2023 MUST BE a year of Convergence of CBRN Defense, Pandemic Preparedness, and Health Security


By BG (ret.) William King

Science and technology during the Cold War limited the United States and Soviet Union Chemical and Biological Weapons (CBW) programs to traditional threat agents; if one of these agents was employed, the US would know a state was responsible. Everything outside of the defined set of traditional agents was regarded as a public health issue. What is more, it was widely understood that the potential blow-back effect of biological weapons (BW) use, including public health consequences, were not worth the potential rewards, which is why President Nixon decided to eliminate the US offensive BW program in the 1969. 

However, today technology advances and the convergence of science and technologies, while significantly enhancing the human condition with medical breakthroughs, now presents the specter of previously unimagined CBW agents. 

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and revolutionary biotechnologies, including CRISPR-Cas9 and other genetic engineering tools, are enabling what was previously technologically impossible.  These advances could theoretically allow for the modification or even development of new CBW agents that will allow states to operate in grey zones with plausible deniability, increasing the potential for strategic surprise. Grey zones in biological warfare are the seams between the natural and the intentional, the space between peace and full-scale conflict, or the “competition phase” between great powers.  Something appears natural but is actually intentional and there is no declaration of war or even open hostilities. For example, an adversary could use a biological agent in the competition phase before full-scale conflict in an attempt to distract or weaken the US, our Allies, and partners, much like cyber incidents demonstrated in the past. What might look like an endemic or pandemic disease could in fact be more nefarious, a biological attack.

The current novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic provides an interesting case study. Its spread resulted in “stay at home orders” in a majority of states across the country, with significant economic consequences and millions of jobs lost. While the mortality rate of COVID-19 is relatively low, although roughly 10x higher than the flu, it has a high morbidity rate. The US government and economy like so many other nations came grinding to a halt. These are the types of effects that an adversary would love to achieve: significant disruption without much destruction, massive financial costs, and the presentation of natural occurrence – thus plausible deniability with the success of national strategic objectives. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that biological threats do not respect national borders, treaties, or social/economic status and has illustrated their seriousness and how fast they can spread if early containment strategies are not effectively implemented. As devastating as the COVID-19 pandemic is, I am not certain that the lessons observed have been learned. For instance, there is a reasonable likelihood that monkey pox may become entrenched in countries around the world where it had not been historically found. 

Unless we make transformative investments in pandemic preparedness and response now, we will remain ill prepared. While there are important lessons to be learned from COVID-19, we must not fall into the trap of preparing for yesterday’s war. We must be prepared to deal with any disease/biological threat. Even with knowledge and tools that dramatically improved our ability to respond, COVID-19 has still been a catastrophe for the nation and the globe.

For the first time in our history, we have the opportunity—due to advances in science and technology— not just to refill our stockpiles, but also to transform our capabilities. We must fundamentally transform our ability to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to pandemics and high consequence biological threats.

The convergence of traditional health security and biological defense is long overdue and is much needed action. We must continue to monitor, evaluate, and resource the biological and chemical threat reduction enterprise to effectively counter existing and emerging global threats. 

And it is here – at forums like this magazine that we play a critical part in making a difference. My challenge to each of you here today – how do we take what we have learned as a nation and as a globe, from pandemics to war, how do we take what we anticipate before us, from climate impact to increased aggression from adversarial nations, and how can we unite our technology, our connections, and our collective ingenuity to bring solutions to the most pressing challenges of today and of tomorrow?

About the author:

BG (Ret.) William King has served in a wide variety of command, leadership, and staff positions across numerous levels of the U.S. Army, Joint Task Forces, Regional Commands, and most recently as the Commanding General 20th CBRNE Command before retiring on 19 July 2017 with 30+ years of active-duty US Army service. Today he is a Principal/Director at Booz Allen Hamilton, responsible for developing the market for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction.

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