Invisibility is no longer a mere trope of fantasy and science fiction; it is a tangible area of research that many companies around the world are pouring vast resources into. This article seeks to trace the evolution of invisibility technology from a literary staple into a real-world innovation. It also seeks to explore its global security implications, particularly in asymmetric warfare and counterterrorism. It examines how the dynamics of warfare might change at a fundamental level once the technology becomes more widespread.
“Visibility depends on the action of the visible bodies on light. Either a body absorbs light, or it reflects or refracts it, or does all these things. If it neither reflects nor refracts nor absorbs light, it cannot of itself be visible.” - H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man
We will never know if H.G. Wells intended his theory to someday be tested, but the underlying concept he proposed in The Invisible Man succinctly captures the foundation of invisibility technology today. Fantastical notions of invisibility cloaks and shields are no longer fantastical. Through the use of specialized lenses and nanotechnology, countries around the world are starting to break stealth barriers that would have been considered impossible even a decade ago. The scientific principle guiding this tech evolution is more or less what Wells suggests in the book – if an object can manipulate the way light interacts with its surface (reflection, refraction, or absorption) that object can be rendered invisible.
Most laboratories are developing prototypes of this technology. Last year for example, the Canadian company, Hyperstealth Biotechnology Corp announced four patent applications. All of which were for light bending functions that could hide an object from view, even while it moved. The most interesting of the four patents was the first one, which covered the actual material itself; a fabric that has nanoparticles of carefully designed lenses integrated into it. The lenses are created in such a way that it manipulates the light waves hitting the fabric to make anything immediately behind it invisible to the human eye.
Such innovations hold tremendous possibilities for the future of the human species, in fields as varied as medicine and search operations. A surgeon for instance, could use this technology in the midst of a procedure to see past a visual obstacle in the patient’s body. By making the obstacle invisible, the surgical team would know exactly what lay beyond it. The same principle could be applied to search and rescue operations, particularly in urban disaster scenarios. A firefighting squad scouting a collapsed building looking for survivors is now going to have a much bigger visual scope, by being able to look through debris and rubble.
The biggest impact of such innovations, however, is likely to come in the domain of warfare and security, where the application is likely to be far more offensive than defensive. The technology can be used to make obstacles invisible, but the first instinctive application in a battlefield is the idea of soldiers who cannot be detected, much like The Invisible Man himself. Such developments could change global security entirely. These issues have not attracted widespread debate yet, but it is inevitable once we start seeing more of it in action.
The Evolution of Invisibility Technology:
Using stealth in battle is as old as battle itself. In fact, considering how nearly all predators in the natural world rely on stealth, it would be safe to say stealth is even older than the idea of organized battle. Human strategists too have realized the importance of this for as long as such things have been studied. The ancient Indian thinker Kautilya, author of the celebrated treatise “Arthashastra”, arguably the oldest strategic document known to mankind, proposed ways he hoped could make a spy invisible to the human eye. About two centuries later in 300 B.C., the Greek mathematician Euclid laid out the laws of reflection by speculating that light travels in straight lines, a theory that remained more or less unchanged until Einstein.
Optical illusions are not modern either, with technology surprisingly similar to the current strains even being seen in the ancient world. The famous Lycurgus Cup in Rome was a well-known example of this; a glass cup that would glow red when light passed it from behind and green when light passed it from the front. The ancient craftsmen of that era accomplished this by adding tiny, barely detectable pieces of gold and silver to the glass, a great precursor to nanotechnology nearly two millennia before the term was invented. Similar tricks can be seen in many major cathedrals, where the stained glasses on their windows seem to radiate their own unique glows. This uses the same technique as invisibility cloaks.
Inventions from the commonly found magnifying lens to sophisticated telescopes utilize light refraction in some way, with the glass manufactured to either refract or reflect light. It was only in 1964 though that a speculative theory was put forward by Russian scientist Victor Vesalgo to make “invisibility cloaks” a viable idea. Working from the Lebedev Institute in Moscow, he suggested that it was possible to create a material which refracted light negatively, much like a transparent cup of water. An object inserted in this material, he suggested, would look like it was disappearing, much like how a straw looks broken if one dips it in a glass of water and looks at it from the side. If you bent it upwards for instance, a viewer looking through the material would instead see it bending downwards.
Victor Vesalgo was unfortunately never able to realize his dreams, but nearly four decades later in 2000, his speculation was proven right by David R. Smith’s team of researchers from the University of California, San Diego. They successfully created a composite material that did refract light negatively, thus reversing the physical properties of most optical materials. The research was further refined when Smith worked with Duke University, his research team unveiled the material and explained how it worked in the prestigious journal “Science” in 2006. Since then, numerous attempts are underway all over the world to refine this into a fabric that can be mass-produced for soldiers.
Thus, invisibility evolved from a speculative superpower seen in everything from Harry Potter to The Fantastic Four into an actual civil-military technology.
A Game Changer in Asymmetric Warfare:
Where invisibility will be a complete game changer is in unconventional warfare. This is just as well, since most conflicts around the world today are asymmetric in nature.
Unconventional wars, also referred to as asymmetric or guerilla or irregular warfare, are far more suitable for stealth technology. The global counterterror model for example, could change dramatically when invisibility technology becomes accessible. The power balance could shift either way, depending on the players involved. From the perspective of richer nations like the United States and Russia, this will help their counterterrorism campaigns and military interventions since it gives them an inherent advantage over non-state adversaries. Be it the dense cities of Baghdad, the deserts of Afghanistan or the jungles of Vietnam, large armies have found it nearly impossible to deal with the tactics of smaller, terrain-familiar insurgent groups. Even insurgents lacking in resources or training have managed to use their superior stealth to gain an advantage on the battlefield.
Invisibility technology changes that completely in favor of the rich, it gives the larger (often foreign) power an advantage in terms of maneuverability. Imagine the Soviet army in Afghanistan, the American army in Vietnam or the Indian army in Sri Lanka. In all three of these cases, a much larger army found it incredibly challenging to face a smaller, poorer one simply because the enemy could disappear into the terrain while they could not. The arrival of invisibility fabric would change that – it would turn the tables to make the larger, richer army the stealthier one, while the local guerillas would still have to depend on their low-tech familiarity of the terrain. The only real advantage an insurgent has against a foreign army would no longer exist.
Making Military Intervention Easier:
This leads to the next issue, which is that such technology, because of the aforementioned tactical advantages, could also make military interventions much easier for larger powers. This in turn could leads to more wars. Something similar happened when unmanned technology started becoming viable in military operations. President Obama was able to ramp up U.S. military involvement in countries like Pakistan and Yemen because lethal drones made it possible to target adversaries in these nations, with decreased risk to the American soldier. Despite the antiwar sentiment in the country, lethal drones provided such a lopsided advantage that U.S. operations were carried out with relatively little pressure from dissidents at home.
In fact, the only real barrier that any large power faces when running roughshod over smaller powers, is the notion that even powerful entities can meet their match in asymmetric fights. If even this possibility disappears because of technological leads, which can never be bridged, large militaries will have no reason to refrain from intervention. Conversely, it can also be argued this could lead to more peace, since smaller nations will no longer be willing to antagonize bigger powers who are so much stronger than the gulf cannot be bridged.
It is not mandatory; however, for only the larger nations to benefit from the rise of invisibility technology. In certain scenarios, non-state actors and smaller powers will also find themselves at an advantage. Proxy warfare is a common characteristic of conflicts all over the world today, where big powers use smaller ones to clash with their rivals. In such a scenario, poorer nations who are up against insurgent groups that are funded by a richer neighbor could be in a lot of trouble.
This is a reversal of the earlier scenario, but the effects would be just as devastating. Many countries, particularly in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America are currently embroiled in large-scale conflict with non-state actors like terrorists, pirates and drug cartels. Many of these nations are developing ones, unlikely to have the resources to afford military grade invisibility technology on a large scale. The non-state actors they face; however, can often have rich patrons who do, or they themselves might be plugged into black markets where improvised versions are available.
There are no real legal norms that would be capable of curbing these risks either, since the very nature of the technology makes it easy to deny any responsibility.
Obviously, with a theme as broad as invisibility, only the limits of human imagination can restrict the possibilities. There are endless ways in which invisible soldiers could be used in battle, from targeted assassinations to random acts of terror, but no way to counter the dangers unless there is far greater emphasis on it in the public discourse. Considering the number of scientific breakthroughs with a transformational impact, it is perhaps understandable that this has not received the kind of attention many would think it deserves. After all, invisibility is but one among many revolutions. Artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, space militarization, 3D printers, the list of technologies that could potentially revamp humanity seems endless and is perhaps why many are unaware of developments in this vital field.
There is no real way to ascertain the effects of this with complete certainty due to the burgeoning nature of the technology. The only fact we know for sure is that it will fundamentally change many things, much like flight and instant communication, which – like invisibility – were a staple of human fiction for many years before becoming reality. The debate around new innovations like facial recognition for instance, makes it very clear that the public perception of technology can often be a fickle thing.
The sooner the discourse delves deeper into this though, the better it would be for humanity in general. We are a very visual species, in the sense that so much of our understanding of the world comes through our visual perception. Advancements that now reshape this perception, can either be a force for positive or negative consequences. After all, going by the H.G Wells analogy of The Invisible Man, most seasoned readers would already know what happened to Griffin once he was corrupted by this power.
Nilanthan Niruthan is a defense analyst and researcher with the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, Colombo. He has written and edited multiple publications on international security, military technology and humanitarian law.