Chemical and biological weapons pose a greater threat to global security today than at any point since the end of the Cold War. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the United States’ disastrous vulnerability to infectious pathogens, new diseases that continue to spread around the world, and norms against the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are eroding. Without concerted efforts to mitigate these risks, chemical and biological threats will continue to grow as state and non-state actors gain access to new and more destructive technologies.
Despite this growing danger, the US defense remains poorly prepared to deter and defend against chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. In particular, the Department of Defense’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program (CBDP) — one of Washington’s most capable and effective programs to counter real WMD threats — remains severely underfunded and slow to deploy current resource.
In an era of re-emergence of efficient competition, interstate conflict, and potential WMD proliferation, the CBDP deserves renewed attention by policymakers and Congress. Plugging program funding gaps and properly accelerating the use of existing money for existing products and new technologies should not be difficult. Without an additional, approximately $3 billion in fiscal year 2024, the United States could make a significant reduction in these potentially existential issues — simultaneously protecting US troops while greatly reducing the risk of catastrophic chemical or biological incidents worldwide.
Chemical and biological threats are not science fiction. Russia has used Novichok chemical weapons in several botched assassination attempts: one in 2018 against former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the United Kingdom, and another against opposition leader Alexei Navalny last year. In 2017, moreover, Pyongyang used the VX nerve agent in Kuala Lumpur to kill Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Analysts are increasingly concerned about the spread of fentanyl and its potential use as a chemical weapon.
On the biological side, the world continues to face an impressive cascade of public health emergencies, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the global spread of monkeypox, a resurgence of polio and, most recently, a worsening outbreak of vaccine-resistant Ebola in Uganda. . Beyond the obvious danger to the American public, biological events threaten to degrade and destroy US military capabilities. In the early stages of the COVID pandemic, for example, a large outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier infected more than 1,200 sailors, effectively disabling the ship.
To its credit, the United States has released numerous reviews, strategies and plans designed to counter chemical and biological threats over the past two years. These multi-agency efforts, including the 2022 National Biodefense Strategy and Implementation Plan (NBS), reflect important concerns about naturally occurring biological threats, engineered biological weapons, and chemical weapons. The NBS, in particular, emphasizes the need to “prevent, detect, degrade, disrupt, deny or otherwise prevent attempts by nation-state and non-state actors to pursue, acquire or use of biological weapons, related materials, or their means of delivery.”
The Department of Defense’s recent National Defense Strategy also emphasizes the important concept of so-called “deterrence by denial” — or the idea that the United States and its allies can deter the use of certain weapons by -eliminating their effectiveness against both military and civilian targets. . By “improving the ability of conventional forces to operate in the face of limited nuclear, chemical, and biological attacks,” the strategy explains, Washington can “deny adversaries the benefit of having and using such weapons.”
While these US government strategies are a good place to start, they lack muscle. A strategy, after all, is just a piece of paper unless it receives adequate funding. Eliminating chemical and biological weapons threats requires adequate resources to develop innovative capabilities and design effective counter- and non-proliferation regimes.
The CBDP — given its leadership role in research, development and procurement focused on chemical and biological threats — is the right place to start. Currently, the program’s budget is approximately $1.2 billion per year. It is simply not enough to research, test, develop and acquire the detection, mitigation, early warning and response capabilities needed to counter the wide range of contemporary chemical and biological threats, to say nothing of those that may emerge.
To address this dangerous imbalance, Washington needs to match recent upgrades in US strategy with comparable resources. With additional funding and spending, the CBDP can further invest in important emerging technologies, including stand-off detection, predictive wearables, and advanced protective suits — all of which will help the US military protect its advantage in fighting Other tools, including point-of-care diagnostics, artificial intelligence-enabled biosurveillance, and broad-spectrum medical measures can ensure Washington maintains its ability to rapidly identify, track and treat emerging threats. We believe that bringing the CBDP budget up to $3 billion for 2024, and growing in subsequent years (while ensuring that the program effectively spends the resources it already has) will enable this. Otherwise, the US’s ability to develop these tools is hampered by serious resource constraints.
In recent years, the Department of Defense has been consistently underfunded and under-implemented by the CBDP. This program is ultimately a bargain — especially when compared to most other major defense programs. Although the threats posed by chemical and biological weapons are very real, so are the solutions. For the cost of a few aircraft, the United States can protect its soldiers overseas from many deadly weapons and, more broadly, deal with a potentially catastrophic global chemical or biological incident. Fully funding anti-WMD programs is not only responsible policy but a sound investment and a small price to pay for decades of enhanced US and global security.
Andrew Weber is a senior fellow at Janne E. Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons at the Council on Strategic Risks. He was US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs during the Obama administration. Follow him on Twitter @AndyWeberNCB.
David Lasseter founded the Horizons Global Solutions and a guest included in National Security Institute at George Mason University. He was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction during the Trump administration. Follow him on Twitter @dflasseter.