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Congress trims funding for Pentagon ‘chem-bio’ programs

The Pentagon will soon release its biodefense posture review

While Congress cut funding for some of the Pentagon’s chemical and biological defense programs, experts say they should double their budgets instead.
While Congress cut funding for some of the Pentagon’s chemical and biological defense programs, experts say they should double their budgets instead. (Bill Clark CQ/Roll Call file photo)

The latest defense spending law would subtract about 7 percent from the president’s request for numerous Pentagon chemical and biological defense programs on the grounds that they need to be more effectively executed.

A pair of former Defense Department officials who once oversaw the programs say spending adjustments like this may be needed. But the larger issue, they hasten to add, is that the programs need to spend about twice as much money as they do now, given a growing threat from chemical weapons and from disease-causing microorganisms that might either be used as weapons or arrive in the form of a new pandemic.

The approximately $126 million cut to the almost $2 billion worth of “chem-bio” programs is a marginal one, and funding for them generally attracts little attention. But these efforts could gain more prominence in the public mind when the Pentagon makes public the first-ever “biodefense posture review,” which is expected to occur soon.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III ordered the review in November 2021, stating in a memo that internal assessments of the department’s response to the coronavirus revealed successes but also, he said, “areas for improvement across the DoD biodefense enterprise that must be addressed.”

Despite Austin’s focus, military leaders traditionally have been reticent to devote funds for chem-bio programs, said Andrew Weber, a former Pentagon assistant secretary for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs under President Barack Obama.

Weber, who is a senior fellow at Council on Strategic Risks, said the brass generally thinks the Department of Health and Human Services is best suited to bankroll many of the medical or laboratory efforts, rather than the Defense Department. 

“Spending one-quarter of 1 percent of the Pentagon budget on this vital mission is negligence,” Weber said in an interview. “This is a national security imperative.”

Protecting civilians and soldiers

At issue are Pentagon efforts to buy everything from drugs to protective equipment to special monitors, all aimed at shielding U.S. military personnel and civilians alike. 

One of the initiatives, the Biological Threat Reduction Program, is focused on reducing the risks to both U.S. troops and the global community from bacteria or viruses, whether naturally occurring or used in weapons. Under that program, the Pentagon helps other countries’ labs learn best practices and monitor for outbreaks. A lab funded by the program was the first to detect the coronavirus outside China.

Secondly, the Chemical and Biological Defense Program is a category of programs in the services and the Defense secretary’s office, oriented toward ensuring U.S. troops are equipped to perform their missions even in environments poisoned by pathogens or toxins.

Portions of all these programs’ requested funds are not being spent well, appropriators said in the report accompanying the fiscal 2023 spending law, which was enacted Dec. 29.

In some cases, the lawmakers said they withheld funding because contracts are not being awarded rapidly enough. In other instances, the Pentagon had asked for funds before they were actually needed or in excessive amounts, lawmakers said in their funding tables.

Weber and others think that, regardless of these peripheral changes to the budget, the programs still need to be expanded.

The reason, they said, is the threat.

Military issue

Several countries are said to possess chemical or biological weapons, and terrorist groups have pursued them. 

On the chemical side, the leaders of Russia and North Korea have in recent years authorized assassination attempts that were conducted against political opponents using lethal chemicals. 

Biological threats to U.S. national security might be delivered via bombs or missiles, but they do not have to be, as shown by the coronavirus pandemic that killed more than 1 million Americans and more than six times that many worldwide. Experts say more pandemics are likely in the future. 

U.S. troops can be exposed to novel diseases overseas at any time. In 2020, some 1,200 sailors on the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier contracted COVID-19, disabling the ship. 

David Lasseter, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for countering weapons of mass destruction policy in the Trump administration, said in an interview that strong U.S. chem-bio programs can not only better equip Americans for natural or human-made disasters but also deter other countries from using or even developing chemical or biological weapons. 

The ideal outcome, he said, would be for the United States to prepare well enough for the worst that it never occurs and for the U.S. military’s protective gear, medical countermeasures and the like to stay on the shelves.

“If we never have to use these capabilities, then that’s perfectly fine,” said Lasseter, who leads the Horizon Global Solutions consultancy and is a visiting fellow at George Mason University’s National Security Institute. 

Biological threat reduction

The Pentagon’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program, or CTR, began just after the Cold War as an effort to destroy nuclear weapons and their delivery systems in former Soviet states. Since then, the program, managed by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, has evolved to also combat chemical and biological weapons, which virtually all nations have vowed to forswear, even if some have not been true to that pledge.

The biggest single part of CTR is the Biological Threat Reduction Program. The administration requested $225 million for the biological program in fiscal 2023, and Congress boosted it to $235 million. 

The biological program helps other countries prevent, detect or respond to disease outbreaks, whatever the cause. The coronavirus pandemic dramatically illustrated how a disease outbreak anywhere can affect people everywhere. 

The Pentagon biological threats program funded a lab in Thailand that was the first to detect the coronavirus outside China in January 2020. Labs funded by this initiative also helped develop MRNA vaccines and various therapeutics. 

Yet fiscal 2023 was at least the third year in a row that a president’s defense budget requested less for the Biological Threat Reduction Program than had been enacted the year before. 

In each of those three years, Congress responded by adding more money than Presidents Donald Trump or Joe Biden had requested. In fact, Congress provided more money each time than had been appropriated in the prior year, from $203 million in fiscal 2020 to $225 million in fiscal 2021, to $229 million in fiscal 2022 and to $235 million in fiscal 2023. 

Lasseter and Weber both said funding for the biological program needs to grow even more — and should roughly double. 

“Without capable, well-trained and technologically advanced partners, we will fail to counter the various chem-bio threats from nation states and terrorists,” Lasseter said. “As a result, our warfighters may be detrimentally impacted.”

Chem-bio defense program

Meanwhile, the Chemical Biological Defense Program, the one directed at protecting U.S. troops, has seen its budget grow at a rate lower than the overall Pentagon budget.

Congress scaled back some of the program’s funding in the latest spending bill. A search for funding lines labeled “chemical and biological defense program” in the omnibus spending bill revealed $1.26 billion in appropriations, compared with a $1.32 billion request — a $66 million reduction.

Two other chem-bio procurement programs — one for “protection and hazard mitigation” and the other for “situational awareness” — were also cut by a total of $68 million.

Whatever the merits of these marginal reductions, Lasseter and Weber say the Chemical and Biological Defense Program funding, like that for the Biological Threat Reduction Program, needs to more than double. 

The chem-bio defense program is “vital to warfighter success on the battlefield today and will be even more important in years to come,” Lasseter said.

“Increasing the current investment to around $3 billion per year, while ensuring efficient and effective program execution, will enable the CBDP to develop cutting-edge capabilities like rapid, ruggedized point-of-care diagnostics, stand-off detection, predictive wearables, advanced protective suits and innovative platform technologies as well as stock and replenish existing medical countermeasures,” Lasseter said. 

It remains to be seen if the forthcoming biodefense posture review will trigger an effort in the Defense Department and White House to boost funding requests for chem-bio programs in the fiscal 2024 defense budget and beyond.

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