Attributing Biological Weapons Use

Research Questions

  1. Why is attribution of BW use important?
  2. During a biological incident, including BW use, what evidence might provide valuable information to facilitate attribution?
  3. What is the state of the science for determining the origin of a biological incident, including BW use?
  4. What capabilities does DoD possess or could it develop to facilitate attribution of BW use?

The White House has given the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) a lead role in U.S. efforts to strengthen the United Nations Secretary-General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons (UNSGM). In 2022, a White House report highlighted the importance of determining the facts related to the attribution of alleged use of biological weapons (BW), including toxin weapons. That 2022 report aimed to outline the U.S. government’s approach to counter the full range of possibly catastrophic biological incidents, whether natural, accidental, or deliberate, and outlines goals and objectives for strengthening the biodefense enterprise. It also identifies priorities and target areas for each mission objective during a biological incident.

In this report, the authors examine issues related to the attribution of BW use and identify areas in which DoD could enhance its capabilities to (1) support U.S. investigative capabilities into alleged uses of biological and toxin weapons and (2) strengthen international efforts, specifically United Nations mechanisms, to hold state and nonstate actors accountable for BW use.

Key Findings

Attribution of BW is important for reasons beyond holding an actor(s) responsible

  • Developing and maintaining robust capabilities and processes in conducting investigations of BW use can provide a deterrent against their use, improve understanding of adversaries’ BW-related capabilities and doctrine, and inform improvements to biodefense capabilities.

Attribution is difficult but essential to support international efforts to counter BW

  • A range of technical capabilities is needed to first identify that a biological incident occurred and then determine the origin or establish attribution.
  • Various national and international biosurveillance systems are in place to monitor for biological agents and to report in real time whether a biological incident has occurred.
  • Laboratory personnel need technologies to analyze physiological, environmental, and other samples sufficiently to identify characteristics that could help identify the biological agent’s origin.
  • Microbial forensics involves using epidemiology and microbiologic technology to characterize biological agents and identify their origins, whether natural or synthetic.

High-quality evidence could help distinguish natural or accidental biological incidents from deliberate ones

  • Determining the cause of a biological incident is complicated because some biological agents have natural, common sources and can cause natural or accidental outbreaks of disease.
  • The proper collection, handling, analysis, and reporting of evidence facilitate attribution.
  • Investigation teams should be trained on proper collection, handling, analysis, and reporting of evidence and should have the necessary equipment to do so.

Recommendations

  • DoD should enhance and build flexibility and redundancy, as appropriate, into its processes and capabilities to investigate and attribute biological incidents.
  • DoD should continue to work with allies to build their capabilities to collect information and samples related to biological incidents, especially those that occur in locations where DoD has fewer allies or less access.
  • DoD should exercise and update processes to conduct sampling-related activities, including collecting samples, handling and transporting samples, communicating and collaborating with other U.S. government departments and agencies, protecting patient information, communicating and collaborating with allies, analyzing samples, and reporting and sharing results of sample analysis.
  • DoD should improve and exercise procedures to maintain and document chain of custody for samples collected from biological incidents.
  • DoD should exercise and update processes to collect intelligence information, including interviewing victims, witnesses, and medical personnel.
  • DoD should enhance efforts to train U.S. personnel and partners on methodologies to collect and analyze evidence during investigations of alleged BW use and on processes to share and report results.
  • DoD should continue to invest in biotechnology, including microbial forensic technology. Officials should develop, improve, and refine capabilities to model biological incidents.
  • DoD should consider investing in field-deployable technology or ways of quickly transporting such analytical capabilities to the field to facilitate rapid response to biological incidents.
  • DoD should maintain transparency about DoD efforts to work with international partners on biosecurity and biodefense efforts.
  • DoD should continue countering false narratives that it is supporting offensive BW-related work worldwide.

This research was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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