Small Molecules, Big Threat

India’s national security strategy needs to recognise biotechnological threats

Air Cmde K.A. Muthana (retd)Air Cmde K A Muthana (retd)

Biotechnology could become the new strategic commanding heights of future revolution in military affairs (RMA)

—Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences


There is an elephant in the room and India needs to deal with it. When one talks about the future of air warfare being predominantly non-kinetic, one needs to acknowledge the possible vectors that could be used to employ these non-kinetic weapons.

At a fundamental level, they can be either electrons or molecules. While the former could be in the form of directed energy, electronic or cyber weapons, the latter could be in the form of chemical or biological/biotechnological weapons. While the 20th century was the century of massive advances in physics and chemistry, the 21st century is expected to be the century of biology; more specifically, biotechnology. There is a need to pay attention to the weaponisation of biological molecules.


Biological vs biotechnological

The Biological Weapon Convention (BWC) was formerly called the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction. It came into force in March 1975. As the name itself suggests, it remains inadequate to address what is now possible because of advances in biotechnology. The BWC attempts to discourage the use of biological weapons of mass destruction.

Technologically, traditional biological weapons depend on microbiology, especially bacteriology, which uses destructive bacteria, viruses and toxic living bodies obtained directly from the natural world. These weapons are subject to nature, are difficult to control and are meant for mass destruction of human beings, livestock, crops and even natural ecosystems. Modern bioengineering, on the other hand, includes synthetic biotechnology, which is a subfield focused on creating biological processes or biological compounds not found in nature.

Biotechnological weapons are more targeted against fighting forces, ethnic groups etc. Massive data processing capability with advances in artificial intelligence and quantum computing have made more precise targeting possible. The creator of such weapons can also have the remedial means ready to reverse the effects of such weapons in order to achieve deterrence, defend, blackmail or even to show mercy.

Biotechnological weapons are emerging primarily as the unfortunate ‘dark side’ products of the otherwise immensely useful Human Genome Project (HGP) completed in 2003 and the still ongoing Human Proteome Project (HPP). The HGP was an international research project whose primary mission was to decipher the chemical sequence of the complete human genetic material (i.e., the entire genome), identify all 50,000 to 1,00,000 genes contained within the genome and provide research tools to analyse all this genetic information.

As a result of the HGP, genetic engineering has been made possible. Genetic engineering is the direct genome manipulation of organisms, including clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) gene editing that is probably one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of recent times. In the simplest sense, expressing a gene means manufacturing its corresponding protein and this multilayered process has two major steps.

In the first step, the information in Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) is transferred to a messenger Ribonucleic Acid (mRNA) molecule by way of a process called transcription. The resulting mRNA is a single-stranded copy of the gene, which next must be translated into a protein molecule. Tens of thousands of such proteins are the workhorses in an organism and reveal the body’s expressed genetic traits. A proteome is the complete set of proteins expressed by an organism. The HPP is an international project organised by the Human Proteome Organisation (HUPO) that aims to revolutionise our understanding of the human proteome via a coordinated effort by many research laboratories around the world. While both the HGP and the HPP are meant to benefit mankind, there is always an inevitable pull from the ‘dark side’ to use the technology developed for aggressive purposes.


Biotechnological Weapons

Some classes of biotechnological weapons are known to be already in existence and some others will be available in the near future. Openly available material suggests that genetically-engineered pathogens (organisms that cause disease in the host) can be broadly grouped into following potential threats.

Binary biological weapons: These are a two-component system with independent elements that are safe to handle separately but when mixed together, form a lethal combination. This system consists of a virus and helper virus, or bacterial virulence plasmid. Hepatitis D is an example of a virus and B as the helper virus; a combination of both produces severe infection to the host. Infection by Hepatitis D alone is not possible. Such weapons are already known to be in existence.

Designer genes: Having understood the human molecular blueprint through the HGP, it would be possible to design new or modify existing pathogens to make them more difficult to detect, more virulent or more resistant to drugs.

Gene therapy as a weapon: Replacing a good gene with a bad one through vectors like viruses can affect either entire generations or only an individual, depending on the technique used.

Stealth viruses: The basic concept of this bioweapon is to produce tightly regulated, cryptic viral infections that enter and spread in human cells and then stay dormant for a period of time until triggered by an internal or external signal.

Host swapping diseases: Such events can be made to occur when viruses are made to move out of their natural host reservoirs and eventually produce extremely lethal pathogens in the target species. Humans need no reminders of this possibility.

Designer genes: These are diseases that can be designed first and then pathogens are created to produce the desired effect of that disease, for example, on a particular ethnic group.


Means of Delivery

Due to the often-unstable nature of biological pathogens outside the laboratory, methods of delivery are also important. Depending on the nature of the target, means of delivery can vary from individuals to aircraft and missiles. By aerial means, cluster bombs and balloon bombs have been used before. Due to high impact energy of un-retarded bombs, successful dissemination of a biotechnological weapon is unlikely.

Retarded cluster bombs are more likely to succeed. Canisters can be designed to open in air to increase the spread of pathogens or to engage in entomological warfare wherein infected insects are released over a target area. Depending on the level of attributability desired, drones, UAVs or manned aircraft can be used to deliver these weapons.


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