Skip to comments.BioWar - (VERY unusual and interesting article on secret NSA developments...)
Posted on 11/25/2002 5:25:04 PM PST by vannrox
Issue 4.11 - Nov 1996
Wake-up call! Some of the world's farthest-out, cutting-edge, and high-technodazzle biotech thinking is now being done not by scientists and academics, but by the military.
By Ed Regis
On May 9 1996, by email, I received an invitation to attend a biotechnology workshop at the Army War College. The combination did not add up - not immediately. The biotech industry, after all, was engaged mainly in making new drugs or making old ones by new methods: you fiddled with the genes of certain microorganisms and tricked them into producing insulin, human growth hormone, or whatever. Clever, but still rather prosaic - nothing that the army would be holding a conference about.
Then again, some of biotech's more wild-eyed dreamers had imagined lots of semi-science fictional biotechnology applications, like altering an organism's genes to such an extent that you created an entirely new animal, a special-purpose "designer" organism, anything from a new species of lab rat to a human being reverse-engineered for desired traits. Most of this was pretty far-out: people with gills for staying underwater, people with genuine body armor - Mr. Armadillo - hard-shell skins that bullets would bounce off, a human physique that included new-wave musculature, night vision, computer-chip-assisted memory, faster, bigger, and better brains.
But that was Hollywood: that was Robocop, The Terminator, the Six Billion Dollar Bionic Wonder Woman. The army, I thought, couldn't be interested in that, either.
And anyway, why me? True, I was the author of a book about nanotechnology, a science in which tiny molecular robots would be able to assemble any object, substance, or structure permitted by the laws of nature. These robots, I'd written, "could be programmed by some enemy power - or worse, a terrorist group - to slip over the border on a gust of wind, enter your body, and turn your bones to slime."
Aha. A concept of military interest.
And in an earlier work I'd talked about converting ordinary everyday humans into "transhumans," fabulous turbocharged specimens who sailed across the universe, learned its secrets, became omnipotent, and lived forever. Both of these books argued that all of this stuff, insane as it was, could really happen. None of it violated natural law.
And then, suddenly, I could see the whole picture: the conference, titled Biotechnology Workshop 2020, would focus on battles to be fought in the future. These battles would not be limited to the hand grenades, assault rifles, and land mines of the 20th century - they would feature entirely new categories of weapons, munitions based on the biotech advances that would occur in the interim. The army, I concluded, was looking to produce fleets of attack microbes - maybe even a race of supersoldiers - by tinkering with DNA, the molecular basis of all life. And they wanted my far-seeing, penetrating, and all-knowing advice and counsel.
So of course I said yes.
The Army War College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, at the crossroads of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate 81, was a scene of vast amounts of truckage and muckage, engine noise and diesel fumes. The campus is ordinary: red brick classroom buildings, athletic fields, health clinic, chapel, a bunch of little white clapboard houses where the officers live. From the looks of it, it could be a college campus anywhere in the country.
Except for Collins Hall, site of the workshop and home of the army's Center for Strategic Leadership. At the time of the conference, the place had just been constructed, and it looked as if it had been built to stage an opera about a rocket launch. It was bristling with architectural setbacks and galleries, balconies and turretlike structures. Entrance to the building was highly restricted: you checked in with a guard, got an electronic access key, and were admitted through a turnstile. You exited the same way. "If you walk out the wrong door, you'll be shot," joked one of the officers.
The workshop was to take place in the Normandy Conference Room, the army's version of NASA Mission Control Headquarters - a tall, square, hushed chamber done in soft grays and greens. A large white screen at the front was flanked by digital clocks and electronic signboards that said, in red lettering: "Unclassified" and "Not Recording." Underneath the signs were large panes of one-way glass, as if we'd be under observation by a bank of psychiatrists. On the walls farther back were oil paintings the size of murals, of battle scenes - the Normandy invasion, one supposed - scenes of explosions, fires, and hot gases, of smoke rising and structures collapsing, walls turning into rubble, jeeps capsizing, cannons firing, soldiers running, falling, calling out....
The focal point of the room was an enormous U-shaped conference table on which stood 20 or so computer terminals and, facing them, an equal number of plush, green, high-backed chairs. One of the participants, sitting down, did not like the view: "All you can see is the whites of the backs of their computers," he complained. He was hot for "eye contact." He would not get much of it.
The two dozen experts now settling in were about half military and half civilian. The latter were in fields such as virology, evolutionary theory, and commercial biotechnology and hailed from such places as UCLA, Rockefeller University, the National Institutes of Health, the Institute for Biological Detection Systems, the Center for Human Performance and Complex Systems, and from firms called Nanotronics Inc. (a nanotechnology R&D firm) and Orion Enterprises Inc. (a consulting firm with military clients). The army people, some in uniform and some not, were from Fort Knox, the Pentagon, the Aberdeen Proving Ground, and so on, and were attached to places with names like Future Battle Directorate, Battlefield Environments Directorate, and US Army Chem/Bio Defense Command - whatever that was.
This was the setup: We'd be given a series of expert briefings on biotechnology, on biotechnology and the army, on recent work in "human performance enhancements," and the like. Then we'd be given three alternate versions of the general world situation circa 2020, along with a specific conflict situation in each case. Our job was to somehow take these three hypothetical scenarios, gaze into a crystal ball, and divine the future of biotech weaponry. The army would then be guided by our mystic visions when funding time came.
There was a slightly Through the Looking-Glass feel to it all, as if this roomful of people would be any better at soothsaying than a bunch of chimpanzees. As if to underscore the point, Lieutenant Colonel Joe Pecoraro, then chief of the Army Research Laboratory's Future Technologies Institute, the agency sponsoring the workshop, explained that the whole proceeding would be conducted on nonattribution rules, meaning that who said exactly what could never be reported to anyone else.
Finally, a word from Major George Hluck, the facility's smiling and cheery "knowledge engineer." Our computer terminals, he said, as the display screens came to life, were for the use of the "Topic Commenter," the army's implementation of a real-time chat function. The chat feature would enable each of us to share our private thoughts with the others. This was the high tech equivalent of passing notes back and forth under the desk, and having it at our disposal here was almost too good to be true.
We were not dissuaded from using the chat function; in fact we were encouraged, almost pressured, to do so. Please use it at any time! Pass along those notes! Just type in your comments about anything at all - but especially about the briefing in progress - then press the Send key and Bingo! your words will magically appear, anonymously and unsigned, on everyone else's computer screen.
And so a minute later, clickata-clickata-clickata, anonymous comments were bubbling up on our displays, trenchant observations on the order of:
It is ethically questionable to solicit anonymous comments.Darn, what a SUPER briefing that was!!!
July 2020, and Turkey is at war with Iran and Syria. The latter two countries, sick of their constant water shortages, have invaded Turkey and taken control of a major dam and reservoir. Turkey, after mobilizing its troops, calls upon the United States for assistance.
The US sends a total of 300,000 troops, plus navy and air force backup units, into the area. Together, the combined US forces are supposed to (1) throw the invaders out of Turkey, (2) advance into Iran and Syria to incapacitate the main forces of those countries, and (3) "locate and neutralize Iranian and Syrian nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, their means of delivery, and their production facilities."
That was "Defense Planning Scenario 1."
Scenario 2 was not much different, except for the fact that Iran and Syria were now threatening to drop a nuclear bomb on a major Turkish population center. The US, in response, sends in eight army assault units plus special operations forces, to (1) attack enemy headquarters, (2) destroy their command, control, and logistics sites, and (3) wipe out their weapons facilities.
In July 2020, however, this is no problem. First of all, our foot soldiers are protected by biocamouflage, clothing that changes color automatically, allowing the troops to visually merge with the background. Their outer garments sense the ambient temperature and harmonize with it, rendering the wearer imperceptible to temperature-sensing devices, heat-seeking weapons, or infrared detectors. The troops become as invisible as chameleons, for the same reasons, and by essentially the same biological mechanisms.
The enemy, however, is not invisible - not to the army's newly developed artificial smart noses. The Americans ferret out their adversaries by means of biosensors, biologically based olfactory sensing units that discover the presence, location, and strength of opposing troop concentrations by detecting - believe it or not - their odors, the characteristic airborne molecules or "downstream effluents" they discharge.
Having pinpointed the enemy battalions, the US troops now advance toward them and deploy a full range of nonlethal, nonhuman bioweapons - antimaterial microbes, for example. These genetically engineered organisms have been programmed to eat the rubber from enemy vehicles, decimating their tires, engine gaskets, coolant hoses, and fuel lines. Other antimaterial microorganisms infiltrate fuel tanks and turn their stores of gas and diesel oil to masses of incombustible jelly. Still others selectively target and destroy the adversary's silicon devices: they eat the insides of their computers, command and control systems, navigational instruments, and anything else containing a silicon chip. These spreading, hungry bioagents immobilize enemy forces by turning their hardware into blobs of goo.
In latter-day military parlance, this is "soft kill" - disabling the enemy's infrastructure. "Hard kill" - physically maiming or killing the adversary - has not gone out of style in 2020, but there are now some distinctly improved methods of doing it. Enemy leaders, for example, can be knocked off by means of genetically engineered superpathogens that are so selective in their behavior they're capable of targeting specific individuals, verifying their identities by means of their DNA sequences. They'd have been able to erase Adolf Hitler from the face of the earth while leaving everyone else whole and unharmed.
Out on the battlefield, meanwhile, complex tactical decisions are made by biocomputers the size of sugar cubes. Stored in the computer's biomemory are summaries of the most successful battle strategies in history, from the ancient Greeks to the present, plus local terrain maps, dictionaries of the native languages, guides to local flora and fauna, maybe even a list of Turkey's best restaurants, complete with menus, prices, and ordering information.
The American troops, however, instantly "grow" their food and drink, their fuels and supplies - including bullets and explosives - by manufacturing them on-site, molecule by molecule, out of the biofeedstock molecules that they carry along with them. Such on-the-spot "bioprocessing" technologies have revolutionized troop supply and logistics, doing away with the long and vulnerable provisions caravans of yore.
These well-fed and continually replenished soldiers are kept healthy and disease-free by means of DNA vaccinations that have made them immune to all known pathogens. Old-style vaccinations worked by introducing mild viruses into humans with the object of provoking an immune response. These new vaccines avoid the risks of injecting people with deadly agents; they work, instead, directly at the DNA level. Patients are injected with specially tailored strands of DNA that cause their immune systems to generate the entire array of needed antibodies. In consequence, the subjects become immune to every pathogen they might encounter, everything from yellow fever, malaria, and hepatitis to cholera, Ebola, and HIV - plus whatever new-wave viruses have freshly emerged.
If and when they finally go into battle, the troops are safeguarded by microbe-grown body enclosures that hold back not only poison gases and biological and chemical agents but also the otherwise deadly projectile. The bodysuit, in addition, increases the wearer's overall strength by means of precisely placed artificial musculature that boosts the power of arms, legs, fingers, and toes. The soldier's protective helmet is equipped with bio-based, high-resolution night-vision devices that effectively turn darkness into daylight.
Any injuries sustained in spite of all this camouflage, nourishment, biological immunity, and physical protection are cured with accelerated healing technologies. In the field, wounds are speed-healed by the application of enzymatic growth factors and are then patched over by intelligent bioadhesives instead of dumb bandages. Those more seriously hurt are put into suspended animation before being medevac'd out to hospitals, where artificial blood, bones, tissues, and ligaments - even whole organs - are bioproduced and implanted into the injured as needed.
And then, when it's all over, the troops clean up as they go by the use of sophisticated "bioremediation" systems. Fleets of programmed microbes decontaminate and detoxify the entire area, leaving it in a condition as good as, if not better than, it was in the first place.
By the time the soldiers leave, it's as if the war had never happened.
We at the army's biotechnology workshop, unfortunately, had not come up with any of this. More bizarre than some of the crazed ideas themselves was the fact that all of our thinking had been done for us, well in advance, by the army, and by the workshop's organizers, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) of McLean, Virginia. SAIC, whose gaming division runs war games for all branches of the military, had been hired by the army to research, plan, and moderate the whole two-day extravaganza.
Steven Kenney, of SAIC's Strategic Assessment Center, had FedExed all of us a little read-ahead package, 200 pages of technical, semitechnical, and popular writings about the latest biotech advances and their potential application to warfare. Included, among other things, were several chapters from biotechnology textbooks, an article from Scientific American about directed molecular evolution, and two pieces from Wired: "Neurobotics," by Michael Gruber (Wired 2.10, page 110), about using rat-brain tissue to solve chemical-engineering problems; and "Gene Genie," by Thomas Bass (Wired 3.08, page 114), about the DNA computer. Also included were excerpts from the army's own in-house STAR 21 report, compiled by the National Research Council. Subtitled "Strategic Technologies for the Army of the Twenty-First Century," it sketched out a representative sampling of biotech weaponry. Capping the read-ahead were two SAIC-produced white papers titled "Biotechnology - Projections," and "Biotechnology - Military Applications." Collectively, these documents laid out everything for us, chapter and verse, in great and exhaustive detail. Our function, it seemed increasingly evident, was merely to cough back up their sum and substance. The participants themselves soon noticed as much:
This is, in many respects, a repeat of the read-ahead.The workshop seems to be a rehash of already extant laundry lists of technologies to me. Our contribution may be the addition of the preface "bio-" to all other nouns relating to warfare.
The question arose, then, as to why the workshop had been held - especially in view of its roughly US$100,000 price tag.
"Three reasons," Joe Pecoraro, the Future Technologies Institute chief, said a couple of months later. "One, there was the hope that someone would say something unique. Did that happen? I'm not sure.
"Another reason was that I wanted to get a notion from the military themselves as to which applications would be of most use to them. Just because something's got a use to the civilian sector doesn't mean it's got any use to the military.
"And I wanted to get a line on costs. How feasible is any of this, in terms of cost and development time?"
Some months prior to the workshop, Kenney, coauthor of SAIC's white paper on the military applications of biotechnology, actually had given Pecoraro at least some of what he was looking for. Kenney had contacted representatives of eight military organizations - the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth and the Army Armor Center at Fort Knox, among others - specifically to get their views concerning biotech's military potential, and he had then incorporated a summary of their opinions into the white paper.
As for the workshop, it did not yield the ranking of biotech applications that Pecoraro was after. At the end, participants were asked to list the several military applications in order of their probable usefulness in warfare. But when they did that, the SAIC-designed algorithm for this - a formal mass-voting procedure conducted with the aid of comically misnamed "meeting facilitation software" - underwent a meltdown in a huge bonfire of the technologies. No two participants could agree on what, if anything, the required numerical scores meant, or on what basis they should be assigned. As one of the participants remembered it later: "We rated items against undefined criteria, using a numerical rating scheme in which the numbers assigned had meaning only to the individual scorer. Then, we averaged these scores to obtain a totally meaningless number. God forbid that someone actually use the results for something!"
In view of the manner in which they were obtained, that was an unlikely prospect.
James Valdes, who gave us the Army and Biotechnology briefing, is the army's scientific adviser for biotechnology. He works at what in the old days was the Edgewood Arsenal, part of the Aberdeen Proving Ground, in Maryland. In these times of nomenclature inflation, it has become the Edgewood Research, Development, and Engineering Center, and Valdes works at the US Army Chemical and Biological Defense Command.
Physically, the place hasn't changed much over the years. It's a flat spit of pine barrens that juts out into Chesapeake Bay. Deer graze calmly along the roadsides, beside chain-link fences topped with alternating coils of barbed wire and razor wire. Inside the first fence is a no-man's-land, then another identical fence. Watchful TV cameras point up and down the no-man's-land, and rusted signs nearby read: "Warning," "Danger," "Restricted Area," and (the biggie) "Use of Deadly Force Authorized."
Jay Valdes, who runs Edgewood's biotech program, did postdoctoral work at Johns Hopkins in neurotoxicology. He's a precise, personable, and friendly type, a nautical chap who keeps a 20-foot sailboat out on the Chesapeake and can rattle off the differences between schooner, bark, sloop, ketch, and yawl as easily as he can enumerate the several varieties of nerve gas.
The army's "contaminant degrading" organisms are nothing new to him. There are tons of them at Edgewood, and they aren't even genetically engineered. They're just plain microbes, just standard, run-of-the-mill soil bacteria, albeit ones with specialized eating abilities and acquired tastes. Some of them eat petroleum products, a proficiency they've acquired all by themselves.
"If you have a site that's been contaminated with petroleum products," Valdes explains, "then just by natural selection, the microbes that live in the soil will have evolved mechanisms to enable them to degrade petroleum products. The microbes that eat them survive; the ones that don't die. Thus, they select themselves out."
So if you want to get rid of, degrade, or otherwise "dematerialize" a patch of petroleum, you merely go out to a contaminated site and collect samples of the indigenous soil bacteria. You bring them back to the lab, separate out those that eat the noxious pollutants, and then culture up big vats of them. Later, you go back out into the field and deposit the cultured petroleum eaters wherever they're needed. Not long afterward, the microbes have converted the noxious pollutants into harmless, or maybe even helpful, by-products.
Formally, this is known as in situ biodegradation; the process works so well against a wide range of contaminants that several private cleanup companies now ply the trade commercially. The army's biodegradation needs are somewhat specialized, however, there being large stockpiles of chemical agents - mustard gas, for example, left over from the good old days - that by law must be destroyed and turned into innocuous waste. Biotechnology can play a role here, because if you can identify the specific enzyme that a microbe uses to degrade a given chemical, then you can manufacture the enzyme itself and apply it to the chemical directly.
"And if you can identify the gene that codes for the particular enzyme that breaks down your pollutant," Valdes explains, "then you can clone that gene and produce that enzyme in large quantities."
At the Process Engineering Facility, a new $15 million building at Edgewood, the needed enzymes are produced in fermentation tanks and then tested for effectiveness on 20-foot-tall columns of contaminated soil. If the process works in the lab, it ought to work just as well in the field; the hope is that these experiments will yield an environmentally friendly way of turning poisonous agents into benign substances.
The hot-ticket item in military biotech circles these days, however, is the biosensor, an electromechanical device that detects airborne molecules in extremely small amounts. Valdes and his colleagues are now developing biosensors. The simplest consist of a computer chip topped with a layer of biological molecules that selectively bond with molecules of a known compound. When such a "recognition event" occurs, the computer chip sends a signal, informing the human observer that there are molecules of the substance floating about: a toxic gas, perhaps, or an explosive. If and when they become effective at sniffing out a wide range of deadly agents, biosensors promise an enormous payoff, both within the military and in civilian environments, such as airport luggage security checkpoints.
Other biotech marvels are in their earliest developmental stages, both in the army and in private industry. Researchers at an army R&D center at Natick, Massachusetts, are working on biocamouflage materials. Koors, an Israeli food company, is experimenting with an algae that produces glycerol, a key ingredient in many strategically important compounds. And at the laboratories in West Point, Pennsylvania, researchers at Merck & Co., a pharmaceutical firm, are in early clinical trials of a DNA vaccine against tuberculosis and another one against influenza. Also targeted are hepatitis, malaria, and HIV.
Those applications are probably doable in the relatively near term. Farther out, in the stargazing realm, are the more gee-whiz notions like food-producing machinery in the battlefield, microbe-grown bodysuits, suspended animation, and performance-enhanced supersoldiers. Although conference members agreed that such things were in principle possible in the sense that they violated no known laws of nature, they could not agree on when, if, or by whom any of them might be converted to practical realities.
"Who can judge that?" asked one of the military scientists after the workshop. "The future applications of biotechnology are dependent upon scientific advancements and economics, much more so than the needs as perceived by the likes of us."
"I think there is a reasonable chance (50-50) of success in most of these areas," said another attendee.
"I think we'll see some of the biocamouflage material by 2020," said a third. "Perhaps limited bioproduction of alcohol as a fuel."
"The bulk of the applications, in my opinion, are realistic in the sense of being performable tasks," said still another. "This, provided that adequate resources are forthcoming."
And provided that the research is allowed by law. Today, because of international treaty conventions against all forms of offensive biological weapons research, the United States is prohibited from developing any such fancy gimmicks as DNA-targeted superpathogens.
As for the prospect of nonlethal bioweapons ever completely replacing bombs and bullets, this, say the experts, probably will not happen: "There will always be a need, in warfare, for violence," said Joe Pecoraro. "We will never find a technological solution that removes violence from warfare. The implements that we use to conduct the violence I can't predict, but it will be there."
Scenario 3. July, 2020: Brazil invades Venezuela seeking to acquire its newly discovered oil reserves. Venezuela appeals to the United States for help, and we respond by sending in the biotroops.
This time, according to the scenario, we've got technology to burn: biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics - all of it has been developed and has succeeded beyond our wildest expectations. Wars, therefore, are now conducted long-range and by remote control. Robotic combat and remote telepresence have replaced traditional ground warfare. On this battlefield of the future, intelligent robots outnumber humans.
Maybe. Or at least so we thought. As to what would really happen in the warfare situations of the future.... Well, who knew?
We have to realize that what we are doing is scripting a major Hollywood movie about fighting an imaginary war with weapons that don't exist yet, with technologies that are still largely on the drawing boards and whose development and time frame is unknown. Is this anything more than military science fiction?
Military science fiction or not, the workshop held two surprises for me. One was that in 2020, a generation away, the United States, according to all three scenarios, would still be sending troops winging off across the oceans like passenger pigeons, at the slightest provocation.
The second, bigger surprise was my realization that some of the world's farthest-out, cutting-edge, and high-technodazzle biotech thinking was now being done not by scientists or academics but by the military, and not just the army. The air force's scientific advisory board has done a study, known as "New World Vistas," that looks 20 to 30 years into the future and foresees many of the same biotech devices and gadgetry.
There is a reason for the military's farsightedness. The main elements of the biotech revolution are now available to pretty much anyone, meaning, like it or not, that the nation's enemies - even just a handful of terrorists, perhaps - might already be developing offensive bioweapons. Biotechnology is, after all, "small science," the province of desktop machinery and lab glassware as opposed to particle accelerators or nuclear reactors; you don't need a Manhattan Project or an Apollo Program to pursue it.
"Some potential adversaries may be ahead of us in this technological area," says the army's STAR 21 report. "The United States did not keep the secrets of atomic warfare for long, even in the secretive atmosphere of the 1940s and 1950s. In the communicative, mobile, commercial world of the next 30 years, the data for both defensive and offensive biotechnological breakthroughs will be uncontainable and, essentially, public information. Almost any country will be able to possess the data."
With which those countries could create some spectacularly damaging stealth microbes.
"They could destabilize economies," says Jay Valdes at Edgewood. "They could selectively wipe out crops and livestock, and they could do it with plausible deniability. 'Oh, your rice crop got rice rust! Oh, so sorry!'
"I don't want to give anybody any ideas about how to do this," he adds, "but I think it would be fairly straightforward."
So, the biowars may be out there in the dim distance along with biomaterials, biomimetics, bioproduction, biocoupling, bioremediation, biocomputers, biochips, biosensors, biofeedstocks, biogenetics, and all the other assorted bios.
By the end of the bioworkshop, anyway, we were up to our bioears in biothoughts:
After bio-bombing by Bio-52s, bio-gones will be bio-gones.
Bio all means.
I'm going home, bio-bio.
Copyright © 1993-2002 The Condé Nast Publications Inc. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1994-2002 Wired Digital, Inc. All rights reserved.
Look at the response in Britain to hoof and mouth. It was more a national security type of response.
That would be a good trick. But how do you train the microbes to only eat one in ten?
Anybody with a worse grasp of english then this engineer should not be writing/editing/proofreading.