Role of Biotechnology in Defence

September 5, 2008
Event: 
Fellows' Seminar
Type: 
Only by Invitation
Time: 
1030 to 1300 hrs

Chair: B S Sachar
Discussants: B M Gandhi & Sachin Chaturvedi

In the 21st century, the science of biology has been found adopting various techniques from other fields of life to improve its effectiveness. Modern-day biotechnology could be regarded as a multidisciplinary field where its utility has grown beyond traditional uses like agriculture and medicine. This draft paper by Ajey Lele, Research Fellow at IDSA, looks at the relevance of biotechnology for modern day militaries both from offensive and defensive perspectives. Major applications of biotechnology extending for their militaristic utility mainly fall into categories like sensors; electronics and computing; materials; logistics and therapeutics. This paper is divided into four main parts. Part I looks at the relevance of biotechnology with reference to the debate on ‘germ threats’. The second part deals with the defence related medical and non-medical aspects of this technology and the third part focuses on military investments made by few important states in this field. The last part takes a macro-view of disarmament issues.

Relevance of biotechnology for bio weapons/ bio terrorism

In general, two main types of groups/individuals could be said to be in a position to apply the advanced techniques of biotechnology for the purposes of bio-terrorism. The first category could be the state sponsored international terrorist organizations undertaking such act with the help of the sponsor state possessing covert BW programme. The second type could be the disgruntled scientists working at clinical microbiology laboratory or academic laboratory involved in some aspect of microbiological research. She/he may do it just to prove a point or as an act of defiance against her/his own organization or because of influence from any terrorist organization.

Current research in biotechnology parallels earlier research in the nuclear field in the 1940s and 1950s. The database developed for nuclear technology was applicable for both military and industrial purposes. Similarly, the database being developed for commercial genetic engineering in the fields of agriculture, animal husbandry, and medicine is potentially convertible to the development of a wide range of novel pathogens that can attack plant, animal, and human populations. Because of these advancements in various areas related to biotechnology and genetic engineering there exists a possibility that biological warfare could gain importance as a viable option not only amongst the terrorist organizations but covertly among some state actors too.

In the years ahead, the use of biotechnology to create bioweapons will become far more powerful, more available and less expensive. Engineering, computing, and the capital markets will push biology forward on a rapid trajectory. What used to take a highly skilled team of scientists to accomplish can now be done in rapid fashion with automated kits within few hours. Industrial techniques allow the cheap production of pathogens or toxins to tonnage quantities in places around the world. Historically, it has been seen that all current inventions have found suitable applicability in the business of warfare. In case of futuristic bioweapons the only dilemma could be will terrorist organizations opt for this technology?

Biotechnological Weapons

How to turn modern biotechnology to make actual weapons is still not known, but with their capability of attacking targets accurately and producing ultramicro, non-lethal, and reversible damage, such weapons might finally change the methods of “physical annihilation” or “destruction within the killing range” which have characterized war since the invention of gunpowder. Today, scientists are of the opinion that we can use many modern biotechnologies directly as a means of defence and attack, and with further development, they probably will become new weapons systems.

Technically speaking war is simply the human behaviour that forces enemies to lose the power of resistance. It could be possible to create biological weapons which could alter the biological features of human bodies. It could be possible to create biotechnological weapons that can cause destruction that is more powerful and more civilized than that caused by conventional killing methods like gunpowder or nuclear weapons. However, an important thing to note is that the military utility of biotechnology is likely to grow beyond biological weapons and medical protection. It is likely to revel a character of aggression not thought of till date.

Biotechnology and Biodefence

Various techniques exist today within the field of biotechnology which have direct or indirect relevance for biodefence. Processes like the automation of sequencing in genome projects, bioinformatics, and advances in combinational chemistry and high throughput screening of compounds are on the forefront in this arena. They are being developed for civilian application in medicine, pharmaceuticals, and agriculture, as well as for purposes that are legitimate under the BTWC, such as defence, detection, protection, and prophylaxis. Biotechnology has been vital to the development of techniques for identifying and diagnosing diseases and for medical counter-measures. Moreover the recent advances in biotechnology offer a real opportunity for the development of effective counter-measures to biological and toxin weapons agents. From a biosecurity perspective, vaccine development and production has great strategic value.

Medical and Non-medical Aspects of BT

Following are the broad areas in various medical and non-medical categories for military where biotechnology can be used in some manner

  • Therapeutics: Genomics and proteomics; drugs and vaccines; drug delivery systems
  • Electronics and Computing: Protein based devices; biocomputing; biomolecular hybrid devices
  • Materials: Tissue engineering; biologically inspired materials and processes; hybrid materials
  • Logistics: Miniaturizations of biological devices; functional foods; biological energy sources; renewable resources

Military investments made by few important states

Understanding the need for the induction of emerging technologies, armed forces around the world have started investing in various strategic technologies. However, in respect of biotechnology, the interest appears to be still in an embryonic stage. The reasons for this could be many. Today, biotechnology is still under the process of evolution. The growth of technology offers many promises but it still does not offer substantial solutions to existing military problems. And this could be the reason for the absence of interest in most of the cases. However, as states have slowly started realizing that juxtaposing this technology with other technologies like nanotechnology could offer many dividends to military they have started investing in it.

Apart from the US, states like China are looking at the military applicability of this technology. Only few states are showing overt interest in this field. However, dual-use nature of this technology demand a ‘read between the line’ approach to understand the military intentions of various nation-states in respect of this technology.

China’s overall technological capabilities have increased dramatically since its reform programme began in the late 1970s. However, no direct indications are available about their interests in using biotechnology for military purposes. At the same time China understands that biotechnology has obvious military implications as a means for developing biological weapons and also providing defence against biological weapons. The military biotechnology may found its applicability in areas like non-lethal weapons. Here a possibility exists that microbes capable of destroying the fuel supplies of the enemy could be developed.

China’s main sources of biotech growth are expected to be in bio-agriculture, genomic sequencing, biochips, traditional medicines, bioinformatics, stem cell research, and bio-manufacturing. China is also making substantial investments in Agriculture biotechnology which it considers as a strategically significant tool for improving national food security.

Biotechnology and Disarmament

There exists an apparent linkage between the growth of biotechnology and development of biological or agriculture weapons. In future non-lethal biological agents could also be used as incapacitants under certain circumstances. This exponential growth of technology demands focused attention from the disarmament regime. In the present era, it would be a profound mistake to see genomics as simply a scientific revolution. It could have both positive as well as negative impacts on the survival of the mankind. The entire spectra of biotechnologies could likely have major impact on creation of new biological weapons.

Conclusion

Biotechnology has shown immense potential for its utility in various facets of life and military is no exception. Scientists and military leadership are increasingly finding its utility for militaristic purposes. At the same time this technology is raising fears because of many of its potential negative consequences.

Biotechnology and its products have created some amazing possibilities for military particularly in the area of sensor technology, biocomputing, protection of C4ISR, Bioengineered materials, biofuels, etc. Induction of biotechnoogy in such areas is expected to bring radical changes to a broad range of military applications and even few military tactics could have to be redefined with the induction of this technology. Looking at the potential of this technology, there is a need to invest more in military's biomaterials needs.

Unfortunately, the growth of BT has a darker side too and that is its potential to create bioweapons. Today, due to the competitive nature of technology business houses are also found reluctant to provide information that could compromise their economic edge. Hence, the biggest challenge exists to allow the growth of technology without letting it into the wrong hands. It is expected that in future, the science of biotechnology itself may come in handy to tackle the threats posed by advances in biotechnology.

Discussion

Wg. Cdr. Lele presented this paper as part of the IDSA Weekly Fellows’ Seminar series. The seminar was chaired by Brig. B. S. Sachar, Senior Fellow at IDSA. Two external discussants were invited to provide their comments on the paper: Dr. B.M. Gandhi who is a biotechnologist and CEO of NeoMed Services, and Dr. Sachin Chaturvedi who works at the Research and Information Systems for Developing Countries. In addition, Dr. Uttam Sinha, Research Fellow at IDSA, was also invited to be a discussant. Some of the points raised during the course of the discussion are as below:

  • Biotechnology industry surpasses the Aerospace industry.
  • India is at a nascent stage of development in the field of biotechnology.
  • One needs to be more concerned regarding the non-scientific applications of the technology.
  • Biotechnology should not be seen in isolation.
  • One the most significant questions today is as to who can use a biological weapon?
  • BTWC does not provide enough space to control existing developments in the field of biotechnology.
  • SAARC should be used as a forum where these issues should be discussed at the regional level.
  • One needs to highlight the politics involved in biotechnology and also look at the geo-politics of biotechnology.
  • Biotechnology is likely to be a lead technology in the 21st Century.
  • It is necessary to highlight how useful or dubious existing international treaties are.
  • India today is facing a number of problems related to biotechnology.
  • There is a need to dwell upon Agro-terrorism.
  • Pharmaceutical companies can also indulge in the spread of a biological agent for this can help them attain high levels of profits.
  • The biotechnology threat is increasing exponentially and there is a need to analyze the threat and also to get solutions and preventions.
  • Prepared by Gunjan Singh, Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.