Dual-Use Items: What Are They And Why Are They A Challenge?

October 25, 2023
Dual-Use Items: What Are They And Why Are They A Challenge?

Dual-use items are products, technologies, or materials with both civilian and military uses. 

These are goods which can be utilised for legitimate commercial purposes, however, they also have the potential to be modified for use in military or terrorist operations. Many technologies and products created for non-military uses can have qualities or features that make them appropriate for use in the military, which gives rise to the concept of dual-use items.

What are the uses of Dual-use items?

Dual-use items can have a variety of applications due to their versatile nature. Here are some examples of how dual-use items can be utilised in different contexts:

  • Medical and Healthcare Applications:
    • Advanced Imaging Technologies: Technologies developed for medical imaging, such as high-resolution cameras and sensors, can also be used for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes.
    • Biotechnology Tools: Biotechnology equipment used for research in genetics and molecular biology can also have applications in the production of biological weapons.
  • Information and Communication Technology (ICT):
    • Encryption Software: Encryption software designed for secure online transactions and data protection can also be used to secure military communications.
    • Satellite Communication Systems: Satellite communication technology used for global internet access can also be employed for secure military communication.
  • Aerospace and Defence:
    • Composite Materials: Lightweight and strong composite materials used in civilian aircraft manufacturing can also enhance the performance of military aircraft and missile systems.
    • Navigation Systems: GPS technology, originally developed for navigation and location services, is crucial for military navigation and targeting systems.
  • Energy and Power Generation:
    • Advanced Batteries: High-capacity batteries developed for consumer electronics can be adapted for military use in portable equipment and vehicles.
    • Power Generation Systems: Efficient power generation and storage technologies can benefit both civilian energy needs and military operations.
  • Chemical and Manufacturing Industries:
    • Chemical Precursors: Certain chemicals used in various manufacturing processes can also be components of chemical weapons, raising concerns about their potential misuse.
    • Precision Machinery: High-precision manufacturing equipment used for producing complex consumer goods can also be used for manufacturing military components.
  • Transportation and Logistics:
    • Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Drones): Drones developed for photography, surveillance, and package delivery can also be adapted for reconnaissance and even combat purposes.
  • Electronics and Sensors:
    • Sensor Technologies: Sensor technologies used for environmental monitoring can also have applications in military surveillance and targeting.
    • Radar Systems: Radar technology developed for weather forecasting and air traffic control is crucial for military surveillance and defence systems.
  • Nuclear Technologies:
    • Nuclear Reactors: Nuclear reactors used for power generation can also be adapted for military propulsion systems in submarines and aircraft carriers.
    • Radiation Detection Instruments: Instruments used to detect radiation in various contexts can be important for monitoring nuclear materials and preventing illicit nuclear activities.


It’s important to note that while dual-use items have valuable civilian applications that contribute to technological advancement, their potential for misuse requires careful monitoring and regulation to ensure international security and prevent the proliferation of sensitive technologies.

Types of Dual-use items

These items can include a wide range of products and technologies, such as chemicals, electronics, software, machinery, and more. Examples of dual-use items might include:

  • Advanced Materials: Certain materials with properties like high strength or heat resistance can be used in both consumer products (like aerospace components) and military applications (like missile casings).
  • Computing and Software: Software and computing technologies designed for civilian use, such as encryption software, can also have applications in securing military communications.
  • Biotechnology: Technologies used in medical research can sometimes be adapted for the production of biological weapons.
  • Telecommunications Equipment: Components used in civilian communication networks can also be employed in military communication systems.
  • Aerospace Technologies: Technologies developed for civilian aircraft can also contribute to the design and development of military aircraft.

The dual-use nature of these items raises concerns about their potential misuse for purposes that threaten national security or violate international agreements. To monitor and restrict the trade of dual-use items and keep them out of the hands of entities or people who might misuse them, many nations have established regulations and export controls. These regulations aim to strike a balance between advancing technology and preventing the proliferation of dangerous technologies.


Export controls on dual-use items typically involve licences and permits that must be obtained before certain items can be traded or moved across borders. These controls help ensure that technologies and products that could have both peaceful and potentially harmful applications are used responsibly and do not contribute to global instability or security threats.

Challenges for Regulators

Regulating items with legitimate purposes

  • Dual-use items have the potential to advance scientific and human growth as well as build economic relations. Simultaneously, they pose a potential threat to global security objectives and the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Regulators must develop an appropriate level of control so as not to hinder technological and economic advancement while mitigating risk to national and global security
  • Export control regimes must keep pace with rapid developments in technology. Quantum computing, drones and AI are just some examples of the novel technologies challenging regulators to balance commercial demand and risk to international stability

Identifying and assessing items

  • Another challenge for regulation of dual-use items is the difficulty in identifying items that are designed for proliferation. Specialist knowledge, information, or advice is often required to determine the use and capabilities of the item and apply appropriate legal and regulatory restrictions. 


  • Context is another important component. For example, shipping drones to a well-established photography business in a low-risk country has different potential implications and risks than shipping drones to an unknown person in a high-risk country. Regulators must analyse not only the product, but also it’s potential end-use in each other nation.

Challenges for UK businesses

Identifying and assessing items

  • Dual-use items are generally only export controlled when the items satisfy strict performance requirements or technical capabilities. 

Individuals may require technical expertise to correctly determine whether their goods are export controlled as ‘dual-use’ items. Additionally, some items can be described using general terms that do not clearly identify the item or its intended purpose. To enable individuals to identify dual-use items in spite of any vagueness or uncertainty, training is required. 

  • Many dual-use items are sold commercially and ‘off-the-shelf’. This can mislead people into thinking the goods are not subject to export controls. 
  • Licences may be required to share dual-use information orally or via electronic devices with a non-authorised person. A transfer of export controlled information can happen during a phone call, via email or even during an online or in person meeting. 

Applying for authorisation

  • Companies or individuals can use the governments online licencing system SPIRE to apply for an export licence as required. The application process can frustrating for business and it can take some time to receive approval.


  • Failure to adjust export practices to comply with the appropriate regulations and licences could result in sanctions for the individual or company; therefore, it is important to seek expert advice to avoid legal or financial repercussions. 


Dual-use items may be freely available yet subject to the intricate laws and regulations of both UK and international export control regimes. Companies must be aware of their dual-use items and the implications of their export activities. Failure to keep up with the fluidity of these products’ restrictions can lead to violations with the potential of financial, and legal penalties. 

If you have any questions regarding dual-use items, it is important to seek professional advice. clearBorder’s team of expert consultants are ready to help you ensure correct classification of your items and compliance with the rules.

About us


clearBorder provides independent advice on international trade, border systems, policies and processes. We deliver:

  • online modular training suitable for individuals, teams or whole businesses to cut the risks and costs of trade across borders
  • Independent consultancy to ensure compliance, adapt businesses’ supply chains and maximise efficiency
  • expert insight into policy and technology shaping the future trade borders, to enable clients to maintain their competitive advantage

We deploy our expertise and extensive partnerships across the freight forwarding, customs, policy-making and trading sectors to help our clients trade seamlessly across borders.

Contact information

If you require further guidance regarding dual-use items, please book a call with our team here