripple effects in and across a range of scales (from the sub-cellular to the socio-political).

The disruptive capabilities render them particularly valuable in non-kinetic engagements, which do not meet the defined threshold for acts of war. In this way, the non-kinetic use of brain sciences and technologies can establish plus-sum advantages for the executor and zero-sum disadvantages for the recipient.

"Non-kinetic use of brain sciences and technologies can establish plus-sum advantages for the executor and zero-sum disadvantages for the recipient"

If the recipient responds kinetically to a non-kinetic engagement, such action may be viewed as overly aggressive, non-proportional, and as justification for secondary retaliation.  Conversely, if a recipient fails to counter an existing non-kinetic threat, the disruptive influence and it's possible strategically destructive effect become increasingly manifest.  

RECOMMENDED: Military trends and predictions: 2020

Brain sciences are viable, of value and are currently being considered and put into use in a number of nations’ warfare, intelligence and national security operations and agendas.  

The Brain is the Battlefield of the Future

Therefore, it is – and will be increasingly - important to assess, quantify, and forecast the ways that neuroS/T can and most probably and possibly will be developed and both non-kinetically and kinetically used by foreign competitors and opponents.

Toward this goal, we advocate expanding and improving the focus of the “predictability horizon” to better perceive the (1) vista of probability (present to 5 years); (2) vista of possibility (6 to 15 years); and (3) vista of potentiality (16 to 30 years).

Our current assessment reveals China’s exponential increase in research and applications of neuroS/T, which is reflective, and instrumental to China’s long-term (i.e.- 20-30 year) visions for potential dominance of the field in and across a range of medical, public, military and political uses to establish strategically latent, disruptive effects upon current and future balances of power.

Does China maintain an advantage in brain sciences? Source: Shutterstock

Analysis and surveillance 

Therefore, using only inductive methods of analysis and forecasting (i.e., advancing analyses from the probable to the potential) may be insufficient. Instead, employing both inductive and deductive approaches (i.e., retrospective analyses from potential goals retroactively to define required possibilities and probabilities) might be better suited to assess trajectories of scientific and technological research, development and progress.

We have referred to this combinatory (deductive-inductive) approach to analyzing and plotting temporal and socio-cultural trends, contingencies, and necessities to define, model, and forecast strategically-latent S/T developments, uses, and effects as Integrative S/T Intelligence (InS/TINT).

Toward this end, surveillance should focus on:

  1. University and research sites

  2. The extent and directions of private and public support in S/T

  3. Efforts toward recruitment of researchers

  4. S/T commercialization

  5. Current/future military postures

  6. Current/future market space occupation and leveraging potential. 

An effort of this scope and scale will necessitate efforts from multiple national resources (that are beyond a whole-of-government approach), and funding, participation and support of both domestic resources and those of like-minded allies.

Nevertheless, such effort and commitment are arguably worthwhile, if not necessary, given the clear and present threat of competitors’ and adversaries’ present and viable future use of current and emerging techniques and technologies of neuroS/T in non-kinetic and kinetic operations. 


 The views expressed in this essay do not necessarily reflect those of the US Department of Defense, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), or US Special Operations Command.


The author thanks L.R. Bremseth (CAPT, USN, SEAL, ret), Diane DiEuliis, PhD, J.P. DeFranco, and J.J. Snow (LtCol, USAF) for their collaboration on current projects.  The author’s work is supported in part by funding from J5 Donovan Group, USSOCOM, and CSCI International.