There’s ample reason to concentrate on the role the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) plays in helping the nation defend against biological attacks, one of the most critical being the protection of America’s military troops, said experts Tuesday during a Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense event in Washington, D.C.
“Our troops must be able to ‘survive and fight’ in any environment, including one contaminated with chemical or biological weapons agents,” said Derek ‘Dirk’ Maurer, deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction at DOD, during one of the panel’s discussions on Feb. 5.
The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense held its Fighting the Next War: Defense Against Biological Weapons meeting to gain a better understanding about DOD’s responsibilities and requirements for biodefense, as well as the department’s role in implementing the 2018 National Biodefense Strategy.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, co-chairman of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, said that when the panel in 2015 released its own A National Blueprint for Biodefense, which helped inform the recent national strategy, the members focused on other federal agencies, not so much on DOD.
“We didn’t ignore it; we recognize the important role played by the military,” Ridge said on Tuesday, noting that the panel was more concerned at that time in improving the civilian side of the biodefense enterprise.
“We thought the military was better prepared, at that time, than their civilian counterparts,” said Ridge, “and while we didn’t think they were doing everything they could possibly do, we thought they were doing more and doing it more efficiently than just about anybody else.”
So Blue Ribbon Panel members included DOD in some of its blueprint’s recommendations “when it was clear to us that some of these departments needed to take action together in the biodefense field,” he said, noting that it’s “always a challenge” to get independent, disparate agencies to communicate and collaborate, “whether it’s on biodefense or anything else.”
Ridge said the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense “always intended to revisit and fully examine the military’s efforts to defend against bio attacks and naturally occurring diseases that could bring this nation down.”
“We want to ensure today’s warfighters have the tools they need to identify an attack before it occurs, to fulfill their proliferation and nonproliferation missions, to accurately detect biological agents used against them, to protect themselves against such attacks and fight their way through biologically contaminated areas, while at the same time maintaining their operational strength,” he said. “It would be illogical, unrealistic and improper to expect that biological weapons would never be used against our military or our nation.”
Thus, the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense delved into DOD’s biodefense priorities, including countering biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and its force protection requirements.
U.S. Rep. James Langevin (D-RI), chairman of the U.S. House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities, discussed both current and emerging bio threats, technologies and programs that subcommittee members must consider when authorizing DOD activities, as well as oversight and legislation to address biodefense, among other related topics.
Rep. Langevin testified that biodefense will be a continued focus for the subcommittee this congressional term.
“As chairman, I will continue to evaluate and elevate the conversation around this issue,” the congressman said during a morning discussion with panel members.
Langevin noted that many of the nation’s adversaries seek to acquire, develop, proliferate, and use biological and chemical WMD against the United States, both overseas and at home. Syria and ISIS, for example, think their use of chemical WMD against civilians will help them achieve their tactical and strategic objectives, he said, while the emerging capabilities of advanced technology can provide them with a way to develop biological weapons “at a scope and scale not yet encountered.”
So clearly the motive exists for the use of chemical weapons, the lawmaker told Blue Ribbon Study Panel members.
DOD has taken “some initial steps toward viable risk mitigation and innovative solutions,” Langevin said, and in 2014 released its strategy for chemical WMD and in 2017 a special operations command was designated as a coordinating authority for chemical WMD. Since that time, he said, the command has been leveraging best practices from its traditional mission and integrating chemical WMD into all operations across DOD.
Langevin said the Trump administration’s release of the National Biodefense Strategy last September also represents a coordinated effort between DOD, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the U.S. Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) among others.
“Each have roles, areas of specialties and capabilities and responsibilities in addressing biodefense, preparedness and response,” said Langevin said, adding that the document also recognizes the critical role of the intelligence community in identifying potential bio threats.
“The plan requires a whole-of-government approach to drive investment and buy-in across the spectrum of biodefense activities,” he said, “and includes long-term investments in science and technology, which can provide better capabilities to our warfighters and law enforcement professionals.”
His subcommittee regularly evaluates WMD and has stepped up its DOD oversight, Langevin told panel members, pointing out that lawmakers have a lot of work to do around CBRN threats.
For example, the U.S. Comptroller General is currently conducting an evaluation of military preparedness for germ attacks following a request from the House Armed Services Committee.
Although unsure of when the committee will receive the comptroller’s report, Langevin said he thinks it will be within the year. “We want to be sure our troops are going to be adequately prepared and protected so that’s something we will be following up on.”
Bioweapons used to inflict widespread casualties and loss of life are something federal lawmakers must take seriously, the congressman said.
“We must continue to push this dialogue forward, not just in the defense community but also in Congress,” he said. “We have to stay on top of this threat … and we also must provide resources to keep our nation out of harm’s way.”
DOD’s Maurer provided Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense members with the DOD perspective on challenges to defending against biological weapons.
Maurer explained that the DOD’s national defense strategy, which is aligned with the National Biodefense Strategy, outlines three lines of effort for the department: to rebuild readiness while building a more lethal force; to strengthen alliances and attract new partners; and to improve performance in affordability by reforming DOD business practices. He discussed each and how they related to the national biodefense effort.
While building a lethal force, for example, Maurer said part of DOD’s job is ensuring U.S. troops can operate in all environments, including those contaminated by bio or chemical agents.
“DOD also needs to stand ready to provide support to civil authorities such as HHS or DHS should they require unique military capabilities or additional capacity to respond to infectious disease, naturally occurring or otherwise. Such events can also affect the readiness of our force,” he said.
“Correspondingly,” added Maurer, “the first focus must be the health of our force to ensure that we can continue to defend the nation.”
Maurer said DOD is working to understand and anticipate both the promise and potential peril of cutting-edge technologies, including synthetic biology. “The solution to this threat is the same as the threat: these same cutting-edge technologies,” he said.
Within his office, Maurer also oversees the cooperative threat reduction policy team, which includes the biological threat reduction program. The efforts are around stopping biothreats that can rapidly grow to impact American military forces and to strengthen biological solutions in partner countries. “The ultimate goal is to establish local hubs of expertise in biosecurity and surveillance that work independent of DOD support,” he said.
“We’re making good progress,” Maurer said. “More progress is needed and we look to colleagues both inside and outside the government to help us make that progress.”
Overall, he said, there’s a sustained effort across DOD regarding the chemical WMD mission. “We do not have every challenge figured out yet,” he added, but they’re working to “ensure transparency, raise concerns and collaborate on solutions.”
Christian Hassell, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense at DOD, elaborated on some of Maurer’s comments, as well as goals for his office.
“For the record, let me state clearly and without exception, the DOD does not have an offensive chemical and biological weapons program,” said Hassell. “We have a chemical and biological defense program, which also includes radiological, but we haven’t formally changed the name yet.”
This defense program plays an important role in ensuring the lethality of America’s military forces, Hassell said, and provides the equipment and the systems that American warfighters need to carry out their missions during a chemical or bio attack. Such systems include detection and diagnostics systems, protective suits, gloves and masks, vaccines and therapeutic drugs, and decontamination systems, as well as the associated information systems that tie these all together, he added.
The program also is focused on specific agents, such as those that can be genetically modified, and synthetic biology, among other areas.
Passionate about interagency collaboration and the collective spirit around it, Maurer said the National Biodefense Strategy also will help DOD go further on collaborations.
“Mission divergence isn’t an excuse for not sharing information,” he said.
During an afternoon panel, the civilian perspectives on defense policy were offered to Blue Ribbon Panel members, including from Dan Gerstein, senior policy researcher at RAND Corporation. Gerstein was the undersecretary (acting) and deputy undersecretary in the Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security from 2011 to 2014.
Regarding DOD response capabilities, he said: “We are not prepared for a significant biological event. DOD is simply not prepared for a major biological issue.”
And while the National Biodefense Strategy contains goals and objectives for federal agencies, it doesn’t address resources or processing issues, among others, he said. “In other words, it’s light on ways and means,” said Gerstein.
The strategy also is HHS-focused, which he pointed out could create “a significant shortfall” in its implementation, an opinion that other DOD experts also alluded to during the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense event.