News | March 1, 2003

Biology and the Battlefield

By Robert E. Armstrong and Jerry B. Warner Defense Horizons 25


Biology and the BattlefieldOverview

The military and the life sciences have been intertwined throughout history. Biology has often been a source of offensive weapons, ranging from the hurling of plague victims over the walls of Kaffa (which probably started the 14th-century Black Death) to the anthrax attacks of fall 2001. 

The military-biology relationship also has a humane side. Over the years, medical advances have saved countless soldiers and contributed to the overall well being of society. From the smallpox inoculation of Continental Army recruits in 1777— nearly 20 years before Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccination—to the development of modern vaccines, military physicians have a lengthy and impressive record of achievements. 

Biology has a new military role in the 21st century. Using the tools of biotechnology, the emphasis is now on increasing warfighting capabilities by improving matériel and enhancing warrior performance. Potential new tools range from small electronic devices based on bacterial proteins to foods that contain vaccines. The possibilities range from warriors functioning without difficulty in extreme environments to unmanned aerial vehicles flying in autonomous swarms. 

For the military to benefit fully from the advances of 21stcentury biology, a new organization is needed within the Department of Defense (DOD) that addresses the ethical, legal, and regulatory implications of biotechnology. This entity also must ensure that DOD biotechnology spending is increased and that the majority of the funds are directed to warfighting issues rather than the longstanding biological concerns of medical and defensive measures.