Big Changes Ahead for How Troops Combat Future Chemical and Biological Threats

BALTIMORE — Over the next few years, troops working closely with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats will receive new suits, gloves and better detection devices.

These are minor, albeit important, changes to how they can better combat a growing list of nasty threats that don’t always involve bullets and missiles.

But what will really change their work is a combined threat review, new strategy and increased funding to put CBRN at the forefront of defense thinking.

The broader “pivot” and “transformation” that a senior defense official pointed out at a business conference to defeat these threats, is a comprehensive review of posture, increased multi-year funding, and a new way to integrate CBRN defense into everything troops do. .

With this new prioritization and funding, officials hope that CBRN equipment and strategy will seep into the total force.

Adding another layer of data mining and machine learning will help frontline CBRN officers better deal with currently unknown dangers that threaten to overwhelm defense, civilians and emergency response alike. a way that could outpace the COVID-19 pandemic.

Deputy Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs Deborah Rosenblum outlined the situation in her remarks July 28, the second day of the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual CBRN conference here in Baltimore, Maryland. .

“We’re not going to figure it out as we go along,” Rosenblum said. “We need a radical transformation.”

Rosenblum called the growing chemical and biological threat “much more difficult” and “rapidly changing”.

Several speakers throughout the two-day event hammered home that the old days of “one bug, one medicine” are over. This is the methodology that has existed for decades with threats such as smallpox or anthrax, two deadly viruses that have existing vaccines.

Although COVID-19 originated through human-animal contact, current and future threats may be engineered by adversaries such as Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, or non-state actors specifically to confusing existing identification tools. It masks who did it, what it is, and how to treat it.

And these are not casual references. The State Department’s 2022 Report on Adherence and Compliance in Arms Control, Including Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs, contains specific notes on these adversaries.

“The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has continued to engage in activities with dual-use applications, raising concerns about its compliance with Article I of the BWC,” the report said.

Much of the State Department’s report on alleged weapons programs, especially dual-use ones, includes estimated activity and fears of malicious uses of biological and chemical technology due to incomplete, inaccurate information or sometimes misleading.

The United States also has its own biodefense and biotechnology programs, which themselves could be shifted to “dual use”. The United States also pursued and created vast stockpiles of chemical weapons and biological agents before pledging to end offensive biological weapons programs and join the Chemical Weapons Convention, with most other states of the world.

Russia maintained a strong biological and chemical weapons infrastructure when it was part of the Soviet Union. Despite public denial of such programs, Russian officials admitted in the early 1990s that its biological weapons program continued until the end of the Cold War.

The media also reported multiple political assassinations that the Kremlin, at the request of Russian President Vladmir Putin, carried out using radiological evidence and the fourth-generation nerve agent Novichok.

Then there is North Korea, which has had a biological weapons capability since the 1960s, according to the State Department report.

“North Korea likely has the capability to produce sufficient quantities of biological agents for military purposes at the request of the leadership,” the report said.

However, outside experts, such as those at the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists, note that portrayals of North Korean military capabilities lack hard evidence. The leaders of the country with closed borders might tout robust bioweapons programs simply as a strategic bluff.

“One must be careful when talking about North Korea, and not jump to conclusions or attribute a threatening meaning to any information that manages to emerge, especially when it emerges in times of crisis,” writes Sonia Ben Ouagrham. -Gormley, then an associate professor studying biodefense at George Mason University, in a 2017 Bulletin article.

A 2020 report by think tank Stimson came to a similar conclusion. The Stimson report noted that the US government made these claims for years without a clear definition of a biological weapons program.

“However, based on a definition of the United Nations (UN) inspectors investigating Iraq’s BW activities, the most that can probably be said in the case of North Korea is that it may have or have had a BW program,” the Stimson report said.

Either way, biological and chemical threats still pose a challenge for the Pentagon. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin sent a memo in late 2021 calling for a review of biodefense posture for both natural and manufactured biological threats.

That review began in January and is expected to take about a year, according to Rosenblum, assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs.

Ian Watson, deputy undersecretary of defense for chemical and biological defense, said in a separate panel in Baltimore that the posture review “will outline critical aspects of the threat.” This decision will raise the profile of CBRN in national defense strategy, concepts of operations and force-wide operation plans, he added.

“Early warning is key,” Watson said. Indeed, the use of biological or chemical attacks could prevent the outbreak of an armed conflict to prepare the combat space.

But already, the Pentagon has increased its spending on chemical and biological defense with $300 million more in the currently proposed budget and a total of $1.2 billion in additional funding over the next five budgeting years.

Major moves Rosenblum is pushing include adding CBRN sensors to most existing tactical platforms, as well as future platforms, from manned personnel carriers to individual drones.

The Pentagon must also use advanced algorithms and technical solutions to improve satellite and thermal imagery that could spot and track the spread of chemical weapons releases.

Various Department of Defense entities are developing modern vaccines that can be used before exposure as a protective measure and then as a treatment.

This same vaccine research also solves the “one bug, one drug” problem by creating vaccines that treat a family of viruses or even attack the symptom, such as upper respiratory problems, that exist in multiple viruses.

A major initiative boils down to the lowest level – the soldier, sailor, airman or navy. And that’s thanks to a program that seeks to have detection capabilities on wearable devices.

The Pentagon has tried this before, with old chemical detection strips that were often contaminated with other debris. They also built a white-faced watch-like device to detect exposure called DT236. The problem with this device was that it had to be sent to a laboratory for analysis.

This meant that a soldier in the field who did not know if he had been exposed would wait days or more to find out.

But new wearables, such as commercially available smartwatches with certain sensors, could provide real-time updates on exposure to chemicals and biological weapons.

“Through these efforts, each combatant can be a chemical or biological sensor themselves,” Rosenblum said.

And while all of these efforts are needed for new threats, a new strategy will lead to better protection, she said.

“We can have the best gear in the world, but if the culture and the mindset aren’t integrated…it’s going to stay on the sidelines,” Rosenblum added.

Past practices did not always allow CBRN experts to know what they were dealing with, in what concentration and on what scale. This often involved removing entire units or sealing off entire swaths of the battlespace.

These measures are great for opponents as they reduce troops in combat and narrow the battlefield.

But, if leaders can take a more tailored approach to how they prepare for and respond to such attacks when they occur, they can be more effective on the battlefield, experts have said.

Todd South has written about crime, the courts, government and the military for several publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer Finalist for a co-authored project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Navy veteran of the Iraq War.