U.S. Naval Institute
Synthetic Bioweapons Are Coming
Emerging and Disruptive Technology Essay Contest–First Prize
Gene-editing advances pose a serious threat.
By Michael Knutzen
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed critical weaknesses in the human domain of warfare at just the moment technology has emerged that gives bad actors new power to exploit those weaknesses. Developments in synthetic biology will create next-generation bioweapons, “human-domain fires” that will fundamentally change the strategic environment and create a threat naval planners must consider now, before it is encountered at sea.
A Human-Domain Plague
In a March 2020 press release praising the effectiveness of its preventative medicine, the Navy proudly declared: “No cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed aboard any U.S. 7th Fleet Navy vessel.”1 One week later, cases were spreading so rapidly, the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) effectively became a “mission-kill.”
COVID-19 has demonstrated that biological threats are almost entirely unaffected by sophisticated kinetic, cyber, and electromagnetic defenses. The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle reported in April 2020 that 60 percent of her crew was infected with COVID-19. French Admiral Christophe Prazuck warned “that the [medical] measures onboard were ‘obviously circumvented’ by a ‘stealthy, insidious virus.’”2 It can be debated whether the U.S. or French carriers would have stayed in the fight if COVID-19 had broken out during wartime. But a more lethal, deliberately devised, weaponized agent could eviscerate a fleet.
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