Preparing for a Dark Future: Biological Warfare in the 21st Century

April 16, 2020
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News of the spread of COVID-19 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the subsequent relief of its Commanding Officer has highlighted the tension that exists between maintaining military readiness and the need to safeguard the health of members of the armed forces in the face of a pandemic.

 The disease has been a feature of war for the vast majority of human history – from the plague that ravaged Athens early in the Peloponnesian War, killing the Athenian strategos Pericles; to the diseases that European settlers brought with them to the New World, devastating local populations; to the host of tropical diseases that caused appalling casualties in the China-Burma-India and Southwest Pacific theaters in World War II.  The fact that we were surprised by the emergence, growth, and spread of COVID-19 reflects the false conceit of 21st century life that we have “conquered” disease.

In fact, pandemics are but one class of low-probability but high-impact contingencies that we could face in the coming years, including an earthquake or other natural disaster in a major urban area, regime change in an important state, and the collapse of financial markets leading to a global depression.  When I served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning between 2006 and 2009, we explored a series of such “shocks” as well as the role the Defense Department could play in responding to them as a way of helping the Department’s leaders address such contingencies.  During my time in the Pentagon, we also held a series of wargames with members of Congress and their staff, governors of several states and their cabinets, and the government of Mexico, to explore in depth the consequences of a pandemic.  Much of what we found then resonates with what we are experiencing now.  On the one hand, the measures that individuals need to take to protect themselves against a virus such as COVID-19 are relatively straightforward. On the other hand, group dynamics, bureaucratic behavior, public policy, and economic forces make it difficult to implement measures that make sense on an individual level across a society, let along across countries.  It was, and is, also clear that the Defense Department possesses medical, logistical, and command and control assets that are helpful in dealing with a disaster such as a pandemic.  Even if not a surprise, the fact that pandemics of this scale are rare events has hindered preparation and response.

The current pandemic foreshadows an even darker future, one for which we need to prepare.  Although it appears that COVID-19 is of natural rather than man-made origin, that may not be the case the next time around.  Indeed, our reaction to COVID-19 shows just how vulnerable we are to the hostile use of biological agents, and just how disruptive such an attack could be.  Whereas the Defense Department has justifiably devoted a lot of attention to developments in the hard sciences, those at the intersection of biology, genomics, and big data portend the development of increasingly sophisticated biological weapons.  For example, the advent of gene-editing techniques could allow states to develop new or modified pathogens that would be more lethal, difficult to detect and treat, and more targeted in their effects.

States such as Russia continue to devote attention to biological warfare, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed interest in developing weapons based on new principles, including genetics.  The Russian government possesses stockpiled biological weapons as well as production capabilities. Indeed, less than a year ago there was an explosion at Russia’s State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, a Soviet-era bioweapons laboratory that now researches and houses Ebola, Smallpox, and Anthrax.  In contrast to the U.S. armed forces, the Russian military maintains high readiness to protect itself against chemical and biological weapons.  We need to ensure that U.S. forces are capable of fighting through such advanced threats.  This includes not only protecting operational forces, but also the logistical support and facilities upon which they depend.  Ensuring the operation of the defense industrial base in the face of such threats also deserves attention. The last time the topic received scrutiny was more than two decades ago, and even then, efforts to address the challenge were partial.

A related area where we could be surprised is the use of biology, chemistry, or technology to enhance human performance.  A 2012 study by the National Research Council found that “the sheer breadth of the scope of inquiry [into human performance modification] is staggering, from nanotechnology to genetic engineering to manipulating normal human processes (such as healing or fatigue). Predicting where each will go is difficult, predicting or even imagining the interactions, cross-applications, and unintended consequences borders on the impossible."  Whereas the barriers to human performance modification in the United States and elsewhere in the West are high, other states face an easier path.  For example, Russia, China, and others have long used performance-enhancing drugs to aid their international athletes.  Indeed, the International Olympic Committee has sanctioned Russian athletes for the use of such drugs. In the future, the United States could face soldiers on the battlefield who use chemical, biological, or computational means to enhance their performance by, perhaps, increasing their strength, improving their cognitive capabilities, or reducing their need for rest.   We also need to figure out types of human performance modification comports with our values.

Planning and preparation today can reduce the impact of future shocks.  The experience of the current pandemic can give us insight into future biological warfare challenges.  Similarly, measures we take today to prepare for future biological warfare can also enhance our readiness to meet future pandemics.


Thomas G. Mahnken is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a Senior Research Professor at the Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS.  He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning between 2006 and 2009. 



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