What limits the diffusion of dangerous weapons technologies to bad actors?

Last week the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) released its report Creative Disruption: Technology, Strategy, and the Future of the Global Defense Industry. My colleague Steve Grundman, our Lund Fellow for Emerging Defense Challenges, served on the panel that informed the work of authors Ben Fitzgerald and Kelley Sayler. I’m particularly interested in their assessment on page 10 of the prospects for diffusion of two new military technologies: cyber capabilities and directed energy weapons. For the clarity of my purpose, I have added a paragraph break, and some emphasis of two terms:

      The rate of diffusion and the types of adopters for a given technology—both of which are likely to vary as a function of the financial intensity and organizational capital required for adoption—also affect current trends in the technology environment. For example, the low financial intensity and organizational capital needed to adopt cyber capabilities result in comparatively low barriers to entry. For this reason, all interested parties (ranging from major militaries to minor militaries to non-state actors) are likely to adopt cyber capabilities. 

     In contrast, the high financial intensity and organizational capital required to adopt a technology like directed energy will likely limit its diffusion [amongst] both state and non-state actors, thereby limiting the technology’s impact on the broader technology environment.

As they implicitly note in their acknowledgements, Fitzgerald and Sayler are here drawing on the work of Michael Horowitz of the University of Pennsylvania, who argued in his 2010 book The Diffusion of Military Power that these two factors explain much about which countries manage to utilize which weapons effectively. As I have cited him before, two of his most powerful examples are ballistic missiles and aircraft carriers. Plenty of countries can buy a few Scuds, and figure out how to launch them. Very few can afford aircraft carriers, but perhaps the bigger problem is mastering the complexity of actually operating them.

Returning to Fitzgerald and Sayler’s work, I agree with their first assessment. As Jim Miller, the former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, articulated at an Atlantic Council conference last month, portability, ease of concealment, and fundamentally low cost are much of what makes cyber weapons so attractive. As they’re not much more than computer code, they sit on laptops inside briefcases, with no one the wiser. Organizational acumen is easy as well: we’ve got our geeks and they’ve got theirs, but it’s not clear that ours are always and everywhere better. Perhaps most trenchantly, as offensive cyber organizations seem to be cropping up in a host of countries, we have hard evidence that further diffusion is unstoppable.

I question, however, their quick assessment of the diffusibility of directed energy weapons, at least as regards the financial commitments and organizational requirements. Consider lasers, the most widely recognized technology in this category. As I observed in an essay late last month (“DARPA’s War on Costs”), when USS Ponce deploys later this year the Navy’s first lethal energy weapon, she will go with six welding lasers bundled together as a drone-killer. The objective is energy efficiency, but one of the results will be a demonstration for all to see of the commercial accessibility of the underlying technology. It’s also not obvious that a laser of that sort will be unaffordable for any navy big enough to afford a frigate or a landing ship in the first place. Moreover, the organizational issues seem unimportant: using the weapon should not be markedly more complicated than employing a gun mount or a missile launcher.

More disturbing, though, would be the widespread diffusion of portable low-energy laser weapons. Dazzling lasers were reportedly used by the Royal Navy to temporarily blind Argentine pilots in the 1982 Falklands War. The Iraqi Army may have used some blinding lasers against the Iranians later that decade. In 1992, Dr. Myron Wolbarsht of Duke University and Major General Bengt Anderberg of the Swedish Army warned of one possibility their 1992 book Laser Weapons: The Dawn of a New Military Age. As they wrote, “the most terrible weapons on the future battlefield may be the small, cheap, and thus mass-produced anti-eye laser weapon, which will have the power to cause mass blindness among infantry soldiers.”

But it hasn’t happened. A general wave of revulsion at the prospect led to the 1995 Geneva Protocol on Blinding Lasers Weapons, which essentially bans them, and which has since been signed by 102 governments. But as Optometrists Robert Bertolli and Dominic Pannone entitle their article in this month’s Police Chief Magazine, “Lasers [may yet be the] Unconventional Weapons of Criminals and Terrorists”. Isolated reports of lasers pointed at cockpits now flow periodically. Just this March, a miscreant Californian got a stiff prison sentence for pointing one at a police helicopter. Fitzgerald and Sayler hint at the issue with their assessment of another directed energy weapon—microwave ‘pain rays’— when they observe (also on page 10) that while “moral concerns can limit the use of certain technologies in the field… a military advantage [may accrue] to those actors that are not constrained by similar moral considerations or societal values.”

So should blinding lasers be taken seriously as a widespread threat? Are we somehow poised for the massive diffusion of frightening weapon that is difficult to counter? Perhaps not, for there persists a classic counterexample to the presumption of technological determinism in the diffusion of military capabilities. The misbehavior of Iraqi Ba’athists with gas in the 1980s—killing some 5,000 Iranians—was largely ignored. That of Syrian Ba’athists last year at least brought global condemnation—even though Syria is not a signatory to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. Other examples of the use of chemical weapons since 1918 have been few and far between. Even the Nazis, facing final defeat in 1945, declined to employ their stocks of nerve gas against the Allies, against which neither side had any real defense. As Jonathan Tucker points out in his 2007 book War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War 1 to Al Qaeda  the Germans believed that the Allies had the same technology. In reality, the Allies had nothing more lethal than mustard gas, but the Germans feared the consequences.

The Syrian regime has not unleashed a cataclysmic chemical offensive on its domestic enemies, perhaps because it believes that therein a real red line might actually be crossed. The people around Bashar Al-Assad do not fear a gas attack in retribution, but an overwhelming response with precision-guided explosives. In the end, blinding lasers may remain similarly suppressed, not for fear of an attack in kind—in the mode of nuclear deterrence—but for a vicious conventional retaliation, driven by moral revulsion, against an asymmetric perpetrator. Per Horowitz, money and organizational acumen do drive much of the diffusion of military technologies. But our understanding of rules and norms should still color our appreciation of where the soft limits of diffusion may lie.

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.