JUST IN: Pentagon Shifting Approach to Chem-Bio Defense

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

Navy photo

BALTIMORE, Md. — The Defense Department is rethinking chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense as officials face new and emerging threats, according to a Pentagon official.

“The department is changing our approach to CBRN,” said Brandi Vann, deputy assistant secretary of defense for chemical and biological defense programs. “The administration has directed us to do a number of things, including relooking at our legacy processes, our legacy systems and really reinvesting our focus and our funding into capabilities for the future.”

Much of the traditional thinking within the Pentagon in regard to CBRN is shifting, she said Aug. 18 during the National Defense Industrial Association’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense Conference and Exhibition in Baltimore. There are new opportunities to take advantage of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, she noted.

“These are buzzwords we’ve heard before, but as we start enveloping these into the CBRN community, … this begins to transform how we think about CBRN defense,” Vann said.

Dr. Jason Roos, joint program executive officer for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense, said as the Pentagon works on modernization within his portfolio, it is seeking to leverage autonomy, AI and machine learning, and robotics for integrated early warning.

“That’s sort of the sexy term for everyone, but I believe there is space in our industry where we can apply AI and ML,” he said.

However, transforming CBRN technology will be limited if the Defense Department doesn’t transition away from its traditional methods of requirements development, R&D investment and acquisition, Vann said.

“Bluntly, we need to not only embrace industry, but we need to start thinking like you,” she told conference attendees.

The office must leverage commercial technology so the Pentagon remains more competitive against the nation’s adversaries, Vann said.

Roos agreed that the Pentagon must approach acquisition differently and added that his office is embracing new contracting methods.

“There is certainly a better way for us to be able to work with you and engage with you,” he told members of industry.

For example, Roos touted a new contracting tool called commercial solutions opening, which allows for the advanced development of commercial-off-the-shelf technology.

“You can rapidly go out and get COTS capability or modify COTS capability,” he said. “We’ve been leveraging that tool very much in the context of COVID.”

Retired Army Brig. Gen. William King, chair of NDIA’s CBRN division, said the United States must be prepared for a range of chem-bio threats in the future, regardless of how or where they arise. This includes both naturally occurring infectious disease outbreaks and the accidental or deliberate release of biological threat agents.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that biological threats do not respect national borders, treaties or social/economic status,” he said in prepared remarks for the conference. “An infectious disease threat anywhere is a threat everywhere.”

The pandemic has illustrated the threat that pathogens pose to economic growth, social programs, political stability and global security, he noted.

“While emerging technologies — biotechnologies, in particular — provide unbelievable potential for our economy and global health, they also pose a significant challenge,” King added. “Like gene editing and synthetic biology, emerging biotechnologies could reduce the barrier to biological weapon development as they become more readily accessible by the general public.”

For example, technologies such as 3D printing could enable the manufacturing of complex and once costly equipment necessary to creating biological agents, he noted.

“The inherently dual-use nature of biological and some pharmaceutical chemical capabilities make countering the proliferation of these novel threat-related technologies, materiel and expertise even more challenging,” he said.

Topics: Chem Bio Protection, Defense Department

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