Pandemic Weapons: How Militaries Develop Biotechnology

Kenna Castleberry
Virolog coducting experiment in the course of coronavirus pandemic with micropipette. Chemist in modern laboratory doing research using dispenser during global epidemic with covid-19.

The historical relationship between biotechnology and the U.S. military propelled into the future in 2018 with the National Defense Strategy, making biotechnology production a modernization priority. This priority became more fragile in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a National Defense article in 2020, the pandemic revealed how unprepared the U.S. (and arguably the world) was for possible biothreats, including the coronavirus. While the military is looking into the effects of harmful viruses, they are also hoping to develop biotechnology with deadly impacts.

Before discussing military biotechnology further, it’s important to distinguish between biotechnology and biological weapons. The Army University Press explains that biological weapons are designed to produce as much mass destruction as possible, such as destroying crops, livestock, and even entire ecosystems. Biological weapons are non-discriminatory and include things like viruses, bacteria, or chemicals to cause damage. Biological weapons have been used before, even in civilian settings, such as the 2001 Anthrax attacks. While the victims of these attacks were chosen deliberately, 22 people developed anthrax infections, and 5 people died. From these attacks, the U.S. government and FBI were on high alert for other biological weapons.

Biotechnology, in contrast, is more specific in its intended victim but also includes developing products that enhance military technology or combat performance. Much of biotechnology is DNA-focused, with products like artificial gut microbiomes and genetically modified foods. Other biotechnology projects are more mundane, such as using spider silk to make stronger and more flexible uniforms. The U.S. Military’s Defense Innovation Unit in Boston oversees much of the development and use of this new biotechnology. They’ve developed novel biological resins that are lightweight and flame retardant, perfect for making lighter airframes or drones, or for reinforcing ship hulls. These are just a few of the many products that come from this Unit.

While there have been many biotechnological advances, the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated how fragile the supply chain is between engineers, manufacturers, and the military. According to National Defense, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) of the U.S. military does not have the bio-manufacturing capabilities to generate cost-effective biotechnology, and thus must rely on foreign suppliers. This emerges as a problem in the pandemic, with shipping shortages and tariff wars. DARPA’s issue becomes more serious when looking at possible threats from other countries, such as China.

China is one of the world leaders in biotechnology research and production. Starting in 2016, the Central Military Commission (CMC) has been funding military projects on human performance enhancement, brain science, and advanced biometric systems. The current Vice President of the Academy of Military Sciences in China has recently suggested looking into biotechnology for brain-control weapons. Though it sounds like something out of science fiction, China has more capability than the U.S. military to pursue this type of weapon. In fact, China is researching the use of the CRISPR-CAS9 system on increasing troop combat effectiveness. The CRISPR-CAS9 system allows for easy gene editing and can change the arrangement of DNA in any organism, or allow for the adding or subtracting from the organism’s genome. This system also can help develop genetically engineered food or other products.

Perhaps with more flexible funding plans and a more robust supply chain, the U.S. military will advance to China’s level of biotechnology development, and be more prepared for possible future attacks. The 2018 modernization priority helped bring biotechnology to the forefront of military research. As technology advances, the methods and materials of war are likely to advance as well. The pandemic has become a wake-up call for a new level of biological weapons, as well as possibly deadly biotechnology.

 

References:

“2001 Anthrax Attacks.” Wikipedia, 25 Sept. 2021.

“Avoiding Surprise in an Era of Global Technology Advances” at NAP.edu. 2005.

Dieulius, Diane. 2018. “Biotechnology for the Battlefield: In Need of a Strategy.” War on the Rocks. November 27, 2018.

Ji-wei, Colonel Guo. 2020. “Ultramicro, Nonlethal, and Reversible – Looking Ahead to Military     Biotechnology.” 2020.

Kania, Elsa B., and Wilson Vorndick. 2019. “Weaponizing Biotech: How China’s Military Is Preparing for a ‘New Domain of Warfare.’” Defense One. August 19, 2019.

Mayfield, Mandy. 2020. “Military to Leverage New Biotech Fields to Gain an Edge.”            Www.nationaldefensemagazine.org. July 24, 2020.

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