Biotechnology: the Pentagon’s next big thing

Biotechnology has long been an important field of scientific research. But until recently, it has never been formally considered by any military as a significant technological investment opportunity, or a technology that could revolutionize the conduct of war.

Biotechnology: the Pentagon’s next big thing


For example, the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board (DSB), that helped then Secretary of Defense Harold Brown identify technologies central to the second offset strategy in 1976, and helped then deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work identify AI as the key for the third offset strategy in 2014, explicitly opted not to include biological threats in its analysis of known surprises in 2009. Neither did it include biotechnology in the list of key investment opportunities to avoid surprise in 2013.

However, recent studies by the DSB and the National Security Commission on AI (NSCAI) indicate that the Pentagon has changed its mind. It is now preparing for a new biotech revolution in military affairs (RMA), or a new offset strategy, in order to win the long-term strategic competition with China.

In contrast to its previous studies, the DSB’s latest report published in September concludes that, “the threats and opportunities presented by new bio-enabled capabilities will be significant, and the DoD must ensure it does not fall behind other nations lest it lose its technological edge to competitors in a field that may play a transformational role.”

Following the study’s recommendations, the DoD established an Assistant Director for Biotechnology in 2019. The NSCAI went so far as to argue that, “the combination of advances in AI and biology have the potential to reshape the global economy for the next century.”

It reached a similar conclusion that China’s weaponization of biology would pose a significant threat to US national security. And biotechnology would be central to the future geostrategic competition.

Drawing on the “first offset” and “second offset” strategies, the forthcoming offset strategy is working under the assumption that a combination of AI and biotech might actually transform the conduct of war.

This strategy, in essence, will be an effort to build on US’s own enduring strengths and exploit China’s enduring weaknesses and vulnerabilities. The following measures are likely to be employed for this military-technical competition.

First, marshalling international partnerships to develop a strategic technology plan to compete with China. As Michael Brown and William Perry did in the 1970s, the Pentagon will identify the most demanding operational challenges the US and its allies would face in a conventional war versus China, and develop a strategic technology plan to support this offset strategy.

Allies and partners is one of the US’s key advantages over China. The US has been creating a coalition of coalitions, or a system of systems with its allies to compete with China.

NSCAI Commissioner Jason Matheny urges the US to “coordinate AI developments with NATO and making India the focus of the United State’s Indo-Pacific AI strategy to counter China.” And this is in line with Joe Biden’s idea of forging a technological future with its allies.

Second, developing operational concepts and making organizational changes that fully exploit the available technologies. The interwar experience suggests that militaries that do better in developing operational concepts, and making organizational changes will prevail.

US National Defense Strategy (NDS) argues that, “success no longer goes to the country that develops a new technology first, but rather to the one that better integrates it and adapts its way of fighting.”

China is relatively slow in creating new concepts of operation, and even slower in making organizational adaptations. PLA Lieutenant General Liu Guozhi, the director of the Central Military Commission’s Science and Technology Commission, is frustrated, saying that “change of mindset is very hard, overcoming obstacles from interested groups is even harder.

But those two problems often exist simultaneously.” In other words, it takes China longer to convert technological advances into military capabilities. If the US moves fast enough, China will always be a follower learning from and responding to the US’s way of war.

Third, drawing on cold war strategies, the US will resort to grey zone operations in order to impose costs on China. NSD is concerned about China’s grey zone activities and determined to push back against China with all measures short of war.

Inspired by the case of Poland’s Solidarity in the 1980s, the US and its allies have launched a global name-and-shame campaign on Xinjiang, Hong Kong, South China Sea issues, as well as Chinese influence operations in Australia.

Those information campaigns successfully helped them disrupt China’s 5G roll-out in Europe.

It seems that they will double down on this approach by launching an information campaign against China Standards 2035, and “a strategic communications campaign to highlight BGI’s links to the Chinese government and how China is utilizing AI to enable ethically problematic developments in biotechnology and strengthen international bioethical norms and standards regarding genomics research.”

While the Pentagon is pondering on a potential biotech RMA, Chinese analysts are closely monitoring DARPA’s investments, and NATO’s interest in this field.

They have taken notice of the President’s Science Advisor, Kelvin Droegemeier’s remarks on biodefense, and are aware that the US is “looking to play a strong offensive game” in this regard.

In short, as it did in the 1980s, the People’s Liberation Army will waste no time to join this biotech RMA if they conclude that the US is already on it. However, biosecurity is an international challenge, in order to avoid a race to the bottom, the two militaries should talk to each other and be more transparent about their biotech advancements and intention.

Originally published at Oup blog