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America is failing to fight chemical and biological weapons — but we can change that

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington on Oct. 27, 2022.

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 revealed the United States’s disastrous vulnerability to infectious pathogens, novel diseases continue to spread worldwide, and the norms against the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) are eroding. Without a concentrated effort to mitigate these risks, chemical and biological threats will continue to grow as state and nonstate actors gain access to new and more destructive technologies.

Despite these growing dangers, the U.S. defense establishment remains less-than-fully 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-world WMD threats — remains woefully underfunded and slow to utilize existing resources.

In an age of reemergent great-power competition, interstate conflict, and potential WMD proliferation, CBDP merits renewed attention by policymakers and Congress. Plugging gaps in the program’s funding and properly speeding up the use of current cash for existing products and novel technologies shouldn’t be difficult. Without too much extra, roughly $3 billion in fiscal year 2024, the United States can make a significant dent in these potentially existential issues — simultaneously protecting U.S. troops while drastically reducing the risk of catastrophic chemical or biological incidents worldwide. 

Chemical and biological threats aren’t 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 just last year. In 2017, moreover, Pyongyang used VX nerve agent in Kuala Lumpur to assassinate Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Analysts also are increasingly concerned about the proliferation of fentanyl and its potential use as a chemical weapon.

On the biological side, the world continues to face a remarkable cascade of public health emergencies, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the global spread of monkeypox, a resurgent polio outbreak and, most recently, a worsening outbreak of vaccine-resistant Ebola in Uganda. Beyond the obvious risk to the American public, biological events threaten to degrade and destroy U.S. 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 multiple 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), highlight vital concerns about naturally occurring biological threats, engineered biological weapons, and chemical weapons. The NBS, in particular, underscores the need to “deter, detect, degrade, disrupt, deny or otherwise prevent nation-state and nonstate actors’ attempts to pursue, acquire or use biological weapons, related materials, or their means of delivery.”

The Department of Defense’s recent National Defense Strategy also emphasizes the vital 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 conventional forces ability to operate in the face of limited nuclear, chemical, and biological attacks,” the strategy explains, Washington can “deny adversaries benefit from possessing and employing such weapons.”

While these U.S. 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 sufficient resources to develop cutting-edge capabilities and design effective counter- and non-proliferation regimes.

The CBDP — given its leadership role in research, development and acquisition focused on chemical and biological threats — is the right place to start. Presently, the program’s budget is roughly $1.2 billion per year. This is simply not enough to research, test, develop and procure the detection, mitigation, early-warning and response capabilities needed to counter the vast array of contemporary chemical and biological threats, to say nothing of those that might emerge.

To address this dangerous imbalance, Washington needs to match recent upgrades to U.S. strategy with comparable resources. With additional funding and spending, the CBDP could invest further in vital emerging technologies, including stand-off detection, predictive wearables, and advanced protective suits — all of which would help the U.S. military protect its fighting advantage. Other tools, including point-of-care diagnostics, artificial intelligence-enabled biosurveillance, and broad-spectrum medical countermeasures can ensure that Washington maintains its ability to quickly identify, track and treat emerging threats. We believe 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) would allow this. If not, the U.S. ability to develop these tools is hampered by serious resource constraints.

In recent years, the Defense Department has consistently underfunded and under-executed the CBDP. This program is ultimately a bargain — especially 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 a host of deadly weapons and, more broadly, head off a potentially catastrophic global chemical or biological incident. Fully funding counter-WMD programs is not only responsible policy but a sound investment and a small price to pay for decades of enhanced U.S. and global security.

Andrew Weber is a senior fellow at the Janne E. Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons at the Council on Strategic Risks. He was U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs during the Obama administration. Follow him on Twitter  @AndyWeberNCB.

David Lasseter is founder of Horizons Global Solutions and a visiting fellow at the 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.

Tags alexei navalny Biological weapons chemical weapons Department of Defense Kim Jong Nam Kim Jong Un Sergei Skripal Weapons of mass destruction

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