The emergence of ever more countries with advanced biotechnology capabilities raises a new, more dynamic future for biotechnology at war. The authors of this report explore existing and future biotechnology breakthroughs and address how they could be used in war and conflict—particularly by warfighters. The authors also use vignettes to show possible applications of biotechnology by state or nonstate actors.
Plagues, Cyborgs, and Supersoldiers
The Human Domain of War
Published Jan 2, 2024
- How have advancements in biotechnology affected warfighting, and how could they do so in the future?
- Can the human body itself be a warfighting domain? Can the body itself be an offensive or defensive weapon?
A complex, high-threat landscape is emerging in which future wars might be fought with humans controlling hyper-sophisticated machines with their thoughts; the military-industrial base is disturbed by synthetically generated, genomically targeted plagues; and the future warfighter goes beyond the baseline genome to become an enhanced warfighter who is capable of survival in the harshest of combat environments.
The authors of this report examine the existing and potential future uses of biotechnology in warfare and battle and look at the human body as a warfighting domain. They envision a future in which biotechnology is used by both state and nonstate actors to affect warfighting. Sophisticated future actors may use pathogens, brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), genomic enhancements, and wearable technology to supplement and strengthen warfighters.
- Several countries have advantages—when compared with the United States—in their abilities to deal with the effects of a globally released, person-to-person transmissible bioweapon.
- State actors are more likely to use person-to-person transmissible bioweapons than they are to use nontransmissible ones because it is inherently difficult to identify the natural or artificial origins of person-to-person transmissible pathogens.
- Internet of Bodies (IoB) technology will continue to advance, and the United States must be especially cognizant that any deployed technology can also be hacked.
- Genomic surveillance is the most likely near-term technology to affect warfighting, but genomic enhancement could have profound consequences should it become more feasible technically.
- State actors may find the inherent ambiguity of origins for person-to-person transmissible pathogens to be a strategic asset.
- Governments should revise the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) to include strong protections, such as independent monitoring of biosafety level (BSL)–rated laboratories in a manner akin to chemical and nuclear weapons treaties. Failing BWC revisions, the United States should pursue stronger bilateral agreements for biosafety.
- Governments should continue scrutinizing adversary biotechnology advancements to identify and publicize BWC violations.
- Members of Congress should resist anti-vaccine populism that is at the expense of military readiness.
- The U.S. government should continue to be vigilant about entities that misuse biotechnologies and should continue working to enhance the information security of IoB devices.
- Stakeholders should focus the allocation of funding on projects to identify and manage risks and opportunities arising from genomic surveillance.
- DoD should develop clear guidance on integrating biological warfighting capabilities.
- DoD should develop warfighting conventions on the use of IoB devices, particularly BCIs.
- DoD should develop ways to employ genomic surveillance for improvements in military personnel selection or assignments.
- Stakeholders should research mitigation strategies for novel pathogen potentialities to anticipate and counter adversary biotechnology threats.