Chem-Bio Defense Office Reorganizes to Take on New Threats

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

Photo-illustration / Army

WILMINGTON, Del. — The Pentagon’s joint program executive office for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense — which is tasked with protecting the military from some of the world’s most dangerous pathogens and nerve agents — is emerging from a major reorganization that officials believe will better position it to meet new threats.

The office, as it worked to streamline its operations across the board, mulled over how it could get technology into the hands of warfighters faster and do business better, said Doug Bryce, the head of the JPEO. That required a rejiggering of its programs.

“Our mission and vision have not changed but we did reorganize,” he said during remarks at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual CBRN Conference and Exhibition in Wilmington, Delaware.

The office facilitates a number of projects across multiple lines of effort, but officials were finding that some programs were not always working together seamlessly, Bryce said.

To better establish a holistic enterprise that ensured the highest priority items were put into the hands of warfighters quickly, the organization sorted itself into three joint project manager offices — protection, sensors and medical. The JPEO also stood up what it calls joint project leaders for the areas of special operations forces; information management and information technology; enabling biotechnologies; and portfolio resources, Bryce said.

“We bundled so that we can become more effective and cheaper,” he said. “What you’ll find is that we have consolidated everything that is a sensor or a platform that works with a sensor … [into] the same place. All of protection is in the same place and all of medical” is in the same location.

Moving to portfolio management has made the JPEO “leaner and meaner,” Bryce noted. Since the reorganization, the office has found a number of efficiencies and new ways to buy gear in a smarter way, including by embracing big data, he added.

“We will be doing an awful lot of analytics,” Bryce said. “We’ve created ... an analytical framework and that was designed to basically tell us if I had a dollar, where could I best spend that dollar in the chem-bio ... world?”

The framework is based on modeling and simulation taken from warfighting scenarios that can determine the best gear to invest in, he added.

“You will start to see more and more of that,” he told members of industry. “It will help us, and it will help you.”

The office is looking for a slew of new technologies across the CBRN defense enterprise, according to Bryce’s slides. The protection program office is interested in systems such as a next-generation protective ensemble, respiratory and ocular protection systems, integrated contamination mitigation platforms, and special coatings and barriers.

The sensor office is examining robotic and autonomous systems, decision support tools, artificial intelligence platforms and tactical biodetection systems.

The medical office is seeking genomic sequencing, pre-symptomatic diagnostics and rapid medical countermeasure response technologies.

Jason Roos, deputy of the JPEO, noted that the office focuses on late stage research and development, test and evaluation, fielding and lifecycle sustainment for all military CBRN defense equipment. There is a strong push from the Pentagon to modernize.

The office is pursuing what Roos called both “Little M” and “Big M” modernization, he said.

“Little M” programs can be thought of as iterative capability improvements, whereas “Big M” efforts are leap-ahead technologies, he said.

Much of the CBRN capabilities that are on the battlefield were conceived almost a decade ago, Roos said. And when the office considers how many of those capabilities will be able to endure and address the emerging threats of the future, the answer is maybe not that many.

“We have this existential threat that we’re facing, and need from a capability perspective to really get some leap-ahead ... technology over the upcoming years,” Roos said.

As the joint program executive office looks to the future, it is focusing on five areas of investment.

The first is unencumbering the war­fighter, Roos said.

“If you look at what the future looks like, ... [with] being contested in multiple different domains and you look at our near-peer and our peer adversaries, time and space are going to become a premium,” he said. “The idea of having to don a mask and don a suit and slug around … is really going to significantly impact the ability of our warfighters to do their job, to maneuver and to fight.”

The office wants to get to a future where troops don’t even need a different uniform or ensemble, he said. “How do we get to the point where … [what] the warfighter is wearing is actually their protective gear?”

The organization is also interested in removing more rubber from the face masks that troops have to wear in CBRN situations, particularly as the military develops heads-up displays and new types of helmets, he said.

Much of “the face real estate is going to be taken up with those capabilities,” Roos said. “How do we get that rubber off the face and provide the ability that you don’t have to take off your helmet, you don’t have to lose all that situational awareness that you have, [and] you have the ability to — in the moment — go right into respiratory and ocular protection?”

There is also interest in integrated contamination mitigation, which will be critical if the military ends up fighting in a “dirty” environment that requires decontamination before troops can move in, he said.

The days of having a lot of time “to decon vehicles, people, special equipment, sensitive equipment are over,” Roos said. The Defense Department needs “coatings, coverings, just some simple things that we can do to help minimize the amount of contamination.”

“Threat agnostic” detection and diagnostics is another focus area, he said. Much of the military’s current detection capability has historically been based on knowledge of what the threat will be and having at least an understanding of what troops will face.

The “times are changing and our ability to anticipate and understand that threat is also changing,” Roos said. “We need those detection and diagnostic capabilities … [where] we don’t have to know upfront exactly what the threat we’re going to encounter [is] — rather the technology has the ability to tell us what’s in either the environment or what somebody has within them that’s not normal.”

That technology will help inform what steps commanders take next, he added.

The last focus area is rapid medical countermeasure response.

“There’s been a lot of work that’s been done across the federal government, with our industry partners and academia to be able to understand and characterize new and emerging threats, to be able to quickly build medical countermeasure capabilities (and) to manufacture and then to distribute those capabilities,” Roos said.

But the work that has occurred in those areas is a bit fragmented, he said. There is a need to “stitch all that together” so the military can make the right decisions in a future fight.

“If you take Ebola as an example, in 2014, 2015 there was a ton of dialogue across the interagency … on what do we do for Ebola. And we finally got into a battle rhythm with that over time,” he said. “You would think we were able to take those lessons learned the next time Ebola happened, sort of pick up where we left off, but not so. It was almost like we went right back to the beginning and all the same conversations started again.”

The office is considering how AI, autonomy and space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability can help in those investment areas, Roos noted.

The military is pursuing these technologies as it faces an increasing threat from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, Bryce said.

“We’re concerned about their threat and what it poses to our military forces … if and when they would use a CBRN weapon on our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines,” he said.

Andrew Kilianski, chief intelligence officer at the CBRN defense joint program executive office, said much of the work that the nation’s near-peer adversaries are doing are still unknown.

“They’re in that emerging space ... in terms of things we haven’t seen before or things that we don’t have a lot of information on,” he said. The question now is, “how do we build capability against a threat space which … we don’t know much about?”

James Madsen, lead clinical consultant and clinical laboratory director at the chemical casualty care division at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense, pointed to Russia as the greatest chemical threat. Last year, Moscow was widely blamed for the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with the nerve agent Novichok in the United Kingdom.

But China is the leader in toxin-based threats, Madsen said.

“China knows more about marine toxins in particular than any other country in the world,” he said.

Madsen said there are many deadly and frightening chem-bio threats that are not on many people’s radar. One, which he would not name, can infect a person and has a long latency period. “When you have symptoms … it’s too late and you deteriorate over a period of months to weeks and you die,” he said.

North Korea, Iran and non-state actors also pose a threat, officials noted.

“Over the past few years, we’ve gotten numerous examples of the emerging and reemerging threat space out there, ... from non-state and state adversaries,” Kilianski said.

It’s no longer rare for nations to use these types of lethal agents, he said.

“What we’ve seen over the past few years is the norms around chemical and biological weapon use have been eroded almost completely,” Kilianski said. “The norms surrounding these and the treaties surrounding these have really taken a hit.”

Retired Army Brig. Gen. William King, who now works as an executive advisor with Booz Allen Hamilton focusing on countering weapons of mass destruction, said the Defense Department has to prepare now.

It’s only a matter of when — not if — a chemical or biological attack will occur, he said.

“It’s already happened and [is] happening, and the inhibition to use some of these threats is no longer there,” he said.

King pointed to high-profile events such as the use of nerve agents against populations in Syria and the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s brother, Kim Jong Nam, in Malaysia with the nerve agent VX in 2017.

Despite these growing threats, the joint PEO has a “flatlined” budget, Bryce said.

“We’ve been at steady state,” he said. “Our buying power has gone down [due to inflation]. … It’s the same amount of money year after year.”

President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2020 budget request included $1.4 billion that would be “aligned against the highest CBRN defense priorities for the department, joint service and combatant commands to improve near-term joint force readiness and modernize the force over the long term.”

Topics: CBRN, Chem Bio Protection

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