E L E C T R O S P H E R E | Issue 4.11 - November 1996
Wake-up call! Some of the world's farthest-out, cutting-edge, and
high-technodazzle biotech thinking is now being done not by
scientists and academics, but by the military.
By Ed Regis
On May 9 1996, by email, I received an invitation to attend a
biotechnology workshop at the Army War College. The combination
did not add up - not immediately. The biotech industry, after all,
was engaged mainly in making new drugs or making old ones by new
methods: you fiddled with the genes of certain microorganisms and
tricked them into producing insulin, human growth hormone, or
whatever. Clever, but still rather prosaic - nothing that the army
would be holding a conference about.
Then again, some of biotech's more wild-eyed dreamers had imagined
lots of semi-science fictional biotechnology applications, like
altering an organism's genes to such an extent that you created an
entirely new animal, a special-purpose "designer" organism,
anything from a new species of lab rat to a human being
reverse-engineered for desired traits. Most of this was pretty
far-out: people with gills for staying underwater, people with
genuine body armor - Mr. Armadillo - hard-shell skins that bullets
would bounce off, a human physique that included new-wave
musculature, night vision, computer-chip-assisted memory, faster,
bigger, and better brains.
But that was Hollywood: that was Robocop, The Terminator, the Six
Billion Dollar Bionic Wonder Woman. The army, I thought, couldn't
be interested in that, either.
And anyway, why me? True, I was the author of a book about
nanotechnology, a science in which tiny molecular robots would be
able to assemble any object, substance, or structure permitted by
the laws of nature. These robots, I'd written, "could be
programmed by some enemy power - or worse, a terrorist group - to
slip over the border on a gust of wind, enter your body, and turn
your bones to slime."
Aha. A concept of military interest.
And in an earlier work I'd talked about converting ordinary
everyday humans into "transhumans," fabulous turbocharged
specimens who sailed across the universe, learned its secrets,
became omnipotent, and lived forever. Both of these books argued
that all of this stuff, insane as it was, could really happen.
None of it violated natural law.
And then, suddenly, I could see the whole picture: the conference,
titled Biotechnology Workshop 2020, would focus on battles to be
fought in the future. These battles would not be limited to the
hand grenades, assault rifles, and land mines of the 20th century
- they would feature entirely new categories of weapons, munitions
based on the biotech advances that would occur in the interim. The
army, I concluded, was looking to produce fleets of attack
microbes - maybe even a race of supersoldiers - by tinkering with
DNA, the molecular basis of all life. And they wanted my
far-seeing, penetrating, and all-knowing advice and counsel.
So of course I said yes.
The Army War College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, at the crossroads
of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate 81, was a scene of
vast amounts of truckage and muckage, engine noise and diesel
fumes. The campus is ordinary: red brick classroom buildings,
athletic fields, health clinic, chapel, a bunch of little white
clapboard houses where the officers live. From the looks of it, it
could be a college campus anywhere in the country.
Except for Collins Hall, site of the workshop and home of the
army's Center for Strategic Leadership. At the time of the
conference, the place had just been constructed, and it looked as
if it had been built to stage an opera about a rocket launch. It
was bristling with architectural setbacks and galleries, balconies
and turretlike structures. Entrance to the building was highly
restricted: you checked in with a guard, got an electronic access
key, and were admitted through a turnstile. You exited the same
way. "If you walk out the wrong door, you'll be shot," joked one
of the officers.
The workshop was to take place in the Normandy Conference Room,
the army's version of NASA Mission Control Headquarters - a tall,
square, hushed chamber done in soft grays and greens. A large
white screen at the front was flanked by digital clocks and
electronic signboards that said, in red lettering: "Unclassified"
and "Not Recording." Underneath the signs were large panes of
one-way glass, as if we'd be under observation by a bank of
psychiatrists. On the walls farther back were oil paintings the
size of murals, of battle scenes - the Normandy invasion, one
supposed - scenes of explosions, fires, and hot gases, of smoke
rising and structures collapsing, walls turning into rubble, jeeps
capsizing, cannons firing, soldiers running, falling, calling
The focal point of the room was an enormous U-shaped conference
table on which stood 20 or so computer terminals and, facing them,
an equal number of plush, green, high-backed chairs. One of the
participants, sitting down, did not like the view: "All you can
see is the whites of the backs of their computers," he complained.
He was hot for "eye contact." He would not get much of it.
The two dozen experts now settling in were about half military and
half civilian. The latter were in fields such as virology,
evolutionary theory, and commercial biotechnology and hailed from
such places as UCLA, Rockefeller University, the National
Institutes of Health, the Institute for Biological Detection
Systems, the Center for Human Performance and Complex Systems, and
from firms called Nanotronics Inc. (a nanotechnology R&D firm) and
Orion Enterprises Inc. (a consulting firm with military clients).
The army people, some in uniform and some not, were from Fort
Knox, the Pentagon, the Aberdeen Proving Ground, and so on, and
were attached to places with names like Future Battle Directorate,
Battlefield Environments Directorate, and US Army Chem/Bio Defense
Command - whatever that was.
This was the setup: We'd be given a series of expert briefings on
biotechnology, on biotechnology and the army, on recent work in
"human performance enhancements," and the like. Then we'd be given
three alternate versions of the general world situation circa
2020, along with a specific conflict situation in each case. Our
job was to somehow take these three hypothetical scenarios, gaze
into a crystal ball, and divine the future of biotech weaponry.
The army would then be guided by our mystic visions when funding
There was a slightly Through the Looking-Glass feel to it all, as
if this roomful of people would be any better at soothsaying than
a bunch of chimpanzees. As if to underscore the point, Lieutenant
Colonel Joe Pecoraro, then chief of the Army Research Laboratory's
Future Technologies Institute, the agency sponsoring the workshop,
explained that the whole proceeding would be conducted on
nonattribution rules, meaning that who said exactly what could
never be reported to anyone else.
Finally, a word from Major George Hluck, the facility's smiling
and cheery "knowledge engineer." Our computer terminals, he said,
as the display screens came to life, were for the use of the
"Topic Commenter," the army's implementation of a real-time chat
function. The chat feature would enable each of us to share our
private thoughts with the others. This was the high tech
equivalent of passing notes back and forth under the desk, and
having it at our disposal here was almost too good to be true.
We were not dissuaded from using the chat function; in fact we
were encouraged, almost pressured, to do so. Please use it at any
time! Pass along those notes! Just type in your comments about
anything at all - but especially about the briefing in progress -
then press the Send key and Bingo! your words will magically
appear, anonymously and unsigned, on everyone else's computer
And so a minute later, clickata-clickata-clickata, anonymous
comments were bubbling up on our displays, trenchant observations
on the order of:
It is ethically questionable to solicit anonymous comments.Darn,
what a SUPER briefing that was!!!
July 2020, and Turkey is at war with Iran and Syria. The latter
two countries, sick of their constant water shortages, have
invaded Turkey and taken control of a major dam and reservoir.
Turkey, after mobilizing its troops, calls upon the United States
The US sends a total of 300,000 troops, plus navy and air force
backup units, into the area. Together, the combined US forces are
supposed to (1) throw the invaders out of Turkey, (2) advance into
Iran and Syria to incapacitate the main forces of those countries,
and (3) "locate and neutralize Iranian and Syrian nuclear,
biological, and chemical weapons, their means of delivery, and
their production facilities."
That was "Defense Planning Scenario 1."
Scenario 2 was not much different, except for the fact that Iran
and Syria were now threatening to drop a nuclear bomb on a major
Turkish population center. The US, in response, sends in eight
army assault units plus special operations forces, to (1) attack
enemy headquarters, (2) destroy their command, control, and
logistics sites, and (3) wipe out their weapons facilities.
In July 2020, however, this is no problem. First of all, our foot
soldiers are protected by biocamouflage, clothing that changes
color automatically, allowing the troops to visually merge with
the background. Their outer garments sense the ambient temperature
and harmonize with it, rendering the wearer imperceptible to
temperature-sensing devices, heat-seeking weapons, or infrared
detectors. The troops become as invisible as chameleons, for the
same reasons, and by essentially the same biological mechanisms.
The enemy, however, is not invisible - not to the army's newly
developed artificial smart noses. The Americans ferret out their
adversaries by means of biosensors, biologically based olfactory
sensing units that discover the presence, location, and strength
of opposing troop concentrations by detecting - believe it or not
- their odors, the characteristic airborne molecules or
"downstream effluents" they discharge.
Having pinpointed the enemy battalions, the US troops now advance
toward them and deploy a full range of nonlethal, nonhuman
bioweapons - antimaterial microbes, for example. These genetically
engineered organisms have been programmed to eat the rubber from
enemy vehicles, decimating their tires, engine gaskets, coolant
hoses, and fuel lines. Other antimaterial microorganisms
infiltrate fuel tanks and turn their stores of gas and diesel oil
to masses of incombustible jelly. Still others selectively target
and destroy the adversary's silicon devices: they eat the insides
of their computers, command and control systems, navigational
instruments, and anything else containing a silicon chip. These
spreading, hungry bioagents immobilize enemy forces by turning
their hardware into blobs of goo.
In latter-day military parlance, this is "soft kill" - disabling
the enemy's infrastructure. "Hard kill" - physically maiming or
killing the adversary - has not gone out of style in 2020, but
there are now some distinctly improved methods of doing it. Enemy
leaders, for example, can be knocked off by means of genetically
engineered superpathogens that are so selective in their behavior
they're capable of targeting specific individuals, verifying their
identities by means of their DNA sequences. They'd have been able
to erase Adolf Hitler from the face of the earth while leaving
everyone else whole and unharmed.
Out on the battlefield, meanwhile, complex tactical decisions are
made by biocomputers the size of sugar cubes. Stored in the
computer's biomemory are summaries of the most successful battle
strategies in history, from the ancient Greeks to the present,
plus local terrain maps, dictionaries of the native languages,
guides to local flora and fauna, maybe even a list of Turkey's
best restaurants, complete with menus, prices, and ordering
The American troops, however, instantly "grow" their food and
drink, their fuels and supplies - including bullets and explosives
- by manufacturing them on-site, molecule by molecule, out of the
biofeedstock molecules that they carry along with them. Such
on-the-spot "bioprocessing" technologies have revolutionized troop
supply and logistics, doing away with the long and vulnerable
provisions caravans of yore.
These well-fed and continually replenished soldiers are kept
healthy and disease-free by means of DNA vaccinations that have
made them immune to all known pathogens. Old-style vaccinations
worked by introducing mild viruses into humans with the object of
provoking an immune response. These new vaccines avoid the risks
of injecting people with deadly agents; they work, instead,
directly at the DNA level. Patients are injected with specially
tailored strands of DNA that cause their immune systems to
generate the entire array of needed antibodies. In consequence,
the subjects become immune to every pathogen they might encounter,
everything from yellow fever, malaria, and hepatitis to cholera,
Ebola, and HIV - plus whatever new-wave viruses have freshly
If and when they finally go into battle, the troops are
safeguarded by microbe-grown body enclosures that hold back not
only poison gases and biological and chemical agents but also the
otherwise deadly projectile. The bodysuit, in addition, increases
the wearer's overall strength by means of precisely placed
artificial musculature that boosts the power of arms, legs,
fingers, and toes. The soldier's protective helmet is equipped
with bio-based, high-resolution night-vision devices that
effectively turn darkness into daylight.
Any injuries sustained in spite of all this camouflage,
nourishment, biological immunity, and physical protection are
cured with accelerated healing technologies. In the field, wounds
are speed-healed by the application of enzymatic growth factors
and are then patched over by intelligent bioadhesives instead of
dumb bandages. Those more seriously hurt are put into suspended
animation before being medevac'd out to hospitals, where
artificial blood, bones, tissues, and ligaments - even whole
organs - are bioproduced and implanted into the injured as needed.
And then, when it's all over, the troops clean up as they go by
the use of sophisticated "bioremediation" systems. Fleets of
programmed microbes decontaminate and detoxify the entire area,
leaving it in a condition as good as, if not better than, it was
in the first place.
By the time the soldiers leave, it's as if the war had never
We at the army's biotechnology workshop, unfortunately, had not
come up with any of this. More bizarre than some of the crazed
ideas themselves was the fact that all of our thinking had been
done for us, well in advance, by the army, and by the workshop's
organizers, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC)
of McLean, Virginia. SAIC, whose gaming division runs war games
for all branches of the military, had been hired by the army to
research, plan, and moderate the whole two-day extravaganza.
Steven Kenney, of SAIC's Strategic Assessment Center, had FedExed
all of us a little read-ahead package, 200 pages of technical,
semitechnical, and popular writings about the latest biotech
advances and their potential application to warfare. Included,
among other things, were several chapters from biotechnology
textbooks, an article from Scientific American about directed
molecular evolution, and two pieces from Wired: "Neurobotics," by
Michael Gruber (Wired 2.10, page 110), about using rat-brain
tissue to solve chemical-engineering problems; and "Gene Genie,"
by Thomas Bass (Wired 3.08, page 114), about the DNA computer.
Also included were excerpts from the army's own in-house STAR 21
report, compiled by the National Research Council. Subtitled
"Strategic Technologies for the Army of the Twenty-First Century,"
it sketched out a representative sampling of biotech weaponry.
Capping the read-ahead were two SAIC-produced white papers titled
"Biotechnology - Projections," and "Biotechnology - Military
Applications." Collectively, these documents laid out everything
for us, chapter and verse, in great and exhaustive detail. Our
function, it seemed increasingly evident, was merely to cough back
up their sum and substance. The participants themselves soon
noticed as much:
This is, in many respects, a repeat of the read-ahead.The workshop
seems to be a rehash of already extant laundry lists of
technologies to me. Our contribution may be the addition of the
preface "bio-" to all other nouns relating to warfare.
The question arose, then, as to why the workshop had been held -
especially in view of its roughly US$100,000 price tag.
"Three reasons," Joe Pecoraro, the Future Technologies Institute
chief, said a couple of months later. "One, there was the hope
that someone would say something unique. Did that happen? I'm not
"Another reason was that I wanted to get a notion from the
military themselves as to which applications would be of most use
to them. Just because something's got a use to the civilian sector
doesn't mean it's got any use to the military.
"And I wanted to get a line on costs. How feasible is any of this,
in terms of cost and development time?"
Some months prior to the workshop, Kenney, coauthor of SAIC's
white paper on the military applications of biotechnology,
actually had given Pecoraro at least some of what he was looking
for. Kenney had contacted representatives of eight military
organizations - the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth
and the Army Armor Center at Fort Knox, among others -
specifically to get their views concerning biotech's military
potential, and he had then incorporated a summary of their
opinions into the white paper.
As for the workshop, it did not yield the ranking of biotech
applications that Pecoraro was after. At the end, participants
were asked to list the several military applications in order of
their probable usefulness in warfare. But when they did that, the
SAIC-designed algorithm for this - a formal mass-voting procedure
conducted with the aid of comically misnamed "meeting facilitation
software" - underwent a meltdown in a huge bonfire of the
technologies. No two participants could agree on what, if
anything, the required numerical scores meant, or on what basis
they should be assigned. As one of the participants remembered it
later: "We rated items against undefined criteria, using a
numerical rating scheme in which the numbers assigned had meaning
only to the individual scorer. Then, we averaged these scores to
obtain a totally meaningless number. God forbid that someone
actually use the results for something!"
In view of the manner in which they were obtained, that was an
James Valdes, who gave us the Army and Biotechnology briefing, is
the army's scientific adviser for biotechnology. He works at what
in the old days was the Edgewood Arsenal, part of the Aberdeen
Proving Ground, in Maryland. In these times of nomenclature
inflation, it has become the Edgewood Research, Development, and
Engineering Center, and Valdes works at the US Army Chemical and
Biological Defense Command.
Physically, the place hasn't changed much over the years. It's a
flat spit of pine barrens that juts out into Chesapeake Bay. Deer
graze calmly along the roadsides, beside chain-link fences topped
with alternating coils of barbed wire and razor wire. Inside the
first fence is a no-man's-land, then another identical fence.
Watchful TV cameras point up and down the no-man's-land, and
rusted signs nearby read: "Warning," "Danger," "Restricted Area,"
and (the biggie) "Use of Deadly Force Authorized."
Jay Valdes, who runs Edgewood's biotech program, did postdoctoral
work at Johns Hopkins in neurotoxicology. He's a precise,
personable, and friendly type, a nautical chap who keeps a 20-foot
sailboat out on the Chesapeake and can rattle off the differences
between schooner, bark, sloop, ketch, and yawl as easily as he can
enumerate the several varieties of nerve gas.
The army's "contaminant degrading" organisms are nothing new to
him. There are tons of them at Edgewood, and they aren't even
genetically engineered. They're just plain microbes, just
standard, run-of-the-mill soil bacteria, albeit ones with
specialized eating abilities and acquired tastes. Some of them eat
petroleum products, a proficiency they've acquired all by
"If you have a site that's been contaminated with petroleum
products," Valdes explains, "then just by natural selection, the
microbes that live in the soil will have evolved mechanisms to
enable them to degrade petroleum products. The microbes that eat
them survive; the ones that don't die. Thus, they select
So if you want to get rid of, degrade, or otherwise
"dematerialize" a patch of petroleum, you merely go out to a
contaminated site and collect samples of the indigenous soil
bacteria. You bring them back to the lab, separate out those that
eat the noxious pollutants, and then culture up big vats of them.
Later, you go back out into the field and deposit the cultured
petroleum eaters wherever they're needed. Not long afterward, the
microbes have converted the noxious pollutants into harmless, or
maybe even helpful, by-products.
Formally, this is known as in situ biodegradation; the process
works so well against a wide range of contaminants that several
private cleanup companies now ply the trade commercially. The
army's biodegradation needs are somewhat specialized, however,
there being large stockpiles of chemical agents - mustard gas, for
example, left over from the good old days - that by law must be
destroyed and turned into innocuous waste. Biotechnology can play
a role here, because if you can identify the specific enzyme that
a microbe uses to degrade a given chemical, then you can
manufacture the enzyme itself and apply it to the chemical
"And if you can identify the gene that codes for the particular
enzyme that breaks down your pollutant," Valdes explains, "then
you can clone that gene and produce that enzyme in large
At the Process Engineering Facility, a new $15 million building at
Edgewood, the needed enzymes are produced in fermentation tanks
and then tested for effectiveness on 20-foot-tall columns of
contaminated soil. If the process works in the lab, it ought to
work just as well in the field; the hope is that these experiments
will yield an environmentally friendly way of turning poisonous
agents into benign substances.
The hot-ticket item in military biotech circles these days,
however, is the biosensor, an electromechanical device that
detects airborne molecules in extremely small amounts. Valdes and
his colleagues are now developing biosensors. The simplest consist
of a computer chip topped with a layer of biological molecules
that selectively bond with molecules of a known compound. When
such a "recognition event" occurs, the computer chip sends a
signal, informing the human observer that there are molecules of
the substance floating about: a toxic gas, perhaps, or an
explosive. If and when they become effective at sniffing out a
wide range of deadly agents, biosensors promise an enormous
payoff, both within the military and in civilian environments,
such as airport luggage security checkpoints.
Other biotech marvels are in their earliest developmental stages,
both in the army and in private industry. Researchers at an army
R&D center at Natick, Massachusetts, are working on biocamouflage
materials. Koors, an Israeli food company, is experimenting with
an algae that produces glycerol, a key ingredient in many
strategically important compounds. And at the laboratories in West
Point, Pennsylvania, researchers at Merck & Co., a pharmaceutical
firm, are in early clinical trials of a DNA vaccine against
tuberculosis and another one against influenza. Also targeted are
hepatitis, malaria, and HIV.
Those applications are probably doable in the relatively near
term. Farther out, in the stargazing realm, are the more gee-whiz
notions like food-producing machinery in the battlefield,
microbe-grown bodysuits, suspended animation, and
performance-enhanced supersoldiers. Although conference members
agreed that such things were in principle possible in the sense
that they violated no known laws of nature, they could not agree
on when, if, or by whom any of them might be converted to
"Who can judge that?" asked one of the military scientists after
the workshop. "The future applications of biotechnology are
dependent upon scientific advancements and economics, much more so
than the needs as perceived by the likes of us."
"I think there is a reasonable chance (50-50) of success in most
of these areas," said another attendee.
"I think we'll see some of the biocamouflage material by 2020,"
said a third. "Perhaps limited bioproduction of alcohol as a
"The bulk of the applications, in my opinion, are realistic in the
sense of being performable tasks," said still another. "This,
provided that adequate resources are forthcoming."
And provided that the research is allowed by law. Today, because
of international treaty conventions against all forms of offensive
biological weapons research, the United States is prohibited from
developing any such fancy gimmicks as DNA-targeted superpathogens.
As for the prospect of nonlethal bioweapons ever completely
replacing bombs and bullets, this, say the experts, probably will
not happen: "There will always be a need, in warfare, for
violence," said Joe Pecoraro. "We will never find a technological
solution that removes violence from warfare. The implements that
we use to conduct the violence I can't predict, but it will be
Scenario 3. July, 2020: Brazil invades Venezuela seeking to
acquire its newly discovered oil reserves. Venezuela appeals to
the United States for help, and we respond by sending in the
This time, according to the scenario, we've got technology to
burn: biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence,
robotics - all of it has been developed and has succeeded beyond
our wildest expectations. Wars, therefore, are now conducted
long-range and by remote control. Robotic combat and remote
telepresence have replaced traditional ground warfare. On this
battlefield of the future, intelligent robots outnumber humans.
Maybe. Or at least so we thought. As to what would really happen
in the warfare situations of the future.... Well, who knew?
We have to realize that what we are doing is scripting a major
Hollywood movie about fighting an imaginary war with weapons that
don't exist yet, with technologies that are still largely on the
drawing boards and whose development and time frame is unknown. Is
this anything more than military science fiction?
Military science fiction or not, the workshop held two surprises
for me. One was that in 2020, a generation away, the United
States, according to all three scenarios, would still be sending
troops winging off across the oceans like passenger pigeons, at
the slightest provocation.
The second, bigger surprise was my realization that some of the
world's farthest-out, cutting-edge, and high-technodazzle biotech
thinking was now being done not by scientists or academics but by
the military, and not just the army. The air force's scientific
advisory board has done a study, known as "New World Vistas," that
looks 20 to 30 years into the future and foresees many of the same
biotech devices and gadgetry.
There is a reason for the military's farsightedness. The main
elements of the biotech revolution are now available to pretty
much anyone, meaning, like it or not, that the nation's enemies -
even just a handful of terrorists, perhaps - might already be
developing offensive bioweapons. Biotechnology is, after all,
"small science," the province of desktop machinery and lab
glassware as opposed to particle accelerators or nuclear reactors;
you don't need a Manhattan Project or an Apollo Program to pursue
"Some potential adversaries may be ahead of us in this
technological area," says the army's STAR 21 report. "The United
States did not keep the secrets of atomic warfare for long, even
in the secretive atmosphere of the 1940s and 1950s. In the
communicative, mobile, commercial world of the next 30 years, the
data for both defensive and offensive biotechnological
breakthroughs will be uncontainable and, essentially, public
information. Almost any country will be able to possess the data."
With which those countries could create some spectacularly
damaging stealth microbes.
"They could destabilize economies," says Jay Valdes at Edgewood.
"They could selectively wipe out crops and livestock, and they
could do it with plausible deniability. 'Oh, your rice crop got
rice rust! Oh, so sorry!'
"I don't want to give anybody any ideas about how to do this," he
adds, "but I think it would be fairly straightforward."
So, the biowars may be out there in the dim distance along with
biomaterials, biomimetics, bioproduction, biocoupling,
bioremediation, biocomputers, biochips, biosensors, biofeedstocks,
biogenetics, and all the other assorted bios.
By the end of the bioworkshop, anyway, we were up to our bioears
After bio-bombing by Bio-52s, bio-gones will be bio-gones.
Bio all means.
I'm going home, bio-bio.
Ed Regis (email@example.com) is the author of Virus Ground Zero
(Pocket Books, 1996), Nano (Little Brown, 1995), and Great Mambo
Chicken and the Transhuman Condition (Addison-Wesley, 1990).
Copyright =A9 1993-96 Wired Magazine Group, Inc.
Compilation copyright =A9 1994-96 HotWired, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Roderick A. Carder-Russell
Suspension Member - Alcor Foundation
specializing in man-machine symbiosis
e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org WWW: http://www.shore.net/~rodc/home.html