Is there a superweapon?

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A major question that came up in early discussion is: Is there such a thing as a superweapon--a weapon that can let its owner prevail over all previously existing weapons?

Suggested format: Describe a weapon you think may be a superweapon, and others will describe countermeasures. Depending on the weapon, you may need to list your assumptions about the time period or other available weapons: are you assuming the owner is the only nano-power, or is this supposed to prevail even over other nano-weapons?

Alternative approach: Start from the list of Early Countermeasures, which necessarily defines at least a minimal set of features a weapon would need to have (i.e., a set of vulnerabilities it would need to not have) in order to constitute a superweapon.

The intent of this page is to focus on situations where one side has molecular manufacturing and the other side has much less or none; in other words, early-stage scenarios. For scenarios where both sides have MM, see Mature nanotech weapons.

For discussion of whether the "Ultimate Weapon" idea is misleading and intrinsically dangerous, see Ultimate Weapons.


Fleet of micro-UAVs

A micro-UAV might be the size of a hummingbird, with full-angle camera coverage, microphones, networking to other micro-UAVs, and various weapons. It might weigh a fraction of a gram--until loaded with fuel/explosive. It could certainly be lethal to lightly armored troops. It would be able to destroy today's airplanes and missiles by acting like an aerial mine. The flight/flocking algorithm could be developed quickly and improved in the field (a ton represents several million of the things--plenty for automated experimentation). It would be possible to watch each civilian in a nation; destroy troops and materiel wholesale.

Objections and countermeasures

Surveillance wouldn't do much good: too much data. (Very cheap supercomputers could help somewhat, but only with good programming.) This only would be effective against today's troops; too vulnerable to nano-countermeasures. Might be vulnerable to lasers. Might burn too much fuel (solar power doesn't work at night).

Assuming that these objects must travel in relatively large clouds in order to exert significant destructive force, they would be fairly easy to detect against the empty background of the surrounding air. I consider here basic infrared and visual criteria. In this case, I would suspect that various forms of large high explosive bombs could significantly disrupt the cloud (which, absent self-replication, might not be effective once widely scattered). Perhaps napalm would be effective in coating the entire cloud in gel which would at the very least significantly impair its motion, even if the actual carbon structure is undamaged by the combustion itself. Fuel/Air Explosive (FAE) weapons might have an even better result, combining the combustion effects of napalm with high blast overpressures (particularly when employed close to the ground or in confined areas) which could potentially destroy or severely damage some of the UAV's and disrupt or disperse the larger cloud. Other chemical agents could be considered that would operate on this dispersal mechanism - for example sticky goo (similar to less-than-lethal weapons developed for use against human perpetrators in the past), corrosive chemicals, or other combustibles. Less conventionally, energy weapons (consider microwaves and lasers) could probably destroy large swathes of the cloud, especially as its density increases. Assuming precise targeting and relatively large robot sizes, lasers could be used to destroy individuals within the swarm as well. This analysis may change as the size of the robots changes on the dust-mote -> hummingbird continuum (i.e. as the nature of the swarm, if any, required to exert significant force changes).


These could be a superweapon only if the other side did not yet have nano-manufacturing. Individual fliers, and volumes of closely-spaced cloud, could probably be destroyed by a variety of energy-delivery mechanisms. The effect of shock waves (sonic booms, high explosive blasts) on the fliers is unknown, though they could presumably be designed to survive. (Such things would not disperse them, only displace them and possibly damage them.)

If the target knew these things existed, and had lots of advanced modern weaponry but no nano-manufacturing, they might be able to prepare a limited defense using lasers, fuel-air explosives, and the like. But it seems unlikely that they could keep this up for long, as the financial cost of defense would be higher than the cost of offense. A better defense might be physical barriers; really small fliers might not even be able to get through ordinary glass. But this would significantly limit the flexibility of soldiers trying to carry out maintenance, etc. Again, the cost of defense (everyone has to wear full-body hardsuits all the time) would be way higher than the cost of offense (a few fliers).

So these fliers could not immediately sweep the board clean, but could cause major and ongoing disruption even against a prepared foe (who didn't have nanotech), and massive casualties against an unprepared foe.


(Moved to "Mature nanotech weapons" by Chris Phoenix, CRN 15:51, 2 Nov 2004 (CST))

Missile Swarms (rev 2)

This is a 1st generation MNT weapon system idea, which could be predesigned, realized and produced by the first wave of nanofactories. The swarm unit is a small medium-range missile (assume ~1m long but that's tbd) that can carry a small (~1kg) warhead. Exponentially replicated nanofactories numbering in the millions would produce literally billions of these missiles, which would be transported to forward bases around the globe and stockpiled in vast quantities, ready to fire.

Fuselage is diamondoid. Engine technology could default to a version of today's solid fuel rockets with the advantage of atomically precise construction of course. Many possibilities for innovation could improve the performance: 1. Controlled surface combustion of fuel via integrated trigger circuitry might increase thrust while eliminating combustion chambers and nozzles. Imagine each molecule of combustion product leaving normal to the burning surface rather than randomly. 2. Solid jet fuel would save the mass of oxidizer. 3. If the engine is distributed around the outer rear surface of the missile, it might be able to interact with the atmosphere in a way that reduces drag. Highly speculative, but even simple aerodynamic shaping would help.

MNT might improve the output and effectiveness of high explosive designs for warheads. The chemistry would be one of today's conventional choices but of course it would be constructed to atomic precision. It is expected that an integrated network of ignition trigger circuits throughout the charge would increase the yield by combusting all molecules at once. Through modeling experiments of phase-wave-triggering, it may be possible to reduce the internal friction that occurs due to molecules colliding in opposite directions.

Another possibility arising from tight integration of ignition control within the explosive material would be control of the shape of the explosion, perhaps allowing a last-minute choice of modes selected for the situation. One choice might be an armor-piercing pattern of forward-focussed energy. Another choice might be a circular pattern that launches millions of tiny flechettes with self-steering capability.

These would be smart weapons, possibly inter-networked with various swarm modes. Relatively small warheads could be deployed either to kill small targets singly or large targets by ganging up large numbers of missiles. Armored targets could be attacked by sequential streams of missiles directed at weak spots. It is unknown how effective this technique can be, but it wouldn't be surprising if strategies are found that allow the destruction of heavily fortified and buried installations.

This system is both offensive and defensive. The system could defend against a conventional all-out ICBM nuclear attack. Millions of targets could be attacked simultaneously. This would be sufficient to overwhelm any pre-MNT military system and is in that sense a super-weapon.

While it may be possible to increase the flight speed and targeting precision through MNT techniques, the most important benefit of MNT will be in the massive numbers due to nanofactory economics.

If payloads other than MNT high explosives are designed, even further opportunities could be imagined, which we can outline later.

A BIG benefit of this type of weapon proposal is voluntary verifiability. By providing monitoring of these very visible forces, we might imagine a stable balance of opposing forces as more and more entities acquire MNT.

Objections and countermeasures

There are some interesting questions to be asked about scaling of ICBMs, because it is pretty hard to imagine something of, say, millimeter size that achieves sufficient velocity, survives reentry, and does some damage. But we know objects of meter size can do this. Is there a minimum, or an optimum? How does nanotechnology alter this calculation?

Problems of heat management on board these diamondoid missiles might be a serious limitation. Diamond itself is of course an excellent conductor of heat, while the small dimensions of the missile place all of its components closer together. If MNT increases output and/or burn-time of the engine, there may be significantly more heat from that source. Also, there will be the heat of drag friction at very high speed. Therefore, it is expected that insulating materials, heat shields and possibly active heat exchangers will be a signficant issue in the design of these missiles. Not a fundamental objection however.

System communication and control will be a huge challenge for such a large network, especially due to the massive realtime demands to load targeting information into billions of nodes. If fire-and-forget can be assumed, then the main problem is targeting, sequencing and monitoring the effectiveness of millions of units per second. No matter how simplified the choices for command and control, it is clear that this system requires unprecedented information intelligence and bandwidth.

Missile swarms may be effective against civilian populations and most military units but there is a doubt with regard to penetration of armor and especially underground facilities such as missile silos and command facilities. It would appear that in order to achieve total superiority via the first generation of nanofactories, the missile swarm system will not be enough. What additional components might be needed? This will be examined in an upcoming section. -RFS

Lots of Heat

MNT provides relatively cheap space launch capability, and the ability to construct extremely inexpensive diamondoid lenses in arbitrary numbers. These could be used to re-direct large amounts of sun-light towards targets on earth, heating them to whatever temperature was desired. The heating could continue until an objective was achieved. A less aggressive, but possibly even more difficult to counter tactic would be sunlight deprivation.

Many People

This is not necessarily a directly aggressive possibility, but any group that decided to increase its population rapidly and exponentially, either as uploads or through the use of mature nanotech to construct new adult humans, and which sought out resources in keeping with its expanding population, could rapidly demographically overcome any other group that did not either immediately follow suit or have some sort of ultimate weapon and use it against the first group. I think that this demonstrates the existance of an ultimate weapon. If there is no other ultimate weapon, rapid population growth is it. The increased population would not necessarily be one of ordinary humans of course. One can imagine numerous alternative possibilities. This superweapon was demonstrated in the agricultural revolution.

Historical Superweapons

It seems likely that many patterns which have been superweapons in the past will also be superweapons in the future. As examples I would suggest Superior memes: The rise of universalist (Generally monotheistic) religion demonstrated this one. Communism threatened to despite fundamental weaknesses. Better neurology and the speculative science of memetics make this loom large. Superior paradigms: There may be ways of understanding the universe that provide advantages in contrast to science, just as science provided advantages in contrast to theology. Superior social structures: Various networked social paradims may replace nation-state capitalism like the former replaced feudalism Superior intelligence: The ultimate superweapon. Reference the neolithic revolution. Teeth, claws, speed, strong hides, and even rapid exponential reproduction came up short when humans passed a certain threshold.

It has been argued that guns were superweapons, as were nuclear weapons. Each was superior to their predecessor in their power and destructive capabilities, but neither allowed their owner to prevail over all previously existing weapons. Guns developed too slowly, and early guns were in many respects not superior to earliery projectiles. By the time they were refined, after many centuries, they were widespread. Also, they introduced supply chain and other weaknesses that were successfully exploited by the Zulu and others.

Nuclear weapons combined with either cheap construction and delivery or an unstoppable delivery system, the will to use them, and some method of protecting one's self from fallout might have been a super-weapon, but nuclear weapons generally destroy the territory that they are used on, and cannot be used on any target smaller than a city. This makes them ineffective for most purposes for which weapons are desired. Without either cheap or unstoppable delivery, they can be somewhat effectively countered with earlier technologies. This point is demonstrated by scenario analysis of the possibilities for nuclear terrorism. Nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists could do great damage, but pose little threat to destroy or defeat the US, nor could the US use nuclear weapons to "win the war on terror" even if we wanted to.

A Book on Supposed Superweapons

Lev Navrozov has been writing weekly articles at regarding weaponized nanotech and his book: "Out of Moscow and into New York - A Life in the Strategically Lobotomized West in the Age of Terrorism and Post-Nuclear Superweapons" may be read online at for $5.

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