Engineers’ Choices: Disarmament by design

Designing weapons is a lucrative career choice for many engineers, but comes with deadly and destabilising consequences. Roger Orpwood argues for an ethical approach to engineering and explores some options for dis-incentivising the development of new weapons technologies.

We were out for a walk. It was a warm spring day, sun shining and just a gentle breeze stirring the tops of the trees. You couldn’t help but feel a smile on your face. Life was good. But all of a sudden a deep vibrating sound rose in volume, and a large helicopter broke through into the sunlight, birds scattering as the powerful blades tore through the air, and the dark shape rushed overhead and quickly disappeared behind some trees.

Now, I’m an engineer, and I am greatly impressed by technological achievements like this machine. It’s no easy job designing something like that, and it requires great creativity and determination to work through all the problems and get a successful development at the end of the day. But this was clearly a military machine, with missile launchers suspended on either side. Somebody, an engineer like me, would have spent much time designing the launchers and getting them to work effectively.

His or her task was to design something to improve the helicopter’s ability to kill. We’ve all seen them in action in places like Syria. Helicopter gunships tearing over bombed-out cities. Missiles flashing down into the rubble below. Yes, these things are designed to kill. That’s their role. That was the brief for the designer sitting down in front of their computer, drawing lines on the screen, lines from their imagination, lines that would turn into killing machines.

I struggle to understand how engineers, people like me, can do that kind of stuff. People say I’m naïve, or an idealist, ignorant of the real world. But I’m not sure they have thought about it deeply enough. Ideals are important. It is through them that we are able to define what is really important to us, and to find something better for society to aim at. They enable us to explore possible pathways for improving security that are not curtailed by a perceived wisdom based on ingrained ideas of what we’ve always done before. 

Engineering ethics

Engineers have an important role in society. Throughout the history of mankind engineering design skills have enabled the development of the things that have made humankind so successful, all the tools and machines that have made life that bit easier. But there has always been a downside. Also throughout history, these particular skills have been seized upon by those wishing to gain more power, to have an increased ability to overthrow other powerful people. All too often creative engineers have had their skills used to benefit the power-seeking of dangerous people, rather than for the benefit of their fellow humans.

So engineers have crucially important choices to make. They could use their creative abilities for the benefit of their fellow humans, or they could develop ever more innovative ways of unleashing destructive forces on them. Arms development is well rewarded. Only the best will end up being employed in this area.

But to make these choices surely some sense of social responsibility needs to be instilled in young engineers during their training. University courses need to have content which underlines the influence that creative engineers have on society, and how their individual responsibilities are something that they should think deeply about. Perhaps some kind of engineering Hippocratic oath needs to be taken by engineers, similar to that taken by medics, to commit to making sure their professional activities will cause no harm to their fellow humans.

Patenting peace?

As well as the personal responsibilities of engineers there is an inevitable impact on global security from engineering developments in general. At any moment in history the balance of power between adversaries is underpinned by the kind of technology that each side can deploy. A kind of unstable equilibrium is achieved when both sides have an equivalent capability. This has reached its pinnacle of course with the insane logic of mutually assured nuclear destruction. But any new technological development can upset this delicate balance, leading to an arms race and the real potential for conflict. Surely it makes sense to stop these destabilising changes and maintain the equilibrium.

How could this equilibrium be maintained? As a design engineer trying to patent some novel technology I have been approached by defence agencies enquiring whether I felt the new design idea had any defence potential. If it had I am sure the patent would have been immediately embargoed. Military applications are always seen as the priority. But in order to maintain the delicate equilibrium I have discussed above, surely the opposite course of action should be preferred. Rather than new developments being scrutinised for their military potential, they should be taken out of the equation of the global power balance. They should benefit no-one’s military prowess.

Couldn’t there be a global agency, perhaps under the auspices of the UN, where a new invention could be granted a world-wide patent on the understanding that it would not be used for military purposes. The agency could licence manufacturers to exploit the invention on the understanding applications were non-military, and part of the income gained could be tapped off to be used to fund the agency and to police the licencing activities. Clearly arms companies would throw two fingers at this and carry on with their lethal developments. But outside this world, in academia and in non-military industry, design engineering developments could carry on without fuelling any arms race.

So when I think of the poor designer who used his or her creativity to develop the helicopter missile launcher, I think of the choices all engineers have to make. Their skills are vital to the future of humanity, but they could also be the cause of its downfall. We can design a better world, there’s no doubt about that. But if humanity is to continue to have the promise of warm spring days, the choices that engineers make are crucial.


Prof Roger Orpwood spent his career as a design engineer, in the aerospace industry but mostly in medical engineering in the health service and in academia. He was the Director of the Bath Institute of Medical Engineering, a medical engineering charity managed by the University of Bath.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: Wikipedia. Engineers at the Rostvertol Helicopter Plant, Russia, work on an attack helicopter.

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