JUST IN: Pentagon Biological Defense Programs at ‘Pivot Point’
Melanie Yu photo
BALTIMORE — The Defense Department will invest an additional $300 million per year over the next five years to guard against known and emerging biological threats, a senior Pentagon official said July 28.
Deb Rosenblum, assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological programs, said what is being called “bio-convergence” — the joining of biological sciences and emerging technologies will be both a boon to society but a threat to U.S. forces and the homeland as well.
“Technologies like artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and physics are being applied to the life sciences, creating what the national security community is calling ‘bio-convergence,’” she said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense Exhibition and Conference in Baltimore.
Synthetic biology, or engineered agents, can be used by malicious actors to create dangerous pathogens. The United Nations has noted that North Korea and Russia maintain offensive biological weapon programs and China is investing heavily in dual-use technologies as well, with some Chinese publications calling it a “new form of warfare,” she noted.
Rosenblum’s office is spearheading a biological defense posture review, which is similar to reviews conducted of nuclear weapons and missile defense. It will look at new authorities, realignment of responsibilities, seams and gaps in defense against such weapons. The COVID-19 response will provide lessons learned for the review, which is expected to be completed this fall, senior leaders said at the conference July 27.
The additional $300 million per year is on top of the approximately $1.4 billion the Defense Department spent on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense in 2022.
Presently, the United States may not be able to immediately detect and attribute a biological attack, which is one reason for the posture review and the increased funding, Rosenblum said.
“Our adversaries could engineer biological weapons to evade our medical our medical and physical defenses … engineered bio-weapons could challenge our ability to detect and attribute these attacks in a timely manner,” she said.
The ease of how they are developed also widens the pool of potential bad actors, she added.
“Put simply, we cannot accomplish what we’ve been doing in the past, but doing so even better. We need a radical transformation, and that’s what I mean by a pivot,” she said.
For example, in the past, the approach for vaccines or therapeutics was “one bug, one drug.”
Vaccines can take weeks or months to become effective, she noted. Advances seen that helped during the COVID-19 pandemic such monoclonal antibodies and mRNA vaccines are part of the solution, she noted.
Sensing bio-threats can be done via thermal imaging or even satellites, she said. And every soldier in the field could be a sensor with wearable technologies that could be reduced to the size of a ring, she added.
“We are looking at ways to have layered defenses so that even if an exposure has happened, the warfighter is able to go on and continue to fight in a contested environment,” she said.
Defending against biological threats will take a whole of government approach, she noted, and the White House with the Department of Health and Human Services is working on a similar posture review.
Going forward, Rosenblum stressed that the interest and funding to protect against bio-convergence must continue long after the days of COVID begins to recede from public consciousness. Congress has a way of defunding programs as the years go on.
“Let’s learn the right lessons from COVID that can help us into the future,” she said. Forgetting about it and believing that the pandemic didn't have an impact on military readiness would be the wrong kind of lesson learned, she added.