The Pentagon’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program Moves Towards Modernization, Yet Congress Slashes Funding

By Dr. Dan Regan

On January 10, 2023, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) announced a major update for its Chemical and Biological Defense Program (CBDP): a new medical countermeasures (MCM) development strategy for force health protection against chemical and biological threats. 

The strategy, Approach for Research, Development, and Acquisition of Medical Countermeasures and Test Products, outlines a new, two-phased approach to MCM implementation. This new approach, which focuses on combating novel and emerging biological threats, requires CBDP to prioritize broad-spectrum solutions. This includes solutions for counteracting symptoms and reducing disease progression among personnel as a stop-gap measure until narrow-spectrum MCMs are identified, or researched and developed, to target the causative agent directly. In a DoD News article, CBDP’s Medical Director Dr. Kevin Wingerd commented that this strategy is going to require three critical components: 1) a whole-of-government effort that fits into the structure of the updated National Biodefense Strategy; 2) robust partnerships with the private sector; and 3) an industrial base that is simultaneously ready to use existing infrastructure and invest in new pathways for the future of MCM research, development, production, and distribution.  

This new strategy is in line with DoD’s steady transition away from a defined list of threats and “one bug, one drug” approach to MCM. The most recent indicator of this shift was at DoD’s Chemical and Biological Defense Science & Technology Conference in December 2022. In her keynote remarks, Deborah G. Rosenblum, Assistant Secretary for Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs, emphasized the need to transform how DoD approaches chemical and biodefense due to the rapidly changing threat landscape. Ms. Rosenblum explicitly discussed the pacing challenge of a multi-domain threat from China, concerns of non-compliance by Russia and other state parties to the Biological Weapons Convention, the convergence of fields across scientific disciplines, and the research and development of novel technological products that contribute to this modern threat landscape. 

To meet these threats head-on, Ian Watson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense Ian Watson, stated: “The best way to deter or defeat chemical and biological threats is by making the Joint Force resilient to them. A resilient Joint Force supports integrated deterrence by denying our adversaries the benefits of using chemical and biological weapons.” 

In a historic first for this conference, members of the National Security Council and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy were featured as keynote speakers: a move that highlights the importance CBDP is placing on being an effective and key interagency contributor to the overarching biodefense strategy and its implementation. Dr. Hillary Carter from the National Security Council and Dr. Matthew Hepburn from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy discussed the updated National Biodefense Strategy & Implementation Plan and the First Annual Report on Progress Towards Implementation of the American Pandemic Preparedness Plan, respectively.  

As CBDP works to enact its bold vision and implementation across both public coordination efforts and private engagement, changes in priorities for 2023 and beyond seem to be increasingly based on one ongoing effort across the entire DoD: the conclusion and release of the highly anticipated Biodefense Posture Review

Over the past two years, the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) has put forth its own bold vision for addressing biological threats through a “deterrence by denial” strategy: a strategy that “denies an attacker success in likely aims regarding biological weapons, such as causing mass casualties, mass confusion, and erosion of operational capabilities.” To achieve this vision, CSR has previously published recommendations regarding the evolving biological threat landscape, CBDP’s role in pathogen early warning, and the budgetary requirements across the interagency for ending catastrophic biological risks

CSR has continually noted the importance of CBDP in achieving this vision. Recently, Andy Weber, CSR Senior Fellow and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs, and David Lasseter, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, published an op-ed on the importance of investing in CBDP for national security with a 2024 budget of $3 billion. 

To achieve its mission set, including investing in emerging biotechnologies and bolstering industrial capacity to scale MCMs to novel threats, developing and investing in stand-off pathogen early warning detection, and advancing protective equipment for the Joint Force, the CBDP budget requires a nearly two-fold increase from the President’s request of $1.32 billion in FY23 to $3 billion for FY24. However, Congress unfortunately just dealt a 7% cut to chemical and biodefense programs with the FY23 omnibus spending bill, following years of declining funds for CBDP. As the FY24 Presidential Budget Request is being drafted, the Biden Administration and Congress should consider significant increases to CBDP’s budget, along with the other biodefense and global health security priorities outlined in the 10 + 10 over 10 strategy, to combat biological threats. 

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