ISIS & The Case Against Weapons Research

ISIS & The Case Against Weapons Research

Weapons Designed In One Context Find Use In An Altogether Different One.

By Professor John Forge (Sydney University)

November 05, 2016         Picture: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters.

This article is part of the Critique’s November/December 2016 Issue “The Great War Series (Part III): Defeating ISIS”.

In January 2014 ISIS captured Fallujah. Then followed a series of remarkable military successes, including the capture of Raqqa, Mosul and Tikrit, which gave the leadership the confidence to declare a new Islamic caliphate. In the meantime ISIS captured a large and varied array of weapons, including fighter planes, helicopters, surface-to-air missiles, main battle tanks, artillery, various vehicles and personnel carriers, light and heavy machine guns, small arms, and so on, mainly of Russian (Soviet) and American manufacture, but with some French, Belgian, Polish, Croatian and even Iraqi items.[1] Many of the weapons are more than twenty years old, but are nonetheless effective and they enabled further ISIS success on the battlefield. Using captured weapons in war is nothing new. The biggest prize up to the middle of the nineteenth century was the warship, although cannon, muskets, and in an earlier age, bows and arrows and swords, were also used against their original owners. The trend continued through the wars of the second half of the nineteenth century, through the world wars of the last century, and up to the present day.[2]

Does the use of captured weapons in general, and the case of ISIS in particular, raise any interesting philosophical issues or is it just another dismal fact about war? I believe that it does. Moral questions can be raised about the supply and manufacture of weapons, but I believe that more fundamental questions can be raised about the design of weapons, with the process which created them in the first place. I will outline my position with regard to these issues as succinctly as I can here, and show that the rise of ISIS provides a particularly striking confirmation of it. In what follows I will assume that ISIS activities are themselves morally wrong and that the killing and destruction which it continues to wreak is in no way justifiable [See Calder on how to understand the idea of ISIS being ‘evil’. This is true even if one allows that some insurgencies are justified – something I accept – and even if one allows that insurgents may be justified in using methods that would be condemned in more conventional conflicts – something I reject. ISIS treatment of prisoners, civilians, women and children, its recruitment and training methods and its ultimate aims and ideologies are all morally repugnant and hence totally unacceptable.


I. What is Weapons Research?

Weapons research aims to provide a basis for making new weapons, improving existing weapons, or for creating new or improved ancillary structures and systems for deploying and using weapons. So weapons research aims to produce designs, and designs are a form of knowledge. The ‘output’ weapons research is therefore knowledge which is the ‘input’ of the manufacturing process, which in turn gives rise to hardware and software. Weapons are thus artefacts. But they are unique in that they are artefacts whose primary function is to harm, to kill and destroy.[3] It follows that weapons research is also unique: it is the only kind of research activity which aims to create new or improved ways to harm others. All of the weapons used by ISIS were the product of weapons research, some of which took place as long ago as the Second World War, as the following two examples demonstrate.


“Weapons research is the only kind of research activity which aims to create new or improved ways to harm others”.


ISIS has Soviet T-55 and T-62 main battle tanks, which came into service in 1958 and 1962 respectively. However, these were by no means radically new weapons; rather they were based on earlier models, such as the T-54 which appeared in 1945 and which in turn succeeded the legendary T-34, designed in the 1930s. These tanks can be thought of forming a kind of ‘evolutionary lineage’, with successive members showing similarities and differences with their predecessors, for instance, having a bigger gun but being otherwise identical.[4] So the weapons research which led to the T-62 began in the early 1930s.

The second example is the Kalashnikov assault rifle, the (also) legendary AK-47. This is believed to be the most widely produced weapon of all time, and it is believed to have caused more combat deaths since the Second World War than any other weapon. It came into production in 1947 in the Soviet Union, as its name suggests, and since then has been manufactured in many countries, including those of the old Eastern Block, China, Yugoslavia, and even Israel, Egypt and Pakistan. It is easy to use, very reliable, robust and cheap, as well as being ubiquitous, and so is an ideal weapon for an insurgency with poorly trained troops such as ISIS.

The official story is that the AK-47 was designed by Sergeant, later General, Mikhail Kalashnikov between 1941, when he was wounded in the first weeks of the German invasion of his country, and 1945. The story has it that he wanted to provide the Soviet Union with something comparable to the German MP40, called a machine pistol but is in fact an assault rifle.[5] Whatever the truth of the matter with regard to the role of Kalashnikov himself, there is no doubt that the Soviet Union was trying to develop an assault rifle to use in their Great Patriotic War; they were a couple of years too late.

What these two examples demonstrate is that weapons designed in one time and place and for a certain purpose may come to be used in circumstances not only different from the original but also entirely unforeseeable: the contexts of weapons research and the use of those weapons is radically and unforeseeably different. The designers of the T-62, T-55 and T-34 tanks and General Kalashnikov could not have foreseen that the weapons their work produced would be used in the following century to enable a group of insurgents to kill, destroy and commit other crimes in the name of Islam. I have assumed that the activities of ISIS are morally unacceptable, and hence it would seem to follow that anyone who engaged in any form of weapons research on behalf of ISIS, for instance in relation to more sophisticated IEDs, would also be guilty of moral wrongdoing.

But what of General Kalashnikov and the Soviet tank designers of the Great Patriotic War? Surely that war was a just one from the perspective of the Soviet Union? They were the victim of terrible aggression and surely had the right to defend themselves. One might conclude that the context in which weapons research is done determines whether it is morally justified: when it aids a just war, then it is acceptable, when it is in the service of an unjust war, then it is not.[6] I believe this conclusion to be a wrong one.


II. Harming and the Morality of Armed Intervention

A proposition that most, if not all, moral philosophers can accept is that it is wrong to harm others without justification. Moral philosophers are, of course, well able to spend much time in erudite (and indeed important) discussion of propositions and principles such as this one, but in the end I maintain that those who endorse one or the other of the modern traditions of moral philosophy, consequentialism and non-consequentialism, will accept it as at least part of their moral systems.[7] This proposition is all that is needed for present purposes. To motivate acceptance of it, we can all agree that we would like everyone else’s behaviour to conform to it.

No one wants to be harmed – that much is clear – and while we would no doubt prefer never to be harmed even if we deserve it, the most that we can reasonably expect is not to be harmed without good reason.[8] When an agent who adopts this egocentric attitude comes to accept that her situation is not special or unique and that others are just like her in that they do not wish to be subjected to unjustifiable harm, then she adopts the moral attitude. The agent then accepts that she too should not harm others without justification. If harming is not totally prescribed but permissible provided that there is justification, it is necessary to know what counts as a justification if the proposition is to be used as the basis for a practical moral system.

Again, it appears that this may not be too difficult to work out, for if harming is wrong, then it might be supposed that the only thing that is morally permissible when it comes to harming is the prevention of harm. But here matters can become more complicated. When someone assents to being harmed, for instance by a dentist who drills his patient’s tooth, thus causing pain and hence harm, but doing so to prevent greater pain in the future, then this is not contentious. However, when more general actions are envisaged, it may be difficult to determine how much harm will be caused and how much prevented, and how to balance and compare these harms.

For example, suppose it is accepted that there can be justification for harm only if at least as much harm is prevented as is caused, and suppose that the action contemplated is a humanitarian intervention where there is a civil war, or an attempt at regime change in a country run by a dictator. Presumably no such actions would be undertaken if in fact it was believed that more harms would be caused than prevented, but the question is how do those making such decisions come to know or believe that this condition is satisfied? The dismal attempts this century to bring about regime change in the Middle East and Afghanistan have created situations in which ISIS, the Mujahideen and other insurgencies can flourish: much more harm has been caused than prevented.

One response to such problems is to say that the proposition put forward is all very well for individual morality but when it comes to states and armed interventions, it simply does not apply. This accords with the realist stance, which holds that morality and ethics do not apply to international affairs. But if we do think that the actions of states should be constrained by certain moral demands, then surely a principle against unjustified harming should be front and centre of these demands. And indeed it is in Just War Theory.

Just War Theory has enjoyed a resurgence of interest of late, in part at least due to the military actions mentioned above, with the focus of attention mainly on whether those intervening have just cause. Just cause is all about the defence of oneself and of others, and self-defence and other-defence means defence against harm. So what is normally regarded as the most important principle of jus ad bellum – the set of conditions that must be satisfied for the resort to war to be just – states that armed intervention is only acceptable when it aims to prevent harm to those who are the object of aggression, and who, in this sense, are innocent. Several other principles of jus ad bellum are attempts to make sure that the harms caused by armed intervention are as comparable to those prevented.[9]

I have suggested that this is hard to do. Armed interventions and full-scale wars give rise to all manner of contingencies that are virtually impossible to predict and assess in advance. And this is because armed interventions are highly disruptive and create situations that are often unprecedented. For this reason I do not think that Just War Theory is a useful guide for decision-makers who want to do the ‘right thing’. I think it is rather a resource for the historian who would make a judgement about the rightness or wrongness of a war (well) after the event.

A further response here is to say that this is to misunderstand Just War Theory; it is a guide for decision-makers but it must not be interpreted so narrowly: while it is true that the aim of armed intervention is to prevent harm, only a rough assessment at the outset is required to the effect that it is likely that more harm will be prevented than caused. But this will not do. First of all, it is unclear what is to count as a ‘rough assessment’ – this is much too vague a description – but secondly it is not at all clear that even this will be possible. Like many others, I think that ‘power politics’ governs international affairs.


III. All Weapons Research is Wrong

If this last observation is correct, and I do not claim to have done anything more than suggest that it is plausible, then armed intervention occurs when states believe it is in their interest to do so, regardless of what they might say about helping others.[10] If states use their armed forces, and hence weapons, for their own ends, then the conclusion reached at the end of the first section above is wrong. It is not wrong because weapons research could never be done to aid a just war. This is possible, but it is to all intents and purposes impossible to tell at the time at which the weapons research in question is carried out. But that, I submit, is necessary if weapons research is to be morally justified in the manner suggested above; and it is because this demand cannot be satisfied, that the conclusion reached above is wrong. I now need to say a little more about why weapons research needs to be justified in the first place, for this may not be obvious.

Although weapons research sometimes harms directly, that is to say, the actual conduct of the research harms, it does not usually do so.[11] It may therefore seem that weapons research is not an activity that could be proscribed by a moral principle that forbids harming. However, weapons research harms indirectly: what it enables are the means to harm, and so by extension the moral principle does apply.

Like I said before, weapons research is unique in that it is the only kind of intellectual activity aimed at designing the means to harm. Other kinds of research may produce things that harm in some way, and the participants may even be aware that they risk harming others or make harming likely.[12] But the harms caused by weapons research are intended, and if what is produced on the basis of weapons research fail to harm, then the research has been unsuccessful. Weapons researchers are therefore responsible for the harms which their work causes, and as moral agents they are therefore obliged to justify their actions or admit moral wrongdoing. This is why it is correct to apply the moral principle that proscribes harming to weapons researchers.

However, as the examples of the weapons used by ISIS clearly demonstrate, the outcomes of weapons research can surface in contexts that the weapon researcher cannot anticipate, and cause harms that she cannot foresee. It follows that the demands of morality set down by our simple and basic moral principle cannot be satisfied, and hence it follows that all weapons research should be forbidden. There is however an objection to this conclusion, which is a seemingly obvious and decisive one: surely there is at least some weapons research that seeks to prevent not cause harm, which aims to produce defensive weapons. Is not this kind of weapons research morally acceptable? I claim that it is not, and we can see that it is not by looking again at the weapons used by ISIS.

In addition to things like tanks that might be classified as offensive, ISIS has three different kinds of anti-aircraft systems, two surface-to-air missiles systems and one type of self-propelled anti-aircraft artillery. If any weapon can be classified as defensive, it is surely a weapon that only comes into action when an attack is in progress. Anti-aircraft weapons therefore seem to be the paradigm of defensive weapons, only coming into use when enemy aircraft are in the vicinity. If ISIS then uses its anti-aircraft weapons to defend its troops, captured territory, and so on, is this somehow a legitimate use, because it is defensive? And when the German army in the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht, went on the defensive in August 1941 in order to re-fit its panzer divisions after capturing vast amounts of Soviet territory, was this also in some sense an acceptable use of its weaponry? The answer to both questions of course is “No!”.

Weapons are designed for particular tasks or missions and their capabilities reflect those purposes, but the tasks or missions will be embedded in larger scale operations and strategies which are themselves determined by the nature of the war or conflict in which the weapons are deployed. ISIS, the Wehrmacht and other armed forces bent on aggression, conquest and destruction will be equipped with weapons whose tactical mission is defence. Weapons research that aims to design weapons whose mission is defensive does not therefore constitute a category which is exempt from moral condemnation.[13] One can only speak of moral acceptability in relation to any weapon in the context of its use, for instance in a just war, not in terms of its intrinsic technical qualities or suitability for certain kinds of mission or tactics.



All armed conflicts take place because of certain antecedents, events, conditions, situations, etc. that make the outbreak of fighting inevitable. This is a truism. In the case of the ISIS insurgency, these antecedents included the breakdown of order and civil society in Iraq and then Syria in the aftermath of the disastrous Second Iraq War, and the religious divisions between Shia and Sunni that Al Qaeda in Iraq and then ISIS were able to exploit. There are also conditions that are necessary for any armed conflict, namely the availability of the means to fight, of soldiers and weapons, and it is the latter that has been the focus of this discussion.

We have seen that ISIS has a diverse array of captured weapons, primarily obsolete Soviet equipment. It has not been argued here that it is always wrong to engage in armed conflict, to fight, nor that it is always wrong to supply arms: the case can sometimes be made that resisting aggression justifies going to war. However, what has been argued here is that undertaking weapons research is always wrong because designing the means to harm does not produce something that is localised and limited in time and space, like individual tanks, guns and missiles that have a finite lifespan and wear out. Designs never wear out and may be manifest in contexts unimagined at the time they were created where unjustifiable harms are committed by, for example, ISIS in Iraq and in Syria. The phenomenon of ISIS therefore provides confirmation of the case against weapons research.

Footnotes & References

[1] See for instance Much of the information in the article about the weapons of ISIS comes from this helpful source. I will not reference it again specifically.

[2] For instance, the Wehrmacht used captured French artillery when they invaded the Soviet Union.

[3] By primary purpose I mean what they are designed to do, what function they are supposed to perform. Given that artefacts are designed, and we assume that the design process is rational, then we can also assume that the designers have some guidance or idea about the kind of thing that they are trying to create. Particular weapons harm in specific ways, and all weapons harm in some way. Weapons might come to be used for something else – sword may be used as a ploughshare – but this a secondary purpose, not something it was meant for, see J. Forge, Designed to Kill: The Case Against Weapons Research. Springer: Dordrecht, 2013, pp. 142-147. I have written extensively on weapons research, and the latter is my most compete statement of the argument that weapons research is morally unjustifiable.

[4] The T-34 underwent upgrades of its gun during 1942. In 1943 changes were made to its suspension, engine mount, armour and gun, sufficient for renaming as the T-44. For more details about tanks and tank design, see The idea that artefacts in general evolve is known as the evolutionary view of technology, see J. Ziman (ed.). Technological Innovation as an Evolutionary Process. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[5] The general’s own story is told in M. Kalashnikov, The Gun that Changed the World. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006. For a more balanced account, see L. Kanaher, AK-47. New Jersey: Wiley, 2007.

[6] These leaves out peacetime weapons research. For my views on this variety, see Forge, Designed to Kill, Chapter 12.

[7] My own views about moral philosophy have been strongly influenced by the late Bernard Gert. The proposition mentioned here is in effect a one sentence summary of his moral theory, if such is possible. For a short introduction to Gert’s moral system, see his Common Morality: Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004

[8] Harming includes killing, hurting, disabling, imprisoning, and among other things. For Gert’s list of harms, see Gert Common Morality, pp.29-50

[9] This is certainly the case for the oft-ignored principle of proportionality – see Forge, Designed to Kill, pp. 208-219 for a discussion thereof. Brian Orend’s book, The Morality of War. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2006, is a good introduction to Just War Theory.

[10] Realism, or power politics, is a theory of international relations which maintains that states act only in their own interest, and are not constrained by any moral principles. It does not follow that states are always able to determine what their best interests are: miscalculations happen (all the time!).

[11] Both animal and human subjects have been routinely used in chemical and biological weapons establishments. For a recent study of British chemical warfare research, see Ulf Schmidt, Secret Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

[12] For instance, corporations have in the past set up production units and factories on the cheap in countries that do not protect workers rights nor insist on safe working conditions knowing that this risks the health of their employees – the notorious Union Carbide plant at Bhopal in India is an example. However, one assumes that they would prefer that their workers were not harmed (or are indifferent), and unlike weapons research, the harming is not the whole point of the enterprise.

[13] For a lot more on this subject, see Forge Designed to Kill, Chapter 8.

John Forge
John Forge
John Forge, having retired, is now an honorary associate of the Unit for History and Philosophy of Science at Sydney University. His recent work has to do with science and responsibility and with the morality of weapons research: The Responsible Scientist (Pittsburgh 2008) covered the first topic and Designed to Kill: The Case Against Weapons Research (Springer, 2012) the second. A new edition of the former is planned. Forge has a website,, where some papers and a free ebook on weapons research, and an intermittent blog, are available.
  • Hello,

    It’s an interesting, argument, but I do not agree with its main conclusion.
    I would like to raise for now the following objections:

    1. I don’t think weapons research is always intended to cause harm. It may alternatively be intended to prevent harm by deterring military aggression, even if the researcher knows her research might be used to cause harm.
    In particular, I don’t think people designing new nuclear weapons intend for them to cause any harm.
    Also, when some weapons (e.g., nuclear submarines, nuclear missiles) become obsolete and are retired without having harmed anyone (since they were never used to harm, but only to deter), the research that went into making them remains successful.

    2. Even if some instance of weapons research is intended to cause harm, it does not follow from that that weapons researchers are therefore responsible for all of the harms which their work causes, and I don’t think it’s plausible as a general principle that if X is intended to cause harm and A brings about X, then A is morally responsible for all of the harm caused by X. Some instances of harm may be unintended, unexpected, and unpredictable. Still, the issue seems to be whether their behavior is immoral.

    3. Let’s say that weapons researchers in the West are persuaded by your argument and stop doing research for that reason. That will make Russia, China and others the main powers of the future. Russia, for example, would be able to invade Europe without much difficulty. It appears that the consequences of no weapons research in some parts of the world when it continues in some other part are very bad. On the basis of that, it could be argued that weapons research in country X (e.g., the US) is needed in order to keep up with the weapons research done in other countries, and prevent invasions, bombings, etc. On that basis, some weapons research might be justified as a means to save millions of people from being killed, oppressed, etc. – whether it is actually justified would depend on the case.

    4. You haven’t argued that it’s always wrong to supply arms, but it’s unclear why the same considerations you raise against research wouldn’t work about supplying arms, if they were successful. I would ask: What is the morally relevant difference?
    For example, just as some weapons designed in the US fell into ISIS hands, also some weapons supplied by the US fell into ISIS hands. And just as designing weapons is sometimes but not always an activity intended to harm, so is supplying weapons. Moreover, designs endure (as long as they’re not deleted from all databases, etc.), but weapons that are supplied to others can be reversed engineered. That might not be the intent, but for that matter, weapons designers also do not intend for their designs to be copied by the wrong people – well, not all of them do.

    • John Forge

      Dear Angra, This is an excellent response to my article, and raises issues others have mentioned in regard to my work. Rather than trying to reply in detail, may I refer to my other work, especially my monograph Designed to Kill? The issues are complex and require a lot of discussion and the book is my best effort in that direction. 1. So briefly, weapons research is not intended to cause harm, but to provide the means to harm, namely weapons. I maintain that weapons are the means to harm and that this is their ‘canonical description’. They can have other roles and be described in other ways, but this is always true of them. See Chapter 7 of my book for the complete argument. 2. The inference here is not always valid, I agree, but I claim it is for weapons researchers. 3. I disagree that only Western weapons researchers are swayed by moral considerations…4. I think it can be wrong to supply arms, but it can also be permissible. This seems a strange thing for me to say: if it is morally permissible to fight a just war, is it not permissible to do all that it takes to get the means to do so. I argue that it is not – see Chapters 10 and 13 of book. Best wishes, John F

      • Dear John,

        Thanks for your reply.
        I’m afraid I’m not familiar with the rest of the arguments in support of your view, so I was merely addressing the ones in the post above.

        However, I would like to address at least part of your reply: I was not trying to suggest that only Western weapons researchers are swayed by moral considerations.
        Rather, one of the points I was trying to make is that when assessing whether engaging in a behavior (in this case, weapons research) in such-and-such circumstances is morally justified, the expected outcome is one relevant element to take into consideration (of course, factoring in how probable or improbable each potential outcome is).
        If weapons research were to end in the West, the probable outcome would not be that other countries would stop as well. The probable outcome is that some other countries would become increasingly more powerful, and would eventually be able to use force against Western countries and/or against others in a way they can’t today. This is so even if research ends in the West because researchers are convinced by your moral arguments and even if researchers in other countries are responsive to moral considerations (and they usually are, as humans usually are), because under the counterfactual hypothesis that your argument convinces researchers in the West, it’s not likely that it also convinces all researchers elsewhere – many other researchers will simply disagree on the morality of their work -, a small percentage probably won’t care about it, others will be coerced, etc.

        But this point is not limited to the expected consequences of an end of research due to persuasion by moral argumentation, or to the West. Researchers in other parts of the world, and policy makers either in the West or somewhere else – who are in some cases in a much better position to influence the amount and direction of weapons research than individual researchers – also should take expected outcomes into considerations, even in countries with authoritarian regimes such as China or Turkey or Iran – considerations like “were weapons research end in China, what would be the odds of a Russian attack in the long run?”.

        I used the West as an example because I do think that given the expected outcomes, there is a much better case for an overall very negative outcome if weapons research ended in the West than in, say, Iran, China, or Turkey. But to be more precise, the matter of the morality of the behavior has to be considered from the perspective of the individual researcher, the person deciding whether to fund some research, to hire a researcher, etc., and the consequences to be considered are usually much smaller – but still, even small negative impacts count, just as small positive impacts count.

        Best wishes to you as well,

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