Addressing Biocrises After COVID-19: Is Deterrence an Option?

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Hollywood movies and fiction novels have long used disease outbreaks as a nation-ending threat to drive their plots. However, there is nothing like an actual pandemic to stir the concerns of the American public and politicians about the potential dangers of biological weapons and biological terrorism. A number of public health and national security professionals have pointed to the challenged U.S. response to COVID-19 as evidence that adversaries may be planning a deliberate biological attack against the nation. Given a poorly responding national public health system and recent advances in biotechnology, a nation-state or terrorist group could easily cause tens of thousands of deaths, if not millions. This hypothesis leads to urgings that the national security community needs to take steps to deter this threat if the public health community cannot protect Americans from contagious diseases.

Gen. Mark Milley stated that “We’re at war with COVID-19, we’re at war with terrorists, we’re at war with drug cartels as well.” This particular viewpoint is not uncommon when the national security community looks at public health challenges — in particular, pandemic disease outbreaks that have a significant impact on U.S. national security interests. This idea that “we’re at war with COVID-19” and that we need a “battle plan” to mitigate the coronavirus effects evokes military concepts that people naturally gravitate to. The nation’s shortfalls in addressing this public health threat has led to a concern that hostile nation-states may make the United States its next target in an attack that “could kill millions” and that the Department of Defense has a role to play in “rendering mass-effect biological attacks” to become “so ineffective as to be futile.” But is this a valid concern? And what role should the Department of Defense play to deter attackers from using biological weapons against the nation?

What is Deterrence?

Determining if biological attacks can be deterred requires a quick review of two topics: First, what are the basic tenets of deterrence, and second, how does this theory apply to biological threats? While the national security community has talked about deterrence theory for decades, understanding deterrence still eludes many people who apply its concepts to contemporary security issues. Michael Mazaar defines deterrence as “the practice of discouraging or restraining someone … from taking unwanted actions, such as an armed attack.” The intent is to stop or prevent an action from occurring. This is in contrast to compellence, which is an effort to force an actor to do something. While military force is often at the center of deterrence operations, this is a political concept that can involve diplomatic or economic threats and assurances as well.



Deterrence theory in the 1960s talked about “deterrence by punishment” and “deterrence by denial” as concepts on how nations might use nuclear weapons to protect against a strategic attack on the homeland. This is simple enough to envision — deterrence by punishment means that the defender will retaliate with force to cause significant damage to the attacker so that the costs exceed the value of its goals, while deterrence by denial posits that an attacker will fail in reaching its goals because of measures undertaken by the defender. To be successful in either case, the defender must demonstrate that the capability to deny benefits to the attacker exists, that the defender’s actions are credible given a particular context, and that the attacker perceives the probability of failure so as to be persuaded toward the defender’s preferred outcome. This last part is particularly important — the adversary, not the one threatening to use force, gets to decide whether deterrence is successful based on its views of cost and benefits. As Robert Jervis pointed out in 1982, deterrence can fail if there are misperceptions of the actors’ values, their credibility, or rationality.

There are ample academic writing and defense analyses on nuclear deterrence in particular, but this theory also applies to conventional weapons, space and cyber weapons, and chemical and biological weapons. Different contexts require different approaches — what works for nuclear weapons may not work for space and cyber weapons, but the general theory of how two actors perceive deterrence challenges is sound. Adding to this, there is a great deal of debate as to whether deterrence “works” during crises between two (or three) adversaries. Without going over this well-trodden trail, let’s look specifically at how deterrence theory works in confronting biological threats.

Does Deterrence Work Against Biological Threats?

The efficacy of deterrence against biological threats depends, of course, on what the biological threat is. “Biological threat” has been a catch-all phrase to include natural disease outbreaks, deliberate biological incidents, and accidental releases. The Biden, Trump, and Obama administrations have all used the term “biological threats” in their respective national biodefense strategies. While one can envision a common medical response to all biological threats, this should not be construed as one strategy to prevent or protect against all biological threats against the nation. Within the context of a national biodefense strategy, biological threats can take the form of anti-human, anti-crop, or anti-animal. The Federal Select Agent Program identifies 67 biological threats that pose a severe threat to humans, animals, and plants. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have a prioritized list of about 20 biological threats for use in preparing for biological terrorism.

Assuming the political objective is to deter an actor from using biological threats against the nation to cause mass effect, we can rule out natural diseases and accidental releases in biological laboratories. Because a deterrence posture needs to be understood by a reasoning actor, one cannot deter natural disease outbreaks or accidents at biological research laboratories as they have no human actor with malign intent to cause harm. On one hand, there is no way to use force to deter or compel good behavior. You can’t win a war against a pandemic outbreak, but you can manage it. On the other hand, deterrence could reduce the possibility of deliberate biological incidents, since nation-states and terrorist groups both have leaders who might be persuaded by robust deterrent strategies.

Throughout history, U.S. policy has been to rely on deterrence by punishment to discourage nation-states from using chemical or biological weapons in strategic attacks against the nation and its military. In the opening phase of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced the policy of using biological weapons in retaliation against any Axis use. During the Cold War, every presidential administration developed policies on using chemical and biological weapons in retaliation to adversary use. Every president up through Nixon retained this retaliatory policy. Following the U.S. government’s unilateral abandonment of an offensive biological weapons program, the U.S. policy shifted to the threat of nuclear weapons as an option for retaliating against biological weapons. That was the policy in 1991 when U.S. forces were preparing to invade Iraq. This policy remains in place today.

Relying on deterrence by denial as a strategy to prevent biological weapons attacks has some significant problems because of technological challenges involved with biodefense. To be successful with a deterrence by denial approach, one would have to openly demonstrate that a nation or its military force is so resilient and has such a strong defensive posture that an adversary would not succeed through the use of biological weapons. The U.S. government has two FDA-approved vaccines against the top 10 list of biological warfare agents. Current biodetection capabilities remain limited to “detect to treat,” which means that a significant population cannot avoid exposure. “Early warning” actually means 24–48 hours after a biological release. There are so many biological weapons and so many scenarios for attacking critical infrastructure across the nation that this approach would be impossible to execute to the degree of convincing an adversary that any deliberate biological attack would fail.

Deterring terrorists from using harmful biological organisms against the unprotected public is a little more difficult to parse, but terrorist organizations can be deterred by threats of retaliation. It is often due to the lack of confidence that terrorists are rational actors, and the desire that some level of defense is necessary, that the U.S. government feels compelled to emplace additional measures to provide early warning and response to a potential bioterrorist incident. These measures by no means cover the entire United States against all biological threats, but the U.S. government has not chosen to fund a more robust effort. However, academics suggest that a deterrence by denial strategy may be effective against terrorists if used to deny them the resources they need, such as weapons material, money, and support by state sponsors. As a result, U.S. strategies to counter weapons of mass destruction terrorism have often included both deterrence by punishment and deterrence by denial.

The Right Funds to the Right Organization

Over the past ten years, this idea of “health security” has emerged to suggest that a nation has a responsibility to take appropriate measures to prepare for and respond to external and catastrophic health threats to the public. Given criticisms of the U.S. government’s response to COVID-19, one might anticipate calls for a more muscular, preventive approach to pandemic outbreaks from the national security community. The Trump administration put the Department of Health and Human Services as the lead for national biodefense. The Department of Homeland Security has a significant national biodefense role as well. However, there should be no question that the Department of Health and Human Services is the designated lead and is funded for biological incident response and emergency preparedness.

The public health community likes to use the threat of bioterrorism as a rationale for asking for more funding. To that point, U.S. health care spending has risen to $3.8 trillion in 2019, while defense expenditures were about $1.2 trillion. Within those budgets, annual public health spending for infectious diseases is about $20 billion, as compared to about $2 billion in the U.S. defense program’s biodefense efforts. Obviously, this spending is not just about biological threats, and the public health community’s concerns are not soley focused on deliberate threats. This comparison should, however, demonstrate as to who in the federal government is leading the medical response to biological threats. The public health community has definite ideas as to where funding for bioterrorism should go, and it’s not to overseas laboratories working under the Biological Threat Reduction Program,  a Department of Defense initiative that seeks to improve the security of medical biological research facilities in other countries.

The Department of Defense Chemical and Biological Defense Program focuses on biological defense for U.S. forces with the understanding that deterrence may fail. The U.S. Army has a medical biological defense program for biological warfare agents and a medical infectious disease research program for natural infectious diseases. The two programs are separated due to budgetary reasons, but they collaborate on research with the Department of Health and Human Services. The Department of Defense CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear) Response Enterprise supports the federal response to weapons of mass destruction incidents, but its ability to provide assistance at biological incidents is largely limited to assessment and advice. Operation Warp Speed wasn’t a deterrence by denial program — nor was “Able Response” in its efforts to improve the Republic of Korea’s health surveillance program (both Department of Defense-led efforts). On the other hand, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease does have a significant national medical biodefense research program. None of these are deterrence by denial capabilities, but rather, mitigation measures to reduce mass casualties.

For deterrence to work, there must be communication between the defender and attacker as to expectations and consequences, and it requires the accurate perception of both to maintain stability and a balance of power. A deterrence by denial strategy for countering biological threats will not work given the disparity between the significant number of biological warfare agents and hundreds of unprotected U.S. cities and available defensive countermeasures. U.S. political leaders have never formulated a deterrence by denial concept for biological attacks. Department of Defense leadership hasn’t advocated for this area as other government agencies already have the role for responding to deliberate biological incidents. As such, these reasons require that the United States retain deterrence by punishment as its primary approach to discouraging deliberate biological attacks.



Al Mauroni is the director of the U.S. Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies and author of the forthcoming book, BIOCRISIS: Defining Biological Threats for U.S. Policy. 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.

Correction: An earlier version of this article contained an example of compellence that could be subject to conflicting interpretations. That example was removed for clarity.

Image: U.S. National Guard (Photo by Master Sgt. Becky Vanshur)