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Science Connections

No Consolation For Kalashnikov

John Forge considers the moral dilemma of the weapons designer.

The legendary AK 47 assault rifle was invented in 1946 by Mikhail Kalashnikov. It was issued to the armies of the old Warsaw Pact countries and has been used in many conflicts, eg by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, and even this year by Al Qaeda operatives in Iraq. One might say that it was a good thing that the NVA had access to a reliable weapon in the face of the invading enemy forces, and that they were justified in using it to defend their homeland. One might also look at the Vietnam war some other way, but I will accept this interpretation here. On the other hand, it is much more difficult to argue that the Soviet forces had any right to invade Afghanistan. So we might contrast the uses to which the AK 47 was put in Vietnam with Afghanistan, and we could mark this contrast by saying that one was a just war waged by the NVA, and the other an unjust war waged by the Soviet Union. Whatever interpretation one puts on those two conflicts, almost no-one sane would condone the use of the AK 47 in killing civilians, for instance Shiites in Iraq.

The Dilemma

In his old age, Mikhail Kalashnikov has come to have some doubts about his invention. He told The Times in June 2006, “I don’t worry when my guns are used for national liberation or defence. But when I see how peaceful people are killed and wounded by these weapons, I get very distressed and upset. I calm down by telling myself that I invented this gun 60 years ago to protect the interests of my country.” It was not the case, of course, that Kalashnikov is concerned about physically the same weapons being used for national liberation (by the NVA for instance) and then for killing peaceful people (Shiites): one assumes the weapons used by the NVA are by now rusted and useless. It is rather than they’re all weapons made according to the design he invented back in 1946. It is even possible that some later AK47s were ‘reverse engineered’ and his design copied, and so were not made by Izhmash, the weapons company he directs. But in relation to design issues I see Kalashnikov’s remarks as pointing to a dilemma for any weapons designer – in fact for anyone who would take part in the various areas of applied science and engineering we can collect under the umbrella term ‘weapons research’.

Here is the dilemma: Weapons research produces in the first place not guns, bombs, bullets and planes and the various command, control and communications hardware and software needed to use these things, but plans, blueprints and designs – knowledge and know-how. Unless these useful plans are lost or destroyed, they can be implemented or instantiated many times over, and thus project unforeseen into the future.

The AK 47 design, as opposed to the individual weapons, won’t wear out; and providing the materials and skills are available, they can be made at any time in the future. The weapons design with the most longevity that I know of is the onager, the one-armed catapult used at the siege of Syracuse under the direction of Archimedes in 212 BCE and invented some centuries earlier. Aficionados still build onagers from the original plans. Now suppose that J, a weapons researcher, designs a weapon because her country is in dire threat from a wicked invader: there are many examples of this, from Archimedes to Watson-Watt the inventor of radar, and beyond. But when the emergency has passed and there is no longer just cause for using the weapon, J’s invention is used in other circumstances which she does not condone, such as an unjust war. There is a moral dilemma here for the following reasons. I assume that J is a moral person and hence does not want to do harm unless she has sufficient justification. The imminent likelihood that an aggressor will destroy her family, country and way of life is surely sufficient justification. But the weapon design persists into the future, and once out of J’s control can be used for unjustifiable harms. What should J do? And is this really a general problem, or one that only worries Kalashnikov?

Another Example: Leo Szilard

Mikhail Kalashnikov invented a kind of rifle, which is not a really dramatic weapon, unlike the atomic bomb. If any one person invented the atomic bomb, it was Leo Szilard. It seems he had the idea, and he made great efforts from 1935 until 1942, when the Manhattan Project was set up, to get the research done that would show whether an atomic bomb was possible; how to make one; and if need be, to provide the basis for actually making one. Szilard did not do these things because he believed in weapons research for its own sake, but because he was worried about the Nazis. He was worried about their intentions as regards his people, the Jews, about their political ambitions, and above all about the relations between the talented German scientific community and their military. If nuclear physics, a branch of science that was flourishing in Germany, could be used for military purposes, then surely the German scientists would work on the problem of how to make an atomic bomb and find the answers. This perception was greatly strengthened when Hahn and Strassmann discovered nuclear fission in Berlin in 1938. So Szilard, worried about the Nazis getting an atomic bomb, thought that the Allies should do the research to see if and how one could be made, in order to deter or otherwise prevent the Nazis from using one.

The Allies, mainly the Americans, did do the research. Through a prodigious scientific, technical and manufacturing effort the Manhattan Project produced three atomic bombs in 1945. However, by the time they had worked out how to make two of the three (by the so-called ‘implosion’ design) it was clear that Germany had never had an atomic bomb programme. As far as Szilard and a good number of other atomic scientists were concerned there was no longer a rationale for the bomb project. Szilard, Philip Franck and others wrote The Franck Report in June 1945, which among other things advocated a demonstration of the power of the atomic bomb by dropping one on an uninhabited island. The Franck Report was ignored.The project was not abandoned, of course, and two of its products were used on Japanese cities, to kill mostly Japanese civilians.

The point of this example is to show how scientists lose control of their work when they take part in weapons research – they lose control of it in other settings besides, but this case is the most problematic. To put the matter another way, J might undertake weapons research because of certain pressing circumstances, only to find that when these circumstances change her work is used for purposes she could not possibly condone. A final point: the implosion design discovered in the Manhattan Project is part of the huge thermonuclear weapons stock now in existence, and would likely be the detonation mechanism for any terrorist nuclear weapon. The original concerns and intentions of the inventors of the atomic bomb have long faded away.

Ways Out Of The Dilemma?

One way out of the dilemma is to refuse to do war research under any circumstances. I’d like to endorse this option, especially as it does not imply that we should judge Kalashnikov, Szilard, Watson-Watt and other well-intentioned researchers harshly, since we can argue that the dilemma has only become evident recently. Back in 1946 or 1941 or 1935 it was not clear to what extent work done in one context could be used in another. The atomic bomb made everyone realise that.

However, suppose J were a nuclear scientist in a sovereign state branded a rogue or pariah by a large and influential nuclear-armed state. Should J not work towards a nuclear deterrent, to prevent a possible invasion or nuclear first strike against her country? But if she did so, enabling her country’s ruling regime to survive the crisis, maybe it would eventually attack its neighbours with the very weapons that J helped develop? Again, the dilemma gets purchase here.

Another possibility is to deny that weapons research must take place within history, as a good Marxist might put it. That is, as I would put it: Perhaps weapons research is not an activity that must take account of historical contingencies. Or rather, perhaps there are some weapons that it’s always morally acceptable to work on – purely defensive weapons perhaps, or smart weapons that unlike atomic bombs, discriminate in favour of civilians and against combatants. The ideas here are that it is never wrong to defend oneself, and it is never wrong to discriminate in favour of civilians.

I don’t think this suggestion works either. There is no such thing as an inherently defensive weapon – only defensive missions within the confines of received military operations and strategy. The notorious counter-example to the claim that there are purely defensive weapons is anti-ballistic missile technology, be it the fanciful Star Wars of the 1980s, or the current ‘hit a bullet with a bullet’ system which is supposed to destroy incoming missiles or warheads. But, in Cold War parlance, incoming missiles could either be the result of an offensive first strike or a defensive retaliatory second strike. When Ronald Reagan made his Star Wars speech in 1983 it seemed he wanted a system to defend the USA against an offensive first strike by the Soviet Union. But by all accounts the Soviets thought this was itself an offensive strategy on the part of the USA, designed to neutralise their own retaliatory strike – to mop up the remaining Soviet warheads that survived. In general terms, an aggressor will always want to defend his assets against response from the country he attacks, and hence needs weapons that can fulfil defensive missions.

We must acknowledge that there is no such thing as an inherently defensive weapon, something that can only be used for the morally acceptable purpose of responding against an aggressor. Doing weapons research for defensive systems is therefore not morally acceptable, as any weapons might feasibly be used as part of an unjust war of aggression.

Turning to the second, ‘civilian friendly’ proposal for ahistorical weapons research, much has been made of precision guided munitions (PGMs): smart bombs, cruise missiles and the like, which we have seen on videos from the Gulf Wars and elsewhere. Let’s assume that PGMs hit their targets more reliably than do ‘dumb’ or iron bombs (namely bombs which free-fall from aircraft). Then the question – and it is not an ahistorical question – is, Who are the munitions supposed to target? If a strategic bridge is near a hospital and the attacker wants to hit the bridge and spare the hospital, then it is better he uses PGMs than iron bombs, as the former are more likely to hit the preferred target. But if the attacker wants to hit the hospital, if he is a terrorist or retaliatory bomber, he would also rather use PGMs. It’s not the case that he wants to spare the bridge; it is that he does not want to spare the hospital. Therefore precision guided munitions do not by their very nature spare innocents and only destroy militarily important assets. Those choices are made by the persons who use them, and their choices are historical, made in historical contexts.

Kalashnikov’s preferred description of what he did when he designed the AK 47 is something like “providing the means for liberation,” or “defending my country,” not “providing the means to kill innocents.” However, he acknowledges that the latter description applies to his situation equally well. Nevertheless, J might try to portray her actions as something like “provide the means for deterrence,” the idea being that what she is helping to create is intended to deter, and hence prevent harm rather than cause it. The response here is essentially the same as it was above. Deterrence is a historical states of affairs: deterrence is a relationship between states and hence is ‘in history’. NATO deterred the Warsaw Pact conventional forces of Eastern Europe with tactical nuclear forces, including cruise missiles. At the end of the Cold War this situation ended because there were no longer any hostile armies in Eastern Europe. But weapons that were once used for deterrence can be re-deployed elsewhere, and for other purposes – which is what happened to the US stockpile of cruise weapons. They were rearmed and used in the Gulf Wars.

J now tries a different tack. She points out that the research dilemma rests on a moral principle to the effect that it is wrong to harm without justification, and while she accepts that principle, she claims it does not apply to her work. It does not apply, as she believes, because she is not actually harming anyone. She goes to the lab every day, she does experiments and performs calculations, and no one gets hurt, not even any lab animals (thank goodness). We can agree with J that the ‘no harm’ principle, as we might call it, does not apply to J directly. But if we adopt an auxiliary principle, what I call the ‘means’ principle, then our moral principle does apply. The means principle states that it is wrong to knowingly provide the means to harm unless the harm is justified. The qualification ‘knowingly’ in the means principle can sometimes cause problems, but not in the present case, where there no doubt that which J does is provide the means to harm people. She works in a weapons lab, weapons labs produce weapons, and the whole point of a weapon is to kill people and destroy things.

Is there no consolation for Kalashnikov? I think his only consolation is to make his story known to all young scientists, and to suggest to them that they never undertake weapons research in peacetime. They should only do weapons research in times when there is an immediate threat of aggression against their country. Furthermore, they should form a collective and undertake only to do weapons research on condition that they retain a copyright or patent on their work. The work is then given out under license to state-sponsored weapons producers until the threat has passed. Any remaining weapons are to be destroyed. You might say that this is utopian, and it would never work, but then it might console Kalashnikov, who, after all, was a Marxist, and perhaps also a utopian.

© Dr John Forge 2007

John Forge is a member of the Unit for History and Philosophy of Science at Sydney University. He works in the area of science and responsibility.

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