Beyond Biological Defense: Maintaining the U.S. Biotechnology Advantage

September 14, 2021
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From 2007 to 2008, tainted supplies of Chinese-manufactured heparin, a common blood thinner, led to 81 deaths across the United States. This should have been a wake-up call to the Department of Defense. Over the last two decades, biotechnology has become a key component of American supply chains, perhaps accounting for 20 percent of the chemicals the U.S. military uses. Those supply chains now span the globe and contain a significant amount of material produced in China. Remarkably, the full extent of the military’s dependence on Chinese biotechnology is unknown because the U.S. government is not assessing it. These dependencies extend beyond pharmaceuticals to fundamentals such as solvents and polymers. Just try and paint an aircraft without xylenes. If you’ve never thought about how difficult it would be, well that’s exactly the problem.

The Department of Defense has historically viewed biotechnology narrowly in relation to military medicine and biodefense. As a result, the vital role of biotechnology in military readiness and national security remains poorly understood. Biowarfare and bioterrorism are real risks, but approaching the nation’s biotechnology security needs only in these terms will leave the country ever more vulnerable.

 

 

China, by contrast, has been integrating biotechnology into its strategic development and elevating biotechnology to a key component of national security. China’s military-civil fusion development strategy makes biotechnology a core priority for the People’s Liberation Army. This strategy has one goal: to bring together China’s civilian and military industrial bases in order to better project power. To that end, China has cornered supply chains in multiple sectors, including pharmaceuticals ingredients and other important chemicals.

Stephanie Rogers, the Defense Department’s acting principal director for biotechnology, recently declared that “the nation that leads the world in biotechnology will accrue enduring economic, societal, and defense gains.” Unfortunately, this awareness has yet to be reflected in government policy. Biotechnology security is national security — for the United States and for China. The Department of Defense should recognize biotechnology’s role as a foundational technology and make biotechnology development and supply chain security a priority. 

Maintaining America’s Biotechnology Advantage 

Biotechnology in the United States is a significant contributor to the economy. By one estimate, in 2017, U.S. biotechnology revenues exceeded $400 billion, or 2 percent of gross domestic product, substantially surpassing better-measured sectors such as mining. Bioeconomy revenues have grown at an average rate of 10 percent annually for two decades. Notably, U.S. biotechnology revenues alone were approximately equal to worldwide semiconductor revenues for 2017. Biotechnology now supplies critical medicines, and, as more than 90 percent of the corn and soy grown in the United States is genetically modified, biotechnology feeds the armed forces. Industrial biotechnology is responsible for upward of 20 percent of chemicals produced in the United States, suggesting a similar proportion of chemicals used in the military are also biologically derived. And these impressive figures may still be significant underestimates: Using a different methodology, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences recently concluded that the biotechnology industry contributes 5 to 7 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. Biotechnology, therefore, may already constitute an even larger share of the military supply chain.

As biotechnology continues to mature, its contribution to physical and economic security will become even more significant. Tools are now being deployed that enable the engineering and biomanufacturing of materials that will eventually not only displace petrochemicals but also surpass them in production scale and performance. Over the next ten to twenty years, biological production could soon supply up to 60 percent of physical inputs across the global economy, and biotechnology could have a “direct economic impact of up to $4 trillion a year.”

While the United States is arguably still leading in biotechnology, it risks losing this lead to China. In China, biotechnology is a national development and a security matter. China’s Innovation Driven Development Strategy emphasizes biotechnology’s essential role in the country’s economic development, while the Military-Civil Fusion Development Strategy seeks to ensure that biotechnology research is also oriented toward the country’s military and broader security goals. Chinese biotechnology revenues are reported to be of a similar size to those in the United States, although they are subject to even lesser clarity in reporting.

While China continues its licit and illicit acquisition efforts targeting the U.S. biotechnology sector, it is also shifting its attention to domestic innovation. In time, this will provide the People’s Liberation Army with new capabilities and increase both America’s and the Pentagon’s reliance on Chinese biotechnology products. 

Recommendations

As early as 1958, the Department of Commerce was tracking the economic contribution of semiconductors, even though they made up less than 0.1 percent of the gross domestic product. Yet, today, the U.S. government has made no equivalent effort to track the much more significant role of biotechnology.

This illiteracy is a national security issue. American and Chinese bioeconomies are in competition, and Beijing asserts that it is investing with the intent to take, and to then maintain, the lead. To sustain America’s advantage, the U.S. Department of Defense should better understand its reliance on biotechnology and increase investment in it accordingly. The Pentagon’s recent investment in the BioIndustrial Manufacturing and Design Ecosystem is a notable step in the right direction. However, the seven-year budget for this project is approximately the cost of a single F-35A. For an investment that could impact the entire defense supply chain, this is inadequate.

We recommend the following plan of action for the Department of Defense to take its place alongside the Departments of Commerce and State in the broader interagency effort to secure America’s biotechnology advantage.

First, in close coordination with the Department of Commerce, the Department of Defense should make a systematic effort to better understand the role of biotechnology in the economy, supply chains, and manufacturing. This, in turn, should inform additional oversight and regulatory controls.

The responsibility to understand, prepare for, and respond to biotechnology threats is balkanized, spread across at least nine departments and agencies. Vulnerabilities in the bioeconomy will affect the Department of Defense in terms of readiness, soldier health, and the ability to fulfill missions. Addressing those vulnerabilities begins with a sustained, comprehensive effort to understand the role of biotechnology in industry today, as well as how that industry contributes to defense supply chains, and how military acquisition policy shapes biotechnology. To that end, the Pentagon should work with the Department of Commerce to create domestic reporting codes for biotechnology revenues and employment for the quarterly and annual economic census, and further incorporate those codes into the North American Industrial Classification System. Institutionalizing the gathering of these data is the first step toward sustainable policymaking and rational spending.

The Department of Commerce should then consider adding import/export controls on biotechnology, while avoiding overly broad restrictions that suffocate innovation. Protecting foundational technologies using the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act and Export Control Reform Act will be critical for securing biotechnology. However, biotechnology competition is not exclusive to commercial activities. The Pentagon should assess critical vulnerabilities and dependencies to assist the other agencies in bringing China’s foreign biotechnology access in line with standards in other major markets.

The Department of Defense has been asked to document and secure supply chains critical to defense applications and to the overall U.S. economy. This should also apply to biotechnology. Current Pentagon efforts to expand domestic biological manufacturing capabilities are an important start, but a broader effort is needed. An empowered deputy national security adviser could help oversee the relationship between the Pentagon and the National Economic Council to promote and secure the military’s broader technology needs.

Second, the Department of Defense should better study the accomplishments and intent of China, especially the Chinese military, in developing biotechnology as a strategic technology. 

Once the Department of Defense better understands critical U.S. biotechnology dependencies on China, it can begin the work of reducing them. This requires an interagency examination to identify cross-cutting resources, develop mitigation strategies, formulate best practices to bolster innovation, and expand outreach to allies and partners to reduce systemic gaps China could exploit. Partnership with industry and allies will allow the U.S. government to understand and counter Beijing’s efforts to distort commercial activity in its favor.

To this end, the Department of Defense should mirror the National Security Council’s effort by creating an emerging technology portfolio within Office of the Under Secretary of Defense-Policy. While other technology offices in the Department of Defense are internally focused, an entity in this office that concentrates externally on foundational technology competition is required. Such an office may be able to address uncertainties in assessments of Chinese biotechnology revenues and capabilities.

Finally, in coordination with the Department of State, the Department of Defense should identify opportunities for dialogue with the People’s Liberation Army about biotechnology-related security issues.

It is time to include biotechnology in the dialogue mechanisms that compose bilateral U.S. defense relations with the People’s Liberation Army. This dialogue should prioritize the ethics of biotechnology in the context of future conflicts, the escalatory risks this technology creates, and the possibility of cooperation where the interests of the two nations intersect. Both sides should work toward a common understanding related to ethics, policies, and standards when operationalizing biotechnology. This will help avoid miscalculation and promote strategic stability.

Unlike the U.S. government, Chinese leadership has a carefully considered position on the importance of biosafety and “biological problems” in national security. While these problems are understood to encompass traditional weapons concerns, they also extend to the health of the entire natural world in the context of ever-expanding applications of biotechnology. This position might provide an opportunity for constructive engagement at a time when tensions are rising.

Conclusion

The Pentagon needs to expand its approach to biotechnology beyond biodefense. If China maintains biological warfare aspirations, by all means address those. But defense planners should also address China’s broader approach to biotechnology and its integrated approach to civil-military fusion.

Securing biotechnology secures the nation. Maintaining the U.S. lead in biotechnology is critical to the nation’s economic and military resilience in war, peace, and the gray zone short of conflict. This requires better biotechnology collaboration — within the U.S. government, with allies and partners, and even, where possible, with competitors.

 

 

Rob Carlson is a managing director at Bioeconomy Capital, an early-stage venture capital firm. Carlson is the author of the book Biology is Technology: The Promise, Peril, and New Business of Engineering Life. He is an affiliate professor in the Paul G Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington and earned a doctorate in physics from Princeton University in 1997.

Chad Sbragia is a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses, where he concentrates on U.S. national security and defense policy. Sbragia served as the inaugural deputy assistant secretary of defense for China within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, as the director of the China Research Group for the U.S. Marine Corps, and in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1985 to 2012, including an assignment as the U.S. Marine attaché within the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. He holds an M.A. in national security affairs from the Naval Postgraduate School, a B.S. in political science from Arizona State University.

Kate Sixt is an assistant director of the Strategy, Forces and Resources Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses, where she leads the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Analysis group. Sixt is an adjunct professor in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and trained at the National Cancer Institute after receiving her Ph.D. in biochemistry, cellular, and molecular biology from the Department of Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 2008.

Image: Naval Sea Systems Command (Photo by Eddie Green)