Biotechnology for the Battlefield: In Need of a Strategy


If today’s technology headlines are any indication, the science fiction of comic books is becoming science reality. Impenetrable skin and resilience to gamma rays are no longer just for superheroes. For instance, scientists have recently discovered ways to create spider silk, an innovative biotechnology that can lead to lighter, more flexible, and stronger body armor. And microscopic animals nicknamed “water bears” are showing promise to protect soldiers from the health effects of radiation exposure by boosting capacity for DNA repair or even preventing damage to DNA in the first place.

Biotechnology — a broad term used to describe technological innovation based on biology — has become an increasingly agile platform for developing new types of soldier enhancements. As such, the field offers novel opportunities for improving warfighter survivability on the battlefield. Despite recent developments, however, the Department of Defense has yet to strategically guide the development of these new technologies at the national level. Recently, War on the Rocks published an article outlining concerns about the lack of coordinated policy for developing synthetic biology – a branch of biotechnology – while preventing its misuse by adversaries. The article rightly pointed to the need to think strategically about the risk of proliferating synthetic biology capabilities, but this is only one part of the picture. Current national strategies encourage policymakers to view advances in biology through a narrow lens of risks to national security and the development of countermeasures to protect against those risks, which, while crucial, neglects the promise for using the same science to develop life-saving or other advanced tools for warfighters. The Pentagon’s current efforts to take advantage of synthetic biology as a platform for defense lack internal cohesion and external direction, and biological innovation faces further challenges given the absence of agile business models to fully harness emerging biotechnologies for the battlefield. Greater coordination between those in the Defense Department whose work relates to biotechnology and improved relationships with the private sector are important first steps toward using this burgeoning area of science not just to mitigate security risks, but also to benefit soldiers on the battlefield.

Defining the Defense Department’s Biotech Needs

The U.S. military maintained superiority in the area of science and technology for many decades. However, as emerging technologies become more accessible, many in the Pentagon became concerned that adversaries might soon challenge or surpass American strengths. Synthetic biology, or the ability to genetically engineer biology, is an increasingly accessible technological realm. More broadly, the democratization of biotechnology can enable adversaries to achieve technological parity. In fact, some global competitors may be poised to achieve superiority. China, for example, is not only investing heavily in biotechnology capabilities, but has dedicated strategies for harnessing their use in both military and commercial settings. The Defense Department should advance its capabilities in biotechnology not only because it benefits the mission, but because a mastery of the tools in this nascent realm provides the best defense against misuse, or adversaries gaining the edge.

The Pentagon’s Investment in Biotech: A Promising Start

Most technological innovations are driven by the commercial sector, rather than the Defense Department. This is particularly true of emerging biotechnology. Recognizing this, the Pentagon has invested in initiatives such as the Defense Innovation Unit (with an arm in Boston, a hotbed for the biotechnology industry) and SOFWERX, to stimulate novel ideas for the battlefield. These centers have become incubators for drones, cyber technology, and an exciting warfighter exoskeleton, but they have yet to produce specific biotechnological prototypes. Disappointingly, the new Army Futures Command to be housed in Austin, Texas, intends to prioritize emerging technologies for a variety of future needs (including long-range precision fires, next generation combat vehicles, future vertical lift platforms, and missile defense capabilities) but the list does not yet specifically include biotechnology.

More encouraging, however, is an internal defense investment in biotechnology capabilities. The Synthetic Biology for Military Environments research program crosses all of the service laboratories (Army, Navy, and Air Force) and is intended to develop new bio-based materials and sensors, and harness advances in warfighter performance through innovations in synthetic biology. The program is also growing biotechnology expertise by embedding military scientists in academia and at synthetic biology companies. Thus far, the initiative has achieved successes in identifying new organisms that can be engineered for fuels, materials, and sensors. But the Synthetic Biology for Military Environments program is funded by a one-time investment. As it approaches its third and final year, the next steps for these research discoveries are undecided, and it is unclear whether the initial investments will be renewed.

Towards a Strategy for Biotech Innovation

The uncertainty about the program’s future is consistent with the lack of a  holistic, overarching Pentagon strategy for incorporating biotechnology products into deployable tools for the warfighter. This stems from a traditional and instinctive linking of biotechnology to medicines and force health protection. But today, biotechnology’s benefits extend far beyond that area — it can now also deliver materials, sensors, and fuels. The disparate components of biotechnology can also be seen in the way the Defense Department siloes this field of science — many different agencies touch different parts of the proverbial elephant that is biotechnology. There are high-risk research and development programs funded by DARPA, mid-range services research in a wide range of fields, and medical countermeasures development managed by the Chemical and Biological Defense Program. The Defense Health Agency, responsible for the use of medicines and medical technologies for force health protection, further complicates the picture. Coordinating these internal components would ensure that policymakers could visualize all aspects of a biotechnology portfolio — the entire elephant. This would enable the department to ask questions like: How can emerging biotechnology improve medical countermeasure development? What biotechnologies should be prioritized to improve warfighter performance?

 To take just one example: The human “microbiome” comprises the natural bacteria that dwell in the human digestive tract, and affects digestive health as well as mental health. The popular pursuit of balancing the microbiome is evident in the wide range of “probiotics” products commonly seen in pharmacies — but for the warfighter, digestive distress is a real problem during deployments abroad, and can keep them out of the fight. Synthetic biology now enables specific engineering of the human gut microbiome that promises to improve digestive health and cognition — two areas crucial to warfighter performance. These microbes could potentially deliver beneficial pharmaceuticals to the body, either to simply maintain good health in warfighters or to deliver life-saving medical countermeasures. Conversely, the human microbiome could be co-opted to harm humans — for instance, through the development of agents that can target the natural microbiome or cancel the effects of therapeutic microbiomes. A comprehensive strategy for taking advantage of microbiome technology should also include approaches for countering this potential threat. The risks and benefits of leveraging the microbiome undeniably cross all the defense biotechnology silos. By connecting these disparate conversations, the Defense Department can start determining the best approaches.

Beyond the traditional human health arena, biotechnology presents other opportunities that prompt broader, crucial questions: What challenges does the warfighter face that are best solved with biotechnology? What risks are associated with the adoption of these biotechnologies? Biological components may play advantageous roles in materials, sensors, and many other tools. Some of these currently are being designed through the Synthetic Biology for Military Environments program. For example, novel biological resins that are both lightweight and flame retardant could be incorporated into making lighter drones, building lighter airframes, or fortifying ship hulls. Nanotubes, or ceramics produced from bioengineered cells, could operate in electronics, organic batteries, or other instrumentation. But to realize the promise of these discoveries in military tools and equipment, biotechnology must be a consideration in creating requirements for products and acquisitions that are outside of the traditional medical biotechnology siloes. And, of course, planners should consider any vulnerabilities biotechnological components may introduce that adversaries could target.

Acquiring Biotech and the ‘Valley of Death’

Even if all needs for biotechnology were clear, the Defense Department would still need to improve the way it acquires biotechnology for the battlefield. Which capabilities should continue to be built in the department’s service research labs, and which ought to be acquired from external companies? One option is to simply adopt useful commercial products off the shelf as they are innovated in the private sector, particularly since many innovative biological materials can be dual-purposed for both consumers and the military. For example, in addition to its promise as lightweight body armor, spider silk can be used in ordinary clothing, textiles, construction materials, and novel medicines. Alternatively, the Defense Department could ask the private sector to create defense-specific products from the ground up. A third option is to generate prototype products within the department, then use the private sector to scale and deliver them. Right now, the inability to scale up synthetic biology products from prototypes is a bottleneck hindering the broad adoption of biotechnology and the private sector is already investing in scaling solutions — whether for commercial markets or defense. While the answer is likely a combination of all these approaches, the Defense Department needs to communicate clearly with biotechnology performers, since the private sector is not likely to make choices for manufacturing products for national security on its own.

The well-recognized “valley of death” that prevents technological innovations from being translated into medicines, equipment, and warfighter benefits is a problem much broader than biotechnology. Since World War II, there has been a steady decline in the defense industrial base, as fewer companies are able to provide products specific to defense. Supply chains have become burdensome and unwieldy. For example, the successful genetic engineering of silk worms to make “dragon silk” for warfighters is promising. But producing dragon silk at scale will require thousands of silkworms — which in turn require a large acreage of mulberry trees not readily available in the United States. The company creating dragon silk hopes to use farming cooperatives in Vietnam to resolve the problem, but this will perpetuate the same kind of burdensome and costly supply chain that plagues defense acquisitions — working through foreign company contracts and embassies, and generating potential single points of failure through reliance on sole suppliers outside the country. To reduce these types of inefficiencies, defense planners must envision biotechnology products from inception through their full development and manufacture pathways that allow these technologies to be successfully shepherded through nimbler and more secure industrial supply chains.

The “valley of death” also prevents technology companies from seeing the Defense Department as an attractive customer. The Pentagon’s traditional models for acquisition tend to be time-consuming and less cost-effective than commercial contracts. Recently, a report commissioned by the president on the state of the U.S. industrial base described the uncertainty of federal spending, the unintended consequences of government acquisition behavior, and the loss of skills in the domestic workforce as “unprecedented” challenges to defense manufacturing. America’s global competitors could be closing the technology gap because of process failures, rather than a lack of technology talent or innovative ideas.

Some Proposed Solutions

Strategic coordination of biotechnology for defense could go a long way toward addressing these challenges. A defense-wide community of interest could enjoin experts from all defense components that involve biotechnology — so that those with the appropriate expertise could evaluate risks, benefits, and battlefield needs together. This group could ensure that the Defense Department prioritizes cross-cutting biotechnology needs, whether through high-risk exploratory research, in-house capabilities, complete outsourcing, or a combination of these. Innovations could be encouraged through greater use of incentives and prize competitions in the defense innovation marketplace and specialized innovation units. These diverse stakeholders would be able to communicate with the biotechnology sector with a single voice that clearly articulates battlefield needs, while creative public-private engagements could ensure awareness of potentially disruptive discoveries. Importantly, adopted biotechnologies should receive risk/benefit assessments to identify vulnerabilities; presumably there could be “chinks” in dragon silk armor that adversaries may attempt to exploit, potentially through their own developing biotechnology tools. Finally, ongoing assessment of potential biothreats posed by synthetic biology should continue, along with research on how novel biotechnology tools could mitigate those threats.

The Synthetic Biology for Military Environments program offers an existing locus of expertise that could be a starting point for a strategic biotechnology community of interest. It has already forged internal awareness, training, and scientific collaboration in synthetic biology across the services, creating collaborative partnerships with DARPA, biodefense programs, the Defense Innovation Unit, external academic centers, and synthetic biology industrial leaders. The recently created microbiome consortium is a model for deep dives on specific biotechnology tools. Using these models, the Department of Defense can chart a coordinated, strategic path forward for the generation, development, and implementation of emerging biotechnology beyond the service labs. The Defense Science Board is expected to release its deliberative report on life sciences priorities for defense shortly, so the timing is right to stand up a biotechnology community of interest.

Finally, the United States urgently needs innovative public-private partnerships and more agile funding mechanisms to attract and maintain its advantage in biotechnology. Defense programs should continue to leverage fast-tracked Small Business Innovation Research grants and the Rapid Innovation Fund, and more biotechnology-focused challenges should be announced through SOFWERX and other innovation units. Larger companies would be eager to license novel technologies for their commercial payoffs. For example, bioengineered melanin in warfighter uniforms or skin applications could also be used in consumer clothing textiles and everyday sunscreens, while bioengineered materials for drones or airframes can be used in civilian aircraft and building construction materials. These could be powerful incentives for larger companies to participate in defense contracts.

Biotechnology is one of the most versatile, exciting, and innovative technologies of the 21st century — but its benefits for defense have yet to be fully explored or realized. The Defense Department should coordinate a strategic prioritization of its biotechnology needs, and communicate them clearly to the biotechnology and synthetic biology community. More innovative approaches to acquiring these capabilities could bring the tools of biotechnology into the hands of every warfighter.


Dr. Diane DiEuliis is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction and leads studies on biosecurity, biodefense and the synthetic biology industry. Dr. DiEuliis is a biologist by training and served for over two decades in various capacities at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House.

Image: Yakuzakorat, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons