Nanotechnology Massive Potential to Disrupt Military Applications

15 Sep 2017-SP -1-MYB 2018

Published SP’s Military Year Book 2018-Pg 73

“You only have to look at how IT made a huge difference to both the US economy and US military strength to see how crucial technology is. Nanotechnology is an even more fundamental technology than IT. Not only has it the ability to shift the balance of military power but also affect the global balance of power in the energy markets.”

-Tim Harper

Nanotechnology is a field that does not stem from one established academic discipline.  There are a number of ways in which Nanotechnology may be defined. The most common version regards Nanoscience as ‘the ability to do things – measure, see, predict and make – on the scale of atoms and molecules and exploit the novel properties found at that scale’. Traditionally, this scale is defined as being between 0.1 and 100 Nanometres (nm), 1 nm being one-thousandth of a micron, which is, in turn, one-thousandth of a millimetre (mm). However, this definition is open to interpretation, and may readily be applied to a number of different technologies that have no obvious common relationship. Another way to characterise Nanotechnology is by distinguishing between the fabrications processes of top-down and bottom-up. Top-down technology refers to the ‘fabrication of Nanoscale structures by machining and etching techniques’. However, top-down means more than just miniaturisation; at the Nanoscale level, different laws of physics come into play, properties of traditional materials change, and the behaviour of surfaces start to dominate the behaviour of bulk materials.

On the other hand, bottom-up technology – often referred to as Molecular Nanotechnology (MNT) – applies to the creation of organic and inorganic structures, atom by atom, or molecule by molecule. It is this area of Nanotechnology that has created the most excitement and publicity. In a mature Nanotech world, macrostructures would simply be grown from their smallest constituent components: an ‘anything box’ would take a molecular seed containing instructions for building a product and use tiny Nanobots or molecular machines to build it atom by atom. It has been pointed out in the literature that, ‘the development of (bottom-up) technology does not depend upon on discovering new scientific principles. The advances required are engineering.’ In short, fully-fledged bottom-up Nanotechnology promises nothing less than complete control over the physical structure of matter – the same kind of control over the molecular and structural makeup of physical objects that a word processor provides over the form and content of the text.

It has been said that military power is at the base of thrust on Nanotechnology and also that military planners may be guiding governmental research in the US in the field of Nanotechnology. Growing strategic interest of both large and small nations in Nanotechnology is evidenced in the increase in public investment in Nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is permeating into a plethora of military applications practically covering all frontiers of military technology, for e.g.-

-Wireless communications


-Nano Energetics

-Mass data storage

-Inertial measurement units

-Active conformable surfaces for aircraft.

-Signal processing

-Unmanned sensors for tracking and surveillance

-Analytical instruments

-Distributed sensors for condition-based maintenance and structural monitoring

-Optical fibre components and networks

-Distributed control of aerodynamic and hydrodynamic systems

Nanotech and the Soldier

“A Nano-uniform for American soldiers will be lighter than cotton but protect them against bullets and gas, regulate their body temperature, and enhance their strength. They can easily lift 120 kg with one hand. This new uniform will be available in three years”

-Shimon Peres

In several areas Nanotechnological research and development has already promised results that could be speedily integrated into a soldier’s battle suit.

-Communications. Efforts by Raytheon indicate the production of a military radio receiver as small as a credit card (Current weight is 10 lbs), which would work longer by a factor of 10 and be easily maintainable.

-Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). Current MEMS-based UAVs are as small as 6 inches long and weigh 3 ounces. Nanotech UAVs would imply that soldiers could carry large numbers of disposable UAVs. They could be used for purposes like jamming, reconnaissance, targeting and early warning.

-Identification Friend or Foe (IFF). Nanotechnology would now enable ground forces to be equipped with military aircraft like IFF systems, to differentiate between enemy and friendly forces. Such a designator could be part of a soldier’s outfit.

-Information Display. Nanotech high resolution, a low-power display screen (0.5 to 5 inches) could be incorporated in the monocle visual display in the Land Warriors helmet. (The display shows data, position, maps, and orders etc,)

-Navigation. Command and control could be augmented by providing soldiers with inertial navigation system/ global positioning system (INS/GPS) device, which could aid in location, interrogation and transmission of information.

-Chemical/Biological Warfare Defence. Nanotech CBW detection systems could be made small enough to be carried by soldiers which would lead to quick detection of the use of CBW by the enemy.

In this article, the aim is to discuss some major developments which have taken place during recent years. These include fields of Nano-energetic Materials in conventional ammunition, Nanotechnology and Nuclear Weapons, and Wireless Nano-sensor Networks.

Nano-energetic Materials (nEMs) in Conventional Ammunition

Nanotechnology “could completely change the face of weaponry,”

Andy Oppenheimer, Jane’s Information Group

On 07 September 2017, Russians are said to have deployed Father of All Bombs (FOAB), an Aviation Thermobaric Bomb of Increased Power (ATBIP) in Syria. It is said to be the most powerful conventional bomb in the world, with a 7-Ton explosive mixture resulting in a devastating effect equivalent to 44 tons of TNT. It is hinted that the FOAB contains a liquid fuel, such as ethylene oxide, mixed with energetic Nano-aluminium powder, which is dispersed by a high explosive booster. Some reports speculate that the liquid fuel was purified using Nano-filters. What caught the imagination of defence experts was the fact that the Russian FOAB had less fuel than the similar US device Mother of All Bombs (MOAB), the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, but was four times more powerful. It was also probably the first time that the nonprofessional learned of the lethal uses of Nanotechnology. Not much information is available through open sources about the developments involving Nanotechnology in explosives, much of it has to be gleaned from research papers and patents (for e.g. Patents like US6955732 – Advanced thermobaric explosive compositions and WO2013119191A1 – Composition for a fuel and air explosion).

            Since 2004, ‘Combat Safe Insensitive Munitions’ concept has shifted the focus of safety from a pure materials approach to making marine explosives insensitive to a platform based approach based upon mechanics to increase insensitivity. US Navy has been at the forefront of R&D into new energetic materials since a long time and it is opined that Nanotechnology-enabled energetic materials would form the backbone of the future defence systems. Timely induction of Nano-enabled energetic systems with controlled energy release is the focus of current research at institutes like the U.S. Naval Academy, Naval Surface Warfare Centre, and the University of Maryland.

            In simple terms, Nano-energetic materials (nEMs) perform better than conventional materials because of a much larger surface area, which increases the speed of reaction and larger energy release in a much shorter time. Addition of Super thermites (Nano-aluminium based) have shown an instantaneous increase in explosive power of existing compositions. Further, the use of Nano-sized materials in explosives has significantly increased safety and insensitivity by as much as over 30% without affecting reactivity. It is predicted that nEMs would provide the same explosive power at mass up to two orders of magnitude less than the current explosive systems.

In the rocket, propellants nEMs have shown similar capabilities at Los Almos National Laboratories with nitrogen-energized nEMs. In addition, incorporation of more than one burning rate in rocket propellants has given rise to novel design options by creating grains with continuously varying properties along the length as well as across the radius of the grain in Functionally Graded Materials (FGM).

While Nanosizing of high explosives leads to increasing their explosive power and decreasing their sensitivity to external forces it also decreases its thermal stability. The shelf life of such explosives could, therefore, stand reduced; however, some patents reveal that this issue has also been resolved technically (e.g. patent US20120227613 Thermal enhanced blast warhead). In India, the work on explosives and propellants is being undertaken at HEMRL, a DRDO laboratory, and it is understood that the research in nEMs is progressing satisfactorily.

Nanotechnology is permeating in all fields of design & manufacturing of weapons and ammunition. It is bringing unprecedented precision in weapon systems, robustness in triggering mechanisms and opening new frontiers in propellant and pyrotechnic functioning. In addition to explosive and propellants, Nanomaterials have ushered in innovative improvements in many characteristics of ammunition such as guidance, penetration capacity, embedded sensors for monitoring condition, embedded antennae for guidance and so on.

It can be envisaged that nEMs would replace the conventional explosives in the next decade. This would provide existing conventional weapons with explosive powers higher in magnitude by a factor of two and enhance the safety to external stimulation by at least 30%. In simple terms, a missile warhead having an explosive content of 200 kg of TNT equivalent would have an explosive power of 20,000 kg of TNT equivalent when substituted with nEMs material of same weight of 200 kg!

This advancement could displace Tactical nukes from the battlefield.

What can also be foreseen is the mushrooming of new classes of extremely precise and lethal small/micro weapon systems, which could be scaled down by at least second order of magnitude from the current systems. Thus, creating space for the likely paradigm shift from bigger & larger to the smaller & numerous holdings of weapons. This, in turn, would herald the era of Swarm Warfare.

Nanotechnology and Nuclear Weapons

In October 2015, USA completed testing of upgraded Nuclear Earth Penetrating bomb B61-12. The aim was to extend the life of B61 Mod 7 and Mod 11 strategic bombs by 20 years. The upgrades include scalable nuclear yield (The B61 family of weapons can be configured with a wide variety of yields, including 0.3, 1.5, 5, 10, 45, 60, 60, 80, 170, and 340 kilotons), precision guidance and advanced safety mechanisms.

It is understood that strategic assets like ballistic missile facilities, command, control & communication centres, shelters for political leadership etc are located in tunnels at depths varying between 200 meters to 700 meters. These have been termed as strategic “hard and deeply buried target (HDBT)” by NATO countries and it is against such targets that Nuclear Earth Penetrating bombs are intended to be used.

Conventional weapons have the capability to penetrate to depths as much as the nuclear earth penetrator weapons (NEPW) but they are not as effective against the HDBTs. The energy transfer of NEPWs into the ground is far more effective than surface or aerial bursts of even nuclear weapons. It is said that a 300-kiloton NEPW is as effective as a 6-megaton surface burst against HDBTs. Further, the accuracy requirements (Circular Error Probable, CEP) for surface bursts are more stringent than NEPWs for HDBTs to achieve the same kill probabilities. This brings in to focus two facts viz. that NEPWs require much less radioactive material and that with increasing accuracy of hit the damage potential keeps on increasing.

Sandia National Laboratories has been carrying out research work on the Earth Penetrators since the 1960s. One of their newer programs is the feasibility study program “Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator program (RNEP)”. The aim of this program is to study the feasibility of designing RNEPs which, can tackle a larger number of targets than the B61-11. The general terms of reference indicate that RNEP should be capable of reaching a specified depth, should be able to survive and penetrate the target and should perform better than B61-11in terms of functionality, safety, security, & reliability. Sandia National Laboratories have the credit of building the most complicated nuclear safety mechanism called the ‘Micro Guardian’ in the 1990s. This ensures that the nuclear weapon does not detonate until a predefined sequence of events is completed. It is said that the size of this system is 10 mm x 6 mm x 5 mm, and it forms a part of the optical micro-firing system. These developments highlight the march of Micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) as well as the Nano-electro-mechanical systems (NEMS) into the nuclear arsenal arena.

It need not be stressed that arming and detonation of a nuclear weapon should not take place accidentally, however it is also to be ensured that the bomb once armed must not only hit the designated target but also explode. These conditions present a formidable technological challenge in designing of the arming, fusing, and firing mechanisms of nuclear bombs. This requires requisite robustness and multiple redundancies as also assured reliability of functioning. The MEMS/ NEMS have gained credibility mainly due to their compactness and minimal moving components as compared to the early analogue as well as digital counterparts. Programs such as the RNEP of Sandia National Laboratories would not only benefit NEPs but also conventional weapons as well. The availability of such devices and the fact that they have improved the resistance to failure of key components in fusing, arming, detonators, and neutron generators by many magnitudes has spurred research into next generation of nuclear weapons.

Wireless Nano-sensor Networks

A Nano-sensor is a device that makes use of the unique properties of Nanomaterials and Nanoparticles to detect and measure new types of events in the Nanoscale. The capabilities and applications of Nano-devices have been enhanced in terms of complexity and range of operation due to developments in communications among Nano-sensors. A network of Nano-sensors is able to cover bigger areas and also carry out some quantum of necessary processing. Wireless communication between Nano-sensors and micro and macro devices has obviated the requirement of external measurement tools and excitation. Wireless Nano-sensor networks (WNSN), an interconnection of hundreds or thousands of Nano-sensors and Nanoactuators placed in diverse locations, are the most promising application of this new communication technology. Such systems result in the ability to participate in a mobile information network, wearable sensors & displays for situational awareness, health monitoring, the use of smart light-weight battle-field suits etc. and has enabled a soldier to participate in a mobile information network. The “Connected Soldier” functions in a whole new modern environment that provides significantly higher protection from hostile fire. Sensing and connectivity to transmit and receive the situational awareness required in the battlefield as well as tracking the soldier’s vital statistics are the key aims benefitting from the WNSN. Chemical and biological Nano-sensors can be used to detect harmful chemicals and biological weapons in a distributed manner. One of the main benefits of using Nano-sensors rather than classical chemical sensors is that the presence of a chemical composite can be detected in a concentration as low as one molecule. Nano-sensors are being used in Damage detection systems for smart textiles, soldiers’ armour, weapons, equipment and vehicles among others.  

C4ISR systems use a multitude of sensors mounted on a range of platforms to provide situational awareness. Terabytes of surveillance Data obtained from Radar, video, or infrared etc. is sent for processing and analysis to enable formulation of a Common Operational Picture (COP). The COP is than provided to various users. Fire control systems use processed sensor information for tracking, networking and directing the fire of weapon systems. Unmanned vehicles are used for gathering of data as well as utilisation of processed data for their combat missions. High-level military echelons are provided with comprehensive situational awareness through central operations centres, which receive data feeds from platforms. Lower levels also have access to the data in their area. In the case of combat pilots, they receive prioritized data feeds integrated with data from their own sensor systems. The emergence of Nano-sensors is going to revolutionise the way warfighting is going to be conducted in the coming decade.

There exist two types of communication modes at the Nanoscale, namely, molecular communication and Nano-electromagnetic communication. Molecular communication is defined as the transmission and reception of information encoded in molecules. It is comparatively easier to integrate Molecular transceivers in Nano-devices. Nano-electromagnetic communication is defined as the transmission and reception of electromagnetic radiation from components based on novel Nanomaterials. The unique properties observed in the novel Nanomaterials decides the specific bandwidths for emission of electromagnetic radiation, the time lag of the emission, or the magnitude of the emitted power for given input energy. Recent developments have enabled fabrication of Nano-memories, Nanobatteries, Nanoscale logical circuitry, and Nano-antennas. This section on Nano-sensors draws on the technical paper ‘Electromagnetic wireless Nano-sensor networks’ by Ian F. Akyildiz and Josep Miquel Jornet.

Components of a Wireless Nano-sensor

-Sensing unit is made of graphene derivatives and is of three types namely; Physical Nano-sensors, which are used to measure magnitudes such as mass, pressure, force, or displacement; Chemical Nano-sensors, which are used to measure magnitudes such as the concentration of a given gas, the presence of a specific type of molecules, or the molecular composition of a substance; and Biological Nano-sensors, which are used to monitor biomolecular processes such as antibody/antigen interactions, DNA interactions, enzymatic interactions or cellular communication processes, amongst others.

-Actuation unit allows Nano-sensors to interact with their immediate environment and are mounted in the Nano-sensor device. They are of two types namely; Physical Nanoactuators, based on Nano Electro Mechanical Systems, NEMS; and Chemical and biological Nanoactuators, which are based on the interaction between Nanomaterials and Nanoparticles, electromagnetic fields and heat.

-The power unit is a Nanobattery manufactured with Nanomaterials to provide high power density, reasonable lifetime and contained charge/discharge rates. They suffer from the disadvantage of recharging frequently. Self-powered Nanodevices have also been developed which convert mechanical energy, vibrational energy or hydraulic energy into electrical energy.

-A Processing unit comprising of transistors in the Nanometre-scale are being made using Carbon Nano Tubes, CNTs and Graphene Nano-Ribbons GNRs.

-Storage units are Nano-memories utilizing a single atom to store a single bit.

 -The communication unit is being enabled by the development of Nano-antennas and the corresponding electromagnetic transceiver. Nano-antennas require the use of extremely high operating frequencies, compromising the feasibility of electromagnetic wireless communication among Nano-sensor devices. However, the usage of graphene to fabricate Nano-antennas has overcome this limitation. The EM transceiver of a Nano-sensor device embeds the necessary circuitry to perform baseband processing, frequency conversion, filtering and power amplification, of the signals that have to be transmitted or that have been received from the free-space through the Nano-antenna.

IoT and Nanotech sensors. The shrinking of sensors from millimetres or microns in size to the Nanometre-scale, small enough to circulate within living bodies and to mix directly into construction materials is a crucial first step toward an Internet of Nano Things (IoNT) that could take security, medicine, energy efficiency and many other sectors to a whole new dimension. The transition from smart Nano-sensors to the IoNT seems inevitable, challenges like integrating all the components needed for a self-powered Nanodevice to detect a change and transmit a signal to the web still remain.

As far as the military is concerned The Network-Centric-Warfare (NCW) paradigm has integrated three data fields: the data generation field; the data are transmission and storage field, and the data processing and analysis field. Despite the military playing a major role in developing of IT technologies, it seems to have lagged behind in the IoT related developments readily accessible through COTS technologies in support of NCW paradigm.

India and Nanotechnology

In India, the development of Nanotechnology is focussed to develop human resources and physical infrastructure than towards mass production of Nano-based items. Therefore, only two personal care products based on Nanotechnology had originated from India till 2015. The first step in India’s plan to become a ‘global knowledge hub’ in Nanotechnology was its Nano Mission Project, launched within the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2007–2012) as part of the government’s strategy to maintain India’s capacity for high-tech inventions by investing in new areas. This project has since funded about 240 research projects. The Twelfth Five-Year Plan (2012–2017) had taken this initiative forward, with plans for the establishment of an institute dedicated to Nanoscience and technology and the introduction of postgraduate programmes in 16 universities and institutions across the country. In 2014, the government set up a Nanomanufacturing technology centre within the existing Central Manufacturing Technology Institute, in order to strengthen the centre’s activities through a public-private partnership. Currently, more than 30 DRDO laboratories are pursuing R&D in Nanotechnology for defence applications and several technologies developed by them are now close to maturity.


It has been brought out above that nEMs would replace the conventional explosives in the next decade providing conventional weapons with explosive powers higher in magnitude by a factor of two and enhancing their safety to external stimulation. The stage is set for NEMS to usher in unprecedented robustness, reliability, and precision in CEP, and advanced triggering devices & fusion yields to herald the fourth generation nuclear weapons. The possessor would not only be able to unleash a swarm of conventional weapons but also carry out devastating assault without breaching the kiloton/ megaton taboo of the first strike!

Wireless Nano-sensor networks will have a great impact in almost every field of our society ranging from healthcare to homeland security and environmental protection. Enabling communication among Nano-sensors and its transmission to the network is still an unsolved challenge. In this article, the focus has been on the electromagnetic option for communication among Nano-sensors, Nanoactuators and Nano-devices in general. Despite several Nano-sensors, Nanoactuators, Nano-power systems or Nano-processors being prototyped and developed, there is no integrated Nano-sensor device available currently. The use of novel Nanomaterials to build Nano-antennas, Nano-transceivers and Nano-processors indicates to the terahertz band as the natural domain of operation of Nano-sensor devices. This frequency range supports very high transmission bandwidths in the short range. However, novel Nano-antenna designs and models, Nanoscale terahertz channel models, information encoding and modulations for Nanoscale networks, and protocols for Nano-sensor networks are areas which require refinement and further research.

What can be forecast is that by the end of the next decade warfighting would be truly networked across macro, micro and Nanodomains in communications, mobility, equipment, weapons and ammunition.