An Evolving Threat vs a Stodgy Bureaucracy

By Julia Duckett, GMU Biodefense PhD Program

A review of the National Research Council report, “Determining Core Capabilities in Chemical and Biological Defense Science and Technology”

The National Research Council recently released the results of a study commissioned by the US Department of Defense to review DOD’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program (CBDP) and to “identify the core capabilities in science and technology that must be supported by the program.”[1]  The results in “Determining Core Capabilities in Chemical and Biological Defense Science and Technology” indicate a disorganized collection of DOD offices ineffective at accomplishing the CBDP’s mission to enable US Armed Forces to “fight and win decisively in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear environments.”  The study, attending only to the chemical and biological aspects of the CBDP, seeks to do three things:  define the mission and role of CBDP, identify the technology the program must support and determine whether the technology should be pursued in a DOD lab or elsewhere, and address the efficiency of the CBDP’s organizational structure.  The study found that as the CBDP currently operates, it is unable to effectively equip US Armed Forces for chemical and biological operating environments; the NRC suggested major fundamental changes to improve the program’s effectiveness.

Out of a long list of formal findings in the report, a few emerge as fundamental challenges the program must overcome.  First, the mission of the program is too broad and the strategy for accomplishing its goals is unclear.  The program encompasses a variety of DOD offices, each responsible for different aspects of research, development, and acquisition, and each office has a unique perspective on the purpose of the program.  Second, most of the core technology the NRC identified as necessary to support the program’s mission is available in non-DOD labs including labs associated both with other government agencies and the private sector.  However, the connection between the researchers in those labs and the users of the technology sponsored by CBDP is weak.  As a result, funding is not focused, products are not directly applicable to the users’ needs, testing and evaluation of new products is faulty, and there is little opportunity to generate new and innovative solutions.  Third, funding and management are unstable, which prevents the development of an integrated suite of tools for military personnel to use in a chemical or biological environment.  Particularly a problem for medical products, the frequent turnover in leadership and short-term projection of funds stymies the ability to bring a solution from the R&D phase through to the acquisition phase.

Of note, the report does not distinguish between naturally occurring and man-made biological environments.  This reflects the Obama Administration’s National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats regardless of their source.  The report notes civilian as well as military benefits to advances in the technology for medical protection and response to outbreaks.  This should encourage collaboration between the CBDP and pharmaceutical companies – an important relationship identified by the study.  Emphasis was placed on integrating non-DOD entities into CBDP processes to facilitate a close relationship between researchers and users.  This relationship is challenged, however, by the desire to protect sensitive information on both sides.  Though this may be a surmountable challenge, there is also a need to consider the United States’ international treaty commitments, particularly regarding the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).  Other countries could potentially question the legitimacy of mobilizing a broad and collective effort to streamline research into bioweapons-related pathogens under BWC restrictions.

Ultimately, the NRC report found that in order to effectively accomplish the mission of enabling the US military to operate in chemical and biological environments, the CBDP must make major changes to the organization of the program and the level of integration among relevant parties.  The report states; “tweaking the management or refocusing a few projects will not be sufficient,” rather, a new way of thinking about the problem and how to organize the response is needed.  Following the release of the report, Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense, Gerald Parker, in an interview with Foreign Policy, acknowledged his office is taking this report seriously.  However, he says, this is nothing new, the findings are a “natural evolution” as the threat itself evolves.[2]  That may be precisely the point the report attempts to make; after all these years of working to prepare our armed forces to operate in a contaminated environment, we still lack the flexibility and mobility to respond to an evolving threat.  In 2007 the Government Accountability Office released a report stating military units responsible for responding to a chemical or biological event, in the US or abroad, are ill prepared to perform their mission.[3]  It is evident a complete change of approach to chemical and biological preparedness is necessary – the question that remains is how to impose flexibility and adaptability on stodgy bureaucracy in order to reflect the flexible and adaptable threat.

[1]  National Research Council, “Determining Core Capabilities in Chemical and Biological Defense and Technology,” National Academies Press, 2012.

[2] Baron, Kevin, “Pentagon behind on predicting chemical, biological threats,”  September 24, 2012;

[3] “Management Actions Are Needed to Close the Gap between Army Chemical Unit Preparedness and Stated National Priorities,” GAO-07-143, January 2007.

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