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The Dawn of Future Neuro-Cognitive Warfare: Exploiting Adversary’s Cognitive, Physiological, and Behavioral Vulnerabilities


In an ever-evolving world, warfare is undergoing a transformation beyond conventional weapons and tactics. The rise of technology has paved the way for a new frontier of warfare that targets the very essence of our being—our cognitive, physiological, and behavioral vulnerabilities. Welcome to the dawn of future neuro-cognitive warfare, a paradigm where adversaries seek to exploit the inner workings of the human mind to gain a significant advantage. In this article, we delve into the implications, challenges, and ethical considerations surrounding this emerging field.


Contemporary Infromation Warfare:

In the past, warfare primarily involved physical clashes between hostile forces, with each side trying to impose its will on the other. However, in the future, warfare is expected to become more cognitive in nature. The success of military operations heavily relies on cognitive functions such as planning and strategy-making. This involves analyzing the situation, assessing friendly and enemy capabilities, and devising potential courses of action. Implementing strategy requires constant reevaluation and adaptation based on incomplete information, as warfare is dynamic and constantly evolving.

The ability to adapt rapidly and exploit transient opportunities, rather than rigidly adhering to predetermined plans, is crucial for success in war and conflicts. It requires exceptional judgment, a keen sense of the situation, and the knowledge of what needs to be done and how to do it. The emerging field of neuro-cognitive warfare aims to target and affect this critical ability.

Potential adversaries are increasingly leveraging the information space to wage war at the cognitive level. The threats in this domain are growing both in frequency and danger. This signifies a shift in the character of war. In 21st-century warfare, the focus is on gaining information superiority in the decision space, either before or during conflicts.

This concept characterizes what is known as fifth-generation warfare. The fight for information is paramount in this context, as controlling information and maintaining an intact decision-making cycle are crucial for effective warfare. To achieve success, warfare must strive to control information and possess the ability to know what actions to take and when to take them. If information control is lost, the decision-making process is disrupted, or cognitive abilities are degraded, the ability to fight effectively and secure victory becomes severely compromised.

Neuro-Cognitive Warfare

While information warfare focused on controlling information reaching the brain, cognitive warfare targets the brain itself. It involves enhancing the cognitive abilities of one’s own forces while degrading those of adversaries. This can be achieved through the use of drugs, brain stimulation, and other techniques to optimize military personnel’s performance, potentially creating “super soldiers.”

Cognitive warfare involves leveraging scientific knowledge about the brain and its functions to manipulate and exploit the vulnerabilities of adversaries. It encompasses a multidisciplinary approach drawing from neuroscience, psychology, artificial intelligence, and more. By understanding how the brain processes information, makes decisions, and controls behavior, it becomes possible to influence and control an adversary’s actions.

Neuroscience research holds significant potential for benefiting society, particularly in managing and alleviating chronic pain, mental illnesses, and neurocognitive degenerative conditions like dementia. However, it also presents opportunities for enhancing national security. Organizations such as the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are interested in utilizing advancements in behavior prediction and modification to improve intelligence gathering and address security threats. However, the military’s access to the brain and its ability to manipulate cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functions raise ethical concerns.

Neuro-cognitive warfare focuses on exploiting the cognitive vulnerabilities of adversaries. The concept of bounded rationality, introduced by Herbert A. Simon, highlights that humans are limited in their cognitive abilities when making decisions. This limitation stems from finite information processing capacity and the inability to fully explore all alternative choices. Similarly, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s work on heuristics and biases emphasizes that humans rely on mental shortcuts and previous experiences to make decisions, leading to predictable errors.

The impact of neuro-cognitive warfare can be analyzed through the OODA cycle (observe-orient-decide-act), developed by John Boyd, a military strategist. This cycle applies to combat operations and learning processes, including commercial operations. Neuro-cognitive warfare has the potential to affect the orientation and decision phases, which heavily rely on cognitive functions. While artificial intelligence (AI) can assist humans in these cognitive processes, humans still play a crucial role. If an adversary can influence the orientation and decision phases, regardless of their observation capabilities or speed of action, they will always be at a disadvantage.

Researchers from the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) provide a framework for cognitive domain operations, highlighting technologies that affect cognition and subliminal cognition. These technologies include cognitive survey, cognitive interference, and cognitive strengthening techniques. They can assess psychological disposition, conduct attacks against an adversary’s well-being, and enhance one’s cognitive abilities.

At the tactical level, weaponized capabilities in neuro-cognitive warfare focus on degrading the cognitive, physiological, and behavioral characteristics of soldiers. These capabilities can be deployed in urban areas using small-sized, localized technologies. Online immersive environments like 2d Life or other electronic mediums can also be utilized to impact behavior covertly and without the target’s knowledge.

Moreover, neuroscience research can be harnessed to develop weapons that act on the nervous system, causing profound physical effects and, in extreme cases, death. The use of chemical agents like sarin gas and nerve agents has prompted discussions about the availability and dual-use applications of neurological weapons.


Neurocognitive warfare presents a range of potential military applications, each with profound implications:

  1. Disabling Enemy Combatants: One of the primary applications of neurocognitive warfare is the ability to temporarily or permanently disable enemy combatants by disrupting their cognitive abilities. This could be achieved through various means, such as using directed energy weapons to target specific brain regions or deploying chemical or biological agents designed to disrupt brain function. By incapacitating adversaries in this manner, military forces could gain a significant advantage on the battlefield.
  2. Manipulating Enemy Behavior: Neurocognitive weapons offer the capability to manipulate enemy behavior effectively. By exploiting the brain’s vulnerabilities to suggestion, persuasion, and coercion, these weapons could be used to make enemy combatants more compliant, less aggressive, or prone to making critical errors. Such manipulation could have far-reaching consequences in shaping the outcome of conflicts by controlling the actions and decisions of adversaries.
  3. Enhancing Friendly Forces: Neurocognitive enhancement technologies have the potential to elevate the cognitive abilities of friendly forces. By improving memory, attention, decision-making, and stress tolerance, these technologies could enhance the performance of military personnel. For instance, neurocognitive enhancements could aid pilots in high-stress situations, help soldiers rapidly acquire new skills, or boost the overall effectiveness of troops in various operational scenarios. This application could significantly bolster a nation’s military capabilities and readiness.

Here are some specific examples:

  • Implanting soldiers with devices to improve their performance in combat. For example, a device could be implanted to enhance focus, alertness, or decision-making.
  • Equipping drones with weapons that use directed energy to disrupt the cognitive abilities of enemy combatants. For example, a drone could be equipped with a microwave weapon that could cause temporary confusion or disorientation.
  • Launching cyberattacks to exploit vulnerabilities in the human brain and manipulate the behavior of enemy decision-makers. For example, a cyberattack could be launched to spread disinformation or propaganda, or to hack into enemy communications systems in order to sow discord and confusion.

Countries provide thrust to neuro-cognitive warfare

Countries around the world are recognizing the significance of neuro-cognitive warfare and its potential impact on future conflicts. The United States has been at the forefront of this concept, with the annual “Mad Scientist Future Technology Seminar” exploring innovative ideas for warfare. Neuro-cognitive warfare involves using electromagnetic, infrasonic, and light technologies to target human neural and physiological systems. It aims to exploit cognitive vulnerabilities for strategic advantage.

China is exploring the concept of “cognitive warfare” as part of its military strategy. Cognitive warfare involves using techniques and technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), to influence the minds of adversaries and shape their decisions, creating a favorable environment without engaging in physical conflict.

Chinese strategists emphasize the need to optimize human-machine coordination and enhance human cognitive performance to keep pace with the evolving nature of warfare. They envision expanding the battlefield into virtual domains and viewing the human brain as a new combat space. The concepts of “biological dominance,” “mental/cognitive dominance,” and “intelligence dominance” are seen as crucial for success on the future battlefield.

Overall, the growing focus on neuro-cognitive warfare underscores its potential as a significant factor in future conflicts. Nations are exploring and investing in this field to gain an advantage in the cognitive battlespace, recognizing that the human element remains a critical aspect of warfare despite technological advancements.


PLA Expectations for Future Warfare

China sees cognitive warfare as a critical domain after the physical and information spaces, with the potential to help achieve strategic objectives such as victory in Taiwan without using conventional weapons. Beijing could employ methods like spreading disinformation through social media, manipulating public opinion, and gathering personal information to influence decision-makers, military commanders, and the general public in rival countries.


The Chinese military is utilizing AI to enhance the mental well-being of its troops. According to the PLA Daily, the military is developing wearable technology and a “psychological support system” to better prepare soldiers for combat. Soldiers in various units are equipped with smart sensor bracelets that continuously record facial information, analyze real-time data feedback, and assess their psychological state. This initiative aims to improve the psychological situation and stability of soldiers, recognizing the importance of mental preparedness in achieving success in warfare.


While the effectiveness of cognitive warfare remains uncertain, it is an area of growing importance that leverages advancements in AI technology.


China’s exponential increase in research and applications of neuro S/T, which is reflective, and instrumental to China’s long-term (i.e.- 20-30 year) visions for potential dominance of the field in and across a range of medical, public, military and political uses to establish strategically latent, disruptive effects upon current and future balances of power.


Chinese strategists anticipate that the tempo and complexity of operations will increase, perhaps dramatically, as the form (形态) or character of warfare continues to evolve. As a result, PLA thinkers are concerned about the intense cognitive challenges that future commanders will encounter, particularly considering the importance of optimizing human-machine coordination (人机协同) and fusion or integration (人机融合). Necessarily, these trends have intensified the PLA’s interest in the military relevance of not only artificial intelligence but also brain science and new directions in biological interdisciplinary (生物交叉) technologies, ranging from biosensing and biomaterials to options for human enhancement. The transition from informatization to intelligentization is seen as necessitating the upgrading of human cognitive performance to keep pace with the complexity
of warfare.


In future conflict, the battlefield is expected to extend into new virtual domains. According to He Fuchu, “The sphere of operations will be expanded from the physical domain and the information domain to the domain of consciousness (意识域); the human brain will become a new combat space.” Consequently, success on the future battlefield will require achieving not only “biological dominance” (制生权) but also “mental/cognitive dominance” (制脑权) and “intelligence dominance” (制智权).


These nascent concepts, which are becoming more regularly discussed in influential writings, reflect the PLA’s recognition of the increasing importance of contesting superiority within these new frontiers to achieving advantage. Despite the complexity and capability of advanced technologies, this human element of warfare remains a critical vulnerability and source of potential advantage. At the same time, the notion of “winning without fighting” (不战而屈人之兵) is a traditional element of Chinese strategic thinking that possesses enduring relevance in an era in which technology is becoming ever more consequential to strategic competition in peacetime.


A Framework for Cognitive Domain Operations

China, too, acknowledges the importance of cognitive warfare in future conflict. According to a 2017 PLA Daily article by the leading PLA theorist Zeng Huafeng of the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), “cognitive space” is defined as “the area in which feelings, perception, understanding, beliefs, and values exist, and is the field of decision-making through reasoning.”  It includes many “intangible factors” such as “leadership, morale, cohesion; training level and experience; situational awareness and public opinion.”

An August 2018 article by NUDT researchers provides an expansive conceptual framework for cognitive domain operations. It explains that “cognitive domain operations have already become the main battlefield for other countries conducting ideological penetration, and is an important domain for both sides in a war to fight for or destroy troop morale and cohesion, as well as forming or deconstructing operational capabilities.”  The researchers highlight six technologies, divided across two categories, that will be key in leveraging the cognitive domain for political and economic gains. The first category, cognition (阈上认知, yushangrenzhi), includes technologies that affect someone’s ability to think and function. The second category, subliminal cognition (阈下认知, yuxiarenzhi), covers technologies that target a person’s underlying emotions, knowledge, willpower and beliefs.


Cognitive influence technologies

“Cognitive survey technology” (认知测量技术, renzhi celiang jishu) translates psychological indicators into quantifiable signals to assess the adversary’s psychological disposition—not only their perceptions, memories, and speech, but also their motivations, emotions, and needs.
“Cognitive interference technology” (认知干扰技术, renzhi ganrao jishu) is used to conduct attacks against the adversary’s psychological well-being through lethal and non-lethal means. Light waves, electromagnetic waves, and microwaves, can “cause psychological damage, confusion, and even hallucinations, changing the other’s cognition, and ultimately causing the enemy to act in violation of their own interests.” “Cognitive strengthening technology” (认知强化技术, renzhi qianghua jishu) is used to improve one’s own cognitive abilities


Weaponized capabilities at the tactical level will be focused on degrading the cognitive, physiological, and behavioral characteristics of Soldiers. Its small size and localized effects will make it ideal for employment in urban areas. Such technology could be employed through online immersive environments such as 2d Life or other electronic mediums to surreptitiously impact behavior without the knowledge of the target.



Biological Dominance and Genomics

Neurocognitive warfare extends beyond the human brain to encompass the manipulation of biology and genetics. Researchers are actively working on gene-editing experiments, including the modification of animals and human embryos. These experiments have shown promising results, such as increased resistance to radiation. The potential creation of super-soldiers who can survive nuclear fallout is no longer confined to science fiction.

Furthermore, genomics represents the next disruptive technology frontier. It offers the possibility of not only engineering living organisms for military purposes but also understanding and exploiting genetic vulnerabilities in adversaries. The ability to target specific genetic traits in populations could have far-reaching implications in future conflicts, altering the very DNA of warfare.


Challenges and Ethical Considerations:

While the potential benefits of future neuro-cognitive warfare are intriguing, significant challenges and ethical considerations accompany its development. Safeguarding against unintended consequences, ensuring the responsible use of these technologies, and protecting individual autonomy and privacy are crucial areas to address. Balancing the need for security with respect for human rights and the potential for abuse is a complex task that demands comprehensive regulations, oversight, and international collaboration.


Conclusion: A New Era of Warfare

As we delve into the realm of neurocognitive warfare, we find ourselves on the cusp of a new era in military strategy and technology. The fusion of neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology is reshaping the battlefield and challenging traditional notions of defense. Nations like China are at the forefront of these developments, envisioning a future where the human brain and genetic manipulation play pivotal roles in securing operational advantage.

While the military applications of neuroscience hold the promise of enhanced capabilities, they also raise ethical and humanitarian concerns. As we venture further into this uncharted territory, it becomes imperative to strike a balance between technological advancement and the responsible use of these powerful tools. The future of warfare is evolving rapidly, and our understanding of neurocognitive warfare will undoubtedly play a crucial role in shaping the conflicts of tomorrow.

The dawn of this new era calls for an open dialogue among scientists, policymakers, and the public to navigate the challenges and collectively determine the boundaries within which these technologies should be employed. Only by doing so can we unlock the potential benefits while minimizing the risks associated with exploiting cognitive, physiological, and behavioral vulnerabilities in warfare.


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