Defining DoD’s Role in Biodefense and Health Security


At a recent hearing on Capitol Hill, three witnesses – all non-governmental specialists – talked about bioterrorism. Their general arguments echoed those of another hearing before a different committee on biodefense – also featuring non-governmental specialists – just months ago.  The witnesses at both hearings generally agreed on the following points:

  • Biological organisms are dangerous and reflect a current and future global threat;
  • There aren’t enough resources or attention focused on this specific threat; and
  • There is a general lack of leadership across the “whole of government” to address the threat.

Now this is admittedly a generalization of their expert testimonies.  And I certainly agree that Congress is wise to solicit the  perspectives of non-government specialists on the execution of U.S. policy, if only to gain insights on how the U.S. government is perceived to be successful (or not successful) in the implementation of specific government programs.  One must, however, maintain a degree of skepticism when reformists recommend bold, sweeping changes without putting topics such as biological defense and bioterrorism into the larger perspective of national security threats and the resources available to execute government programs.

Yes, biological organisms represent a threat and if designed as biological warfare agents and delivered in large quantities against unprotected military forces, the effects can be crippling.  If a terrorist group were to release large amounts of biological hazards within major cities, thousands of unprotected civilians might sicken and die.  And yet, those events haven’t happened. Despite constant warnings on the increased possibility of the “misuse of the life sciences” due to the greater availability of lab equipment and information relating to biotechnology, we haven’t seen the deliberate use of biological agents to cause mass casualties (more than 1000 injured or dead) in more than seventy years.  Although the non-governmental specialists identify a valid threat, they have not adequately proposed how the federal government – and the Department of Defense in particular – ought to best address this high consequence, low probability scenario.

Part of the confusion is self-inflicted, where specialists and laypersons alike either deliberately or accidently confuse biological warfare agents developed for military use with improvised biological hazards that sub-state groups might use, and as well as with natural outbreaks of infectious diseases.  These are uniquely different policy concerns, although with common physical characteristics.  In fact, the 2009 National Strategy to Counter Biological Threats deliberately makes no difference between these three distinct threats.  So how do you defeat a weapon system outside of the context of its source?  By focusing on the unique characteristics of biological agents, as most of the government witnesses (and many government agencies) do, it becomes impossible to develop rational policy, sound operational concepts, and adequate resources against the specific enemies who might employ them.

Based on this fundamental lack of clear definitions, one might reasonably challenge the suggestion that there aren’t enough resources allocated for protecting the military and public from dangerous biological organisms.  One might be surprised to hear the public health community argue that the tens of billions of dollars spent by the Department of Health and Human Services every year aren’t enough to counter the impact of natural diseases, and that the few billions spent every year on defenses against man-made biological agents ought to be diverted to public health priorities.  But that opinion exists.  There are those within the Department of Defense who believe that, because the Cold War is over, research and development funds for protecting military personnel from chemical and biological warfare agents should be diverted to “Global Health Security” measures.  And yet the threat to military personnel exists.  The concern over the nation’s preparedness for another pandemic disease outbreak should not invalidate the need to protect military forces from adversaries armed with biological warfare agents.

Policymakers seek to develop rational policy that has defined goals, dedicated resources, and directed courses of action for government agencies to execute.  So it does matter whether one is trying to protect U.S. military forces from exposure to ten specific biological agents in combat operations, protect U.S. citizens from scores of biological organisms that might be deliberately released in small quantities by terrorists, or protect U.S. citizens from pandemic disease outbreaks that sweep around the world. In other words, the way we define the threat matters. Trite statements like “the threat is real” and anecdotal stories about worst-case scenarios don’t really offer any value.  In each of these cases, executive agencies have finite resources that they have to apply to many programs, and that requires setting realistic goals, risk management, and expectation management.  This, in turn, goes to the point made during the Congressional hearings about leadership.

Because the operational range of biological disease is so broad (covering military operations, terrorism concerns, and public health) and there are so many different biological hazards (anti-plant, anti-crop, anti-personnel), one cannot designate a single office or person to oversee the entire scope.  But it is not illogical to believe that those government leaders within executive agencies ought to understand their respective responsibilities and scope.  It does get confusing, however, when the Director of National Intelligence identifies natural disease outbreaks as a national security threat, and the National Security Council Staff’s senior director for WMD terrorism and threat reduction is addressing emerging natural diseases as the next global threat.  These issues are not normally thought of as being in their portfolios.

One might be confused as to why the Department of Homeland Security is trying to procure advanced biological detectors that it cannot afford to deploy across the United States, while the Department of Defense cannot seem to field a satisfactory biological detector for military operations, more than two decades after the initial lack of biodefense capabilities was noted as a critical shortfall.  Similarly, one might be confused as to why the Department of Defense is developing global biosurveillance capabilities and building vaccine production facilities for influenza treatments, while the Department of Health and Human Services has the lead to address global health security and is developing (or at least attempting to develop) medical countermeasures for biological warfare agents.

The government’s witnesses to the two biodefense hearings are correct that leadership and attention is needed against this potential threat.  However, as with all security concerns, biological hazards need to be addressed within a particular context, with resource constraints in mind prior to developing goals, and policies need to be developed and executed by the right executive agencies.  These witnesses don’t talk to the specifics, and “report cards” such as the Graham-Talent WMD commission’s effort fail to chart a credible path forward.  Until the National Security Council staff and executive agency leaders recognize the need for capability-based assessments and resource-constrained strategies with well-defined goals, it remains unlikely that we will see any significant progress in fielding biodefense capabilities for military forces, preparing federal responses to bioterrorism, or addressing future outbreaks of pandemic disease.


Al Mauroni is the Director of the U.S. Air Force Counterproliferation Center. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.


Photo credit: Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson