We Are at an Inflection Point: We Must Act Now or Gamble with the Future


By BG (Ret.) William King

Implementing both global collaboration for biodefense and pandemic preparedness and U.S. Department of Defense and Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) strategies is critically required as the frontiers of biotechnology and computer science have progressed, creating novel markets and opportunities.

If nothing else, COVID has taught us that we must be better prepared, including in planning, preparations, coordinated communications, and synchronized efforts across governments and societies. The CWMD mission must deter attacks from those possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), prevent acquisition by those seeking WMD, and respond to a WMD attack whether chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or high yield explosives. Since no one nation or governmental department, agency, or partner has all the capability, authorities, information, or capacity to execute this mission on their own, a support construct that enhances and enables situational awareness, knowledge management, synchronization, coordination, communication, and integration across allies and within national structures has immense potential to reduce the disparities and improve overall effectiveness.   

Cutting-edge tools like CRISPR, a technology that allows us to “cut and paste” segments of DNA, are revolutionizing medicine and agriculture. mRNA technologies, such as those developed for mitigating COVID-19, allow for faster vaccine development, offering the potential for a rapid response to the emergence of new diseases. The rapid evolution of large language models such as those applied in generative artificial intelligence (AI) models will lead to a merger of chemistry, biotechnology, and computer science. In more simple terms, this means sophisticated algorithms will propel chemical and biotech research to reach their objectives faster and more precisely, leading in turn to more rapid diagnosis of diseases, quicker development of vaccines, and new and better treatments for a range of conditions. 

These wonders of science benefit us and those that wield these tools determine how they are used. The democratization of science, coupled with advances in computation, mean that anyone can potentially create or modify new novel chemicals, viruses, toxins, and/or bacteria. Nevertheless, these advances, some of which will be hugely beneficial, have raised alarming possibilities of rogue or malicious actors creating new chemical and biological weapons or unintentionally releasing dangerous pathogens.  We, especially after grappling with a global pandemic, cannot afford to be complacent, and we cannot push discussions and associated actions about biosecurity to the back burner. While powerful technologies already exist, what is missing is a coordinated strategy to safeguard humanity from their potentially catastrophic misuse. 

Against this backdrop of evolving threats, within the next five years we will face much more complex challenges in coordinating and sharing information across multiple agencies and between allies, who must all simultaneously continue to integrate existing organizations into a cohesive CWMD team. The disparities between current operational capabilities and capacities and recently released national security and defense strategies argue for a new management approach to dealing with CWMD threats and challenges. 

Improving planning and preparation through sophisticated artificial intelligence, machine learning, data analytics, and tailored decision support tools would greatly benefit organizations that coordinate and synchronize the CWMD mission, the policy and acquisition offices responsible for resourcing the CWMD mission, as well as offices at departments and agencies executing the CWMD mission. Synchronized interagency strategies, plans, and associated implementation would facilitate the development of integrated operational capabilities, capacities, and clear situational communication to national command authorities.

An unpredictable future with technologically advanced adversaries has created a more complex global environment unlike anything before. As we face unprecedented challenges, preparedness must continue to reduce threats, ensure readiness, and build resilience. Addressing global threats requires a continual flow of information despite civil, military, and intelligence organizations operating with differing authorities and protocols. This siloed approach makes intelligence-sharing, true situational awareness, and knowledge management more challenging. Moreover, warfighters and first responders must have consistent adaptive training coupled with advances in our knowledge and awareness to prepare for new dangers ahead. 

In the U.S., a comprehensive support program to integrate all stakeholders into a shared working environment would require a provision to include comprehensive and adaptive training and exercise solutions for the military, Special Operations, and intelligence community, as well as for stakeholders across Government, allies and partners. Exercise support is a critical element for assessing current states of readiness, providing gap analysis to a baseline, and identifying critical areas for development. This support runs the gamut from traditional exercises to lifelike computer simulations and real-world experiences, and could be delivered via a combination of venues like Table Top Exercises, Computer-based Modeling and Simulation, Virtual/Augmented Reality, Exercise Planning and Design, and Multi-Element Multimedia Scenarios conducted across geographies, agencies, and stakeholders. None of these by themselves are the silver bullet but collectively they can improve readiness and resilience across the U.S. and its allies and partners.

These are positive steps that constitute a tipping point in nations’ mobilization around the WMD challenge. But these steps alone cannot sufficiently address the myriad challenges that come with countering today’s emerging WMD threats. These include:

  • A lack of coordination at the national and international levels to ensure that centers of CWMD activity, authority, policy, planning, and expertise are operating cohesively, effectively, and efficiently. Several nations have relevant national CWMD strategies with no implementation plan and no one designated as the lead to address or account for implementation. 
  • Limited situational awareness across the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive (CBRNE) communities concerning threats and CWMD activities.
  • The inherent complexity of the CWMD mission in which each CBRNE pillar consists of different stakeholders, required skillsets, strategies, and tactics.
  • Threat actors that continue to evolve their resilience, adaptability, strategies, tactics, and organizations, often by employing digital innovations.

In my opinion (validated by the COVID-19 response) significant active and sustained coordination is critically required across governments to address and support the complexity of the CWMD mission while mitigating the impact of real WMD events effectively and efficiently. Within the U.S., this coordination should scale across all departments and agencies with CWMD responsibilities, improve readiness, reduce duplication of efforts, build situational awareness and knowledge, and solidify authorities. 

By fostering a culture of international collaboration and thorough policy scrutiny, we can encourage scientific innovation without compromising global safety. In doing so, we’re not just advancing science; we’re preserving our future.

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 of 20th CBRNE Command before retiring on July 19, 2017, with 30+ years of active-duty U.S. 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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