In a recent report by the RAND Corporation, funded by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the National Defense Research Institute, researchers explored the potential for engineered pathogens to become instruments of warfare. Now that advanced and complex biotechnology has left the realm of science fiction, and become reality, analysts and experts are beginning to assume that nation-states and non-state groups will consider these technologies in their planning and strategic forecasts.
“Technological improvements, including messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines, the use of CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) gene sequences as a genetic engineering tool, and advances in BCI (brain-computer interfaces), may shift strategic calculations,” the report states. “The emergence of ever more countries with advanced biotechnology capabilities raises a new, more dynamic future for biotechnology at war.”
Historically, biological weapons were often dismissed by nation-states due to the high risk of collateral damage to their own forces. Pathogens have a nasty habit of moving around, and targeting enemies and allies alike. Moreover, nation-states have generally shied away from large-scale biological weapons, and focused their work on more precise targeting, such as assassinations. It should be noted that this isn’t a hard rule though. It is no secret that in the early-2000s, Al Qaeda was dabbling in the creation of large scale anthrax weapons, but due to Western intervention as well as the high resource cost, the terrorist group found it easier to simply rely on more traditional weaponry.
However, the landscape is changing. Advances in biotechnology, particularly in the field of engineered pathogens, are presenting new strategic opportunities and challenges in warfare. As artificial intelligence continues to develop and CRISPR technology becomes simpler and more cost effective, the report states that the idea of creating an engineered pathogen that targets specific individuals with certain genetic markers is quickly leaving the realm of science fiction.
It is also much easier to hide.
“In comparison with nontransmissible pathogens, transmissible ones are inherently difficult to attribute to an actor or even to natural versus human causes…[and] have much greater potential for mass casualties and societal disruption,” the report states.
This difficulty in attribution makes transmissible bioweapons appealing for clandestine operations, as their origins can be easily obscured, thereby complicating international accountability and response.
The RAND report explains, “The intrinsic ambiguity of disease transmission is a strategic asset for actors who wish to achieve concrete goals… in a clandestine manner.” This ambiguity presents a significant hurdle in developing effective countermeasures and in holding perpetrators accountable.
There is a big caveat here, and it circles around access. In order to create such biotechnological weapons, the actor will either need to build it themselves using very expensive and high level technology, or steal it from what will be highly secured laboratory environments. While many Western countries like the United States, or near-peer adversaries like Russia and China will have the resources to effectively build such weapons, the vast majority of other countries won’t.
“The easiest technical means for realizing a transmissible bioweapon would be for a malicious actor to gain access to a laboratory already equipped to manipulate high-risk pathogens,” the report says. In simple terms, they steal the technology.
While this may seem unlikely, analysts warn that there has been a marked increase in biosafety labs around the world that handle dangerous human and animal born pathogens. BSL-4 labs, which handle the most dangerous pathogens out there, and have the strictest safety regulations, are being built at an alarming rate. In 2000, Europe had about 10 such labs, and as of 2023, it has over 40. BSL-3 and “3-Plus” labs are even more common. According to recent data, there are 18 new BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs being built in Asian countries like the Philippines and India in 2024. While the research being done in these labs are meant to save lives, create vaccines, and fight the growing number of natural pathogens out there, having more targets for potential theft of these pathogens is a serious concern.
The report ultimately argues that the human body will itself become a warfighting domain, much like land or sea. Whether countries utilize genetic engineering to maximize a soldier’s performance or enhance their abilities with technology, with time, they will also be able to create biotechnology that can target specific genes for the purpose of an attack. While non-state actors will have different goals, the general risk is the same; using people’s DNA against them.