Thursday, June 21, 2001
Battlefield uses of biotech proposed in report to Army
Carl T. Hall, Chronicle Science Writer
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle
Even though biological weapons are banned, military planners are actively searching out new ways to bring biotechnology to the battlefield.
A new scientific report, commissioned by the Army, was issued yesterday by a panel of experts. It highlights an extraordinary range of military "opportunities" in biotech, ideas that many experts said would be developed whether the Pentagon wants them or not.
"It's clear that biotech is going to change the way we fight wars, and it's also clear we have to get there first before the others get there," said study co-author Mauro Ferrari, a professor of internal medicine and biomedical engineering at Ohio State University.
The list of possibilities reads like an inventory of props for a spy thriller set sometime around 2025, which also happened to be the "planning horizon" for the National Research Council's 16-member Board on Army Science and Technology, authors of the new report.
Among the ideas:
-- Bioengineered tracking agents soldiers would swallow before going into the field, which could help the Army follow troop movements and maybe allow sensor-equipped snipers to distinguish friend from foe.
-- Nonilluminating paints to make military vehicles invisible to radar.
-- Wrist-top biosensors to guard against germ warfare, combined perhaps with vaccines that could be developed rapidly in the field and "functional food" rations laced with edible vaccines.
-- Armor as flexible as skin, tough as an abalone shell and enhanced with "living characteristics," such as the ability to heal itself when torn.
Even more far-out possibilities fall under the general heading of biology- based "performance enhancement" for soldiers, including brain implants, real- time monitoring of gene expression and performance-enhancing drugs.
Some items on the list raise ethical problems, which were not addressed in the report, titled "Opportunities in Biotechnology for Future Army Applications." Just what circumstances might warrant tracking a soldier's DNA, for example, were not spelled out in any detail.
Instead, authors of the new study identified five "high-priority" areas where the military was told it should focus research: "self-replicating systems for wound healing," small-scale vaccine production, rugged computer data-storage devices, "shock therapeutics" and genetically tuned vaccines.
Robert Love, staff director for the panel, said the military had no choice but to explore all sorts of new ways to support troops in the field, citing such possibilities as bioengineered field rations designed for easy digestion.
Biosensors ingested by soldiers, for example, represent "a very important idea" for tracking troops heading into harm's way, he said. "The digital soldier already carries a lot of electronic equipment," he said. "This is a new dimension of intelligence on the battlefield."
But the panel steered away from speculating as to which gadgets might actually work and which might be better left on the drawing board.
The main point, said panel chairman Michael Ladisch, a professor and director of a biotech research lab at Purdue University, is that the military needs to take this stuff seriously -- even if some of it does seem outlandish now.
"There are lots of different ways this could develop, and a lot of it is going to develop anyhow," he said during a phone interview. "The Army really needs to keep on top of things."
Right away, he said, that means bolstering the military's ability to evaluate biotechnology. The idea is to equip the Pentagon with the expertise to determine which research projects are important to the country's defenses, and of those, which can be left up to private industry and which need Pentagon grants or technical help to bring to fruition.
Meetings to go over those details are planned with military brass later this year, Ladisch said, after the Army, which is the lead service branch for biological defense, has had a chance to digest the new report's findings.
E-mail Carl T. Hall at email@example.com.
San Francisco Chronicle Page A - 5