The Royal Society has launched the final report of the Brain Waves series, which investigate developments in neuroscience and their implications for society and policy.  Brain Waves 3: Neuroscience, conflict and security examines the potential applications of neuroscience in a military and law enforcement context.  These applications can be divided into two main goals: performance enhancement, ie, improving the efficiency of one’s own forces, and performance degradation, ie, diminishing the performance of one’s enemy.


Performance Enhancement

The report examines a number of areas in which advances in neuroscience could optimise performance in a military context, from the recruitment and training of military personnel to improving cognitive and operational performance in the field.  For example, neuroimaging techniques have revealed that the human brain can process images, such as targets, much faster than the subject is consciously aware of.  A neurally interfaced weapons systems that records these neural markers could therefore potentially provide significant advantages over other system control methods in terms of speed and accuracy.  The report also examines the potential for neuroscience to provide improved avenues for rehabilitation and the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.


Performance Degradation

As in many fields of science, knowledge and technologies used for beneficial purposes can also be misused for harmful purposes.  Advances in neuropharmacology and drug delivery are making precise manipulation of the brain for therapeutic purposes increasingly feasible but these advances could also be exploited to create incapacitating chemical weapons.  Some states have already demonstrated an interest and willingness to use such weapons despite the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).  One notable example is the deployment of an incapacitating chemical agent (believed to be a mixture of derivatives of the synthetic opiate fentanyl) by the Russian Special Forces during the Moscow theatre hostage crisis in October 2002.  While the siege was brought to an end, 129 of the hostages died following the use of the agent and many others suffered serious and long-term injury, emphasising the challenges of developing and deploying a ‘safe’ incapacitating weapon.

The CWC bans the development and use of all toxic chemicals as weapons, including those that cause temporary incapacitation, but includes an exemption for ‘law enforcement purposes including domestic riot control’, which is open to some ambiguity as to range of toxic chemicals permissible.  Due in part to this ambiguity, the international response following the Russian use of fentanyl derivatives in the Moscow theatre siege was muted.  Furthermore, the UK government position on incapacitating chemical weapons appears to have recently shifted.  A 1992 statement given to the UK parliament by the then Foreign Office Minister indicated that that the UK considered riot control agents to be the only toxic chemicals permissible for law enforcement purposes. However a more recent statement in August 2009 indicates a less restrictive interpretation of the CWC and suggests that the use of incapacitating chemical agents for law enforcement purposes would be in compliance with the CWC as long as they were in types and quantities consistent with that permitted purpose.

As Brain Waves 3: Neuroscience, conflict and security emphasises, it is not technically feasible to develop an absolutely safe incapacitating agent and delivery system because of inherent variables such as the size, health and age of the target population, secondary injury and the requirement for medical aftercare.  The UK government should therefore publish a statement on the reasons for its apparent shift in position on the interpretation of the CWC’s law enforcement provision and countries adhering to the CWC should address the definition and status of incapacitating chemical weapons under the CWC at the Review Conference in April 2013.