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Bio-Futures 2050: Defense Impacts and Opportunities for Advantage

Background

Biotechnology innovation holds the potential to ensure food security, biosphere safety, sustainability, and the development of a disruptive new class of therapeutics.

The USG has identified biotechnology as an Industry of the Future (IoTF) alongside emerging technologies such as advanced computing, advanced materials, manufacturing, and robotics, advanced, next-generation communications technologies,, artificial intelligence, battery technology, cybersecurity, green products/clean technology, plant genetics/agricultural technologies, privacy-enhancing technologies, quantum information science/quantum computing, nanotechnology; and semiconductors/microelectronics technologies.

Federal IoTF strategic investments for competitive advantage are structured around the following working definition from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Report on the Industries of the Future Act :

  • Advanced industrial sectors that support innovative, inclusive, equitable, and sustainable growth;
  • Have profound connection with technology R&D and STEM workforce;
  • Require R&D investments to support growth that will lead to transformative impact; and
  • Will significantly benefit future economic prosperity and national security.

The Department of Defense (DoD), like all government agencies, is now aligning with these emerging technology directives and working definitions.  Created in 2010, the mandate of the Department of Defense (DoD) Innovation Marketplace is to “improve the effectiveness of DoD Independent Research & Development (IR&D), which is a unique class of DoD R&D “initiated and conducted by defense contractors independent of DoD control and without direct DoD funding.

DoD IR&D includes:

  1. Basic research
  2. Applied research
  3. Development, and
  4. Systems and other concept formulation studies.

Independent Research & Development (IR&D) is a key source of innovation for the department. In 2010, under the Better Buying Power 1.0 initiative, DoD staff engaged with industry and government to learn about what {they} could to improve IR&D effectiveness. The key challenge identified was communication—industry wanted information about Department investment priorities to better help them plan their IR&D investment projects and DoD planning was hampered by limited insight into industry IR&D projects.  The Defense Innovation Marketplace website was created to be a consolidated resource for both DoD and industry to help enable this communication.”  (1)

The Defense Innovation Marketplace provides a centralized resource for the Department’s Acquisition and Science and Technology professionals on information about industry’s Independent research and development activities. (2) the marketplace provides an online portal for government agencies and Industry participants, Marketplace community-building activities to enhance collaboration and communication include Communities of Interest and Technology Interchange Meetings.

In June, the Department of Defense (DoD) Communities of Interest (CoIs) for Human Systems, Biomedical, and Biotechnology joined together for an Independent Research and Development (IR&D) Technology Interchange Meeting (TIM).  The Air Force IR&D Office in concert with DoD’s Biotechnology Community of Interest postponed the 2021 Biotechnology Independent Research and Development (IR&D) Technology Interchange Meeting (TIM).  It is unclear whether the event took place in the Spring of 2022 as previously announced.

Various outlets have reported on the release of a report in April 2022 which is not yet publicly available.  We assume the report, entitled “Bio-Futures 2050: Defense Impacts and Opportunities”, is the result of one or both of the CoIs and TIMs itemized above.  For the purposes of our research and analysis, we focused on the Biotechnology CoI’s Sub Areas of:

  1. Enhancing Warfighter Systems (EWS); and
  2. Optimizing Warfighter Performance (OWP)

Both of these subareas have a prime focus on warfighter capabilities from the perspective of biotechnology innovation and futures.

The ‘thrust areas’ taxonomy below is possibly the most creative exploration of the potential of exponential biotechnology innovation as you will find from any government agency or industry sector.  Also, see the final section of this post below for foresight strategy insights garnered from Bio-Futures 2050: Defense Impacts and Opportunities as reported by National Defense Magazine.

Biotechnology Community of Interest:  Sub Areas and Thrust Areas

1.  Enhancing Warfighting Systems (EWS):  Includes research and development efforts that apply synthetic biology, metabolic engineering, plant biotechnology, biomanufacturing, and computational biotechnology, at the intersection with materials and engineering sciences to address warfighter needs. EWS supports the identification of biotechnology and bio-derived materials that can be inserted into current and developing platforms to enable novel capabilities. EWS help to deliver game-changing solutions in the four below thrust areas:

a.  Biotechnologies for Platforms and Systems:  This thrust focuses on the integration of biotechnology into existing and emerging needs of diverse platforms and military systems operating in ground, air, sea, and space environments, including the technology in and on the warfighter.  A key goal for this thrust of materials is the biosynthetic preparation of small molecules, macromolecules, composites, and hierarchical structures. Examples of biosynthetic materials include energetic materials (primary explosives, plasticizers, and binders), polymers (thermosetting resins, high-temperature composites, fire-resistant materials, and elastomers), solvents, coatings, fibers, fabrics, optical materials, adhesives, inorganic materials, and armor.

b.  Logistics and Sustainment:  Biotechnologies can enable more effective operations, reduce operational footprints and supply chain logistics, and allow warfighters to focus and sustain combat operations. Key goals for this thrust include the following sub-components: supply chain, infrastructure, agile basing, terrain shaping, environmental management, corrosion control, and repair.

c.  Power and Energy are fundamental components that allow the warfighter to operate and effectively project force throughout the world. A key goal of this thrust is the development of new biosynthetic routes to advanced alternative fuels that can propel jets, missiles, rockets, and hypersonic weapon systems, enabling enhanced range, speed, and lethality.

d.  Sensing and Processing:  Biotechnology offers unique abilities to enhance sensing modalities for operational environmental monitoring, including sentinel approaches, chemical-biological detection, tag-track-locate applications, as well as biocontamination detection in fuels and infrastructure. Key goals for sensing and monitoring infrastructure and warfighter systems focus on identifying and exploiting molecular biosignatures. The coupled sensing and processing of environmental signals have applications across the operational space. Furthermore, biological systems can be used to detect complex signatures, such as radiation, acoustics, and electromagnetism.

2.  Optimizing Warfighter Performance (OWP):  Includes research efforts that produce fundamental understanding of underlying biological mechanisms and expressed biomarker profiles indicative/predictive of physiological and cognitive states, and of responsive changes due to militarily-relevant operational stressors. OWP research includes molecular-based sensors and analytics platforms to sense and assess operator health and performance levels, which will enable personalized monitoring tools to assess performance and deliver resilience and optimize warfighter performance. OWP applies advanced genetic bioengineering approaches to the design and development of cellular and microbiome platforms capable of sensing and responding to changes in operator state and will provide biological science research to sense, predict, and optimize health and performance. OWP targets solutions for extreme/cold weather, ruggedized/portable, and real-time sense and response. The three thrust areas for this sub-area are:

a.  Biotechnologies for Precision Performance. This thrust area aims to elucidate fundamental biological mechanisms responsible for warfighter performance, to identify molecular profile changes as a response to operational demands, and thereby identify mechanistic pathway targets for personalized resilience and augmentation. Key goals for this thrust include sensors and predictive performance analytics that utilize molecular and physiological biomarker profiles and predictive metabolism models with identified stressors (physical, cognitive, environmental).

b.  Neuroscience Technologies.  This thrust focuses on understanding fundamental cognitive mechanisms, measuring and decoding neural activity, and modulating/augmenting said activity in a manner that maximizes readiness and performance in operational environments. Key goals in this thrust are to understand or influence strategies for improved cognition, perception, motor function, and, by extension, decision making. Particularly, the thrust leverages approaches for personalized cognitive state assessment, sustainment and augmentation, and for next-generation brain-machine interfaces that seamlessly, non-invasively integrate future weapons systems.

c.  Warfighter Microbiome and Bioengineering. The last thrust area focuses on understanding, characterizing, and modeling the human microbiome and the associated collective assembly of genetic information represented in the microorganisms. Key goals in this thrust are to leverage or modulate the human and near-environment microbiomes to sustain and enhance warfighter performance. This research thrust also encourages work that uses advanced, biofidelic multi-organ models to understand the role of nutritional factors, gut-organ axis, and epigenetics on health, cognition, and physical performance, or that examines molecular interventions, new tailored probiotics, and other novel, engineered delivery/intervention mechanisms.

From the Report:  Bio-Futures 2050: Defense Impacts and Opportunities

As reported in National Defense magazine by Dr. Peter A. Emanuel (Army Futures Command’s Senior Research Scientist for Bioengineering);  Brian Feeney (Army public affairs specialist located at the Chemical Biological Center, Edgewood, Maryland); and Diane Dieuliis (Senior Research Fellow at the National Defense University):

DRIVING FORCES AND UNCERTAINTIES

  • A convergence of biotechnology, automation, and artificial intelligence will transform all facets of life by the year 2050.
  • Biotechnology will also introduce new demands and vulnerabilities as it becomes accessible to more actors — including competitors.
  • In parallel with biotechnology advances, the U.S. military will be adapting to a planet disrupted by climate change, converging technologies, and financial crises. These disruptive factors will occur globally, but not evenly. Some regions and peoples will suffer far more than others.
  • As near-peer nations enter the biological revolution, they will challenge U.S. dominance in the global bioeconomy. This will be a type of gray warfare — a sustained low-intensity economic conflict where the interests of multi-national corporations are intertwined with regional politics and the strategic rivalries of global powers.
  • Each nation engaged in the race to a biotechnology future will do so in its own way according to its culture, traditions, and political culture.
  • Over the next 30 years, the planet’s population will likely continue to grow, and climate change will shift the locations of the planet’s grain belts. The ability of a nation to export agricultural products could become a powerful geopolitical tool carrying economic, political, and military advantages.
  • By 2040, shifting arable geographies will alter economies and could serve as flashpoints for military conflicts.
  • Closely related is resource competition. To manufacture electronics, medical devices, and advanced weapons systems, the defense industry is reliant upon metals such as lithium, gallium, and cobalt in addition to rare earth elements such as lanthanide, europium, and terbium. However, foreign countries — some of them hostile to U.S. interests — control a large portion of the planet’s known metal reserves.
  • Over the next three decades, spurred by the commercialization of space, NASA will move from missions of discovery to embrace the sustainment of construction and production operations on off-world locations. Rather than visit another planet to take surface samples, NASA will be building and operating small high-tech factories in space or on another planet to produce next-generation materials that can only be made or are more efficiently made, in near-zero gravity.
  • These technological advancements affect matters of war and peace. Even if a biotechnology application has no immediate apparent strategic value to national security, it can still serve as a flashpoint for political and social conflict in hot spots around the world and draw defense agencies into the fray.
  • In addition, the different parties that advance biotechnology — such as commercial industries — will have differing priorities. The parties creating advanced bio-products will vary, too, as the barriers to entry continuously lower.
  • The prospect of a radical non-state organization getting this technology will be an ever-growing possibility that will bear ongoing scrutiny.
  • While these changes will raise ethical and other concerns over how to use these technologies, we know that our adversaries see it coming, too, and they may possess an entirely different concept of right and wrong than the free world.

POTENTIAL IMPACTS

  • Biotechnology will alter how the Defense Department executes its mission.
  • The study team that produced the report projects that between 2025 and 2050 the ongoing biotechnology revolution will increasingly contribute to the nation’s defense capabilities.
  • Synthetic biology, additive manufacturing, nanotechnology, and advanced biotechnology will provide new materials, sensors, and therapeutics — many of which will have military applications.
  • Over the next 35 years, bio-products will gradually displace petrochemical production as the dominant means of producing industrial chemical feedstocks.
  • Collectively, these impacts will result in a more contested and fragmented world in which U.S. interests are increasingly challenged.  One example is industrial chemicals. Synthetic biology and biomanufacturing will transform the way industry supplies the raw ingredients the U.S. defense sector, along with the broader economy, uses to make materials such as textiles, plastics, lubricants, and other consumer goods.
  • As bioproduction becomes more cost-competitive, adoption will follow, supported by such government programs as the Department of Agriculture’s BioPreferred Program, which helps consumers identify products with biobased substances.
  • Current projections are that several commodities will reach a tipping point after 2035, including the rare earth elements, lead, tin, cobalt, copper, zinc, manganese, and phosphates.
  • Biotechnology will also transform medicine in future wars by removing many of the human body’s current limitations. Through changes such as enhancing the human microbiome to creating brain-computer interface technologies for human-machine teaming, a warfighter’s body will truly be transformed into a “human weapons system.”
  • At the same time, the armed force’s medical care will be vastly improved by new medical treatments and therapies. 
  • This global transformation will profoundly impact allied defense supply chains.

FUTURE SCENARIOS

  • By the mid-2030s we can expect to see a second wave of biotechnology development — the introduction of reactive and responsive sensory materials that cannot be produced using traditional petrochemical production technologies.  These materials will be able to sense, react and respond to the environment.
  • The first wave of biomanufactured national security materials will see economically competitive replacements that are “as-is” substitutions. “As is” refers to a chemical produced by the fermentation of sugars instead of the distillation of fossil fuel. Chemically, the product is identical regardless of the way it is produced. This will include high-value defense commodity chemicals such as energetics and fuels, all produced in a more clean fashion.
  • Before 2030, the U.S. military will field wearable sensors that use smartwatches, smart bandages, and rings coupled with artificial intelligence and machine learning to predict potential infection, detect the early onset of physical stressors in real-time, and limit disease spread.
  • As the Defense Department approaches the year 2050, the study team predicts the commercial introduction of living biomaterials that are composed of bio-engineered living cells that are animate, programmable, interactive, and can sustain themselves to some degree.
  • The Defense Department will have the ability to create synthetic organs and deploy medical care to austere environments. It will be an innovator and early adopter of medical treatments and trauma technologies.
  • By 2035, genetically engineered therapies will enable us to treat a wider range of diseases and greatly augment our body’s natural ability to heal from injury.
  • By 2040, off-world medicine and biotechnology will sustain a lucrative commercial market that will include personalized-tissue engineering and synthetic organ and limb replacements.
  • To accommodate demand and provide secure supply chains, the industry will need to extract natural resources from locations that were previously deemed uneconomical such as the deep sea, and even off-world in facilities placed in Earth’s orbit.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  • DoD should pursue bilateral and multilateral collaborations with its allies and friendly nations to ramp up synthetic biology and biomanufacturing to an industrial scale. These biologically derived materials will transform the kinds of defense systems the nation will be able to create by the mid-21st century.
  • The convergence of biotechnology and material science offers the opportunity to reduce the size, weight, power requirements, and cost of sensing technologies while increasing their detection capabilities.  For example, synthetic biology allows for the creation of biologically based sensors capable of recognizing actions in the environment, such as the release of a chemical or biological agent. The sensor will be able to respond both by releasing a countermeasure and by notifying other warfighters on the battlefield.  Such sensors can be the basis for reactive/responsive surfaces and coatings that will interact with the environment to continually sniff, measure and watch. As with many of the technologies described in this report, the study team recognizes that the path to deploying such systems will be subject to regulatory requirements and must receive public acceptance both at home and in other nations in which they are deployed,
  • The Pentagon should engage partners and allies to develop common guidance and protocols for the fielding of biologically based sensors. This will be needed to maintain interoperability and ensure the smooth adoption of next-generation, low-cost sensors throughout the allied forces defending the free world.  Soon after, widespread adoption of wearables systems by the general populace will surge as it is pushed by commercialization. By 2040, much of the U.S. population will wear medical tracking devices.
  • Food scarcity aggravated by its uneven distribution along the world’s north-south divide will emerge as a pressing national security issue. Future U.S. defense leadership must consider how to form interagency partnerships that will address agricultural biotechnology as a power for peace.
  • The nation needs future access to a reliable supply chain for critical metals. The United States only controls 1 percent of global rare earth elements reserves while China and Russia together control 48 percent. Increasing consumer demand will accelerate their depletion causing competition between the United States and these adversary nations.
  • Biotechnology will provide much of the answer by providing cost-effective and eco-friendly ways to more efficiently extract and separate critical minerals from bulk, raw mined sources or reclaim them from recycled systems.
  • The study team recommends that the Defense Department assess how biotechnologies can be used to improve the reclamation of rare earth elements and other critical resources. This assessment should include how industrial bio-extraction might help return mining separation operations to domestic companies by reducing environmental impacts. The department will also need to assess where within the defense enterprise biotechnology-enhanced mining can be employed to augment traditional supplies of critical materials and lower costs.
  • The humans who are needed in space to build and operate NASA factories will need to be housed, fed, protected from space hazards such as radiation, and, most difficult of all, provided with medical care.  The study team recommends that the Pentagon and NASA co-sponsor an interagency deep-dive study that considers micro-gravity medicine, how medical technologies can be adapted to remote and austere environments, how to develop reactive and responsive sensors, and how to develop plans for future bio-materials requirements.
  • Intelligence agencies, homeland security, and defense planners need to make biotechnology a central component of a regular technology watch, both domestically and globally.
  • The United States needs to provide an example of how to develop and use these technologies ethically and equitably. We must also have the benefit of these technologies to defend against other powers that do not.
  • The defense enterprise, private industry, and the public must trust, use, and appreciate these profound innovations so that they can benefit the warfighter, secure the nation and stay ahead of the capabilities being developed by our potential adversaries right now.

What Next?

We will continue to track the macro-level evolution of the bioeconomy and biotechnology innovation (including other emerging technologies as they converge with biotech), along with the driving forces, uncertainties, and potential impacts itemized above – as they are sophisticated, creative, and very compelling.  If this document is representative of the outputs generated by the DoD Innovation Marketplace collaborations, it makes sense to explore the resource further.

Finally, Many of the issues discussed here would also benefit from the structural, industrial policy recommendations for biotechnology discussed in our recent analysis of a Center for a New American Security (CNAS) report on the bio-economy.

In the meantime, strategic issues around the compromise of biotech-based data will be an ongoing challenge – as well as the formal efforts by Russia and China using human targeting – amongst other tools- to achieve security advantage in key emerging technologies including biotechnology by 2030.

Further Resources

2021 Biotechnology Community of Interest (COI) Independent Research & Development (IR&D) Technology Interchange Meeting (TIM) (sam.gov)

2021 Biotechnology Community of Interest Independent Research and Development Technology Interchange Meetings – Defense Innovation Marketplace (dtic.mil)

2021 Human Systems, Biomedical and Biotechnology Communities of Interest – Defense Innovation Marketplace (dtic.mil)

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Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira is research director at OODA. He is a foresight strategist, creative technologist, and an information communication technology (ICT) and digital media researcher with 20+ years of experience directing public/private partnerships and strategic innovation initiatives.