Identified as a priority disruptive technology in 2019, Nato has implemented its first strategy on biotechnology and human enhancement (BHE).

The new strategy is designed to embrace emerging BHE capabilities “lawfully and responsibly,” while protecting the alliance “against misuse of these technologies by strategic competitors and potential adversaries.”

In essence, BHE technologies improve the human form and function, restore and sustain health, and enable humans to operate beyond normal limits. These capabilities use biological processes, cells or cellular compounds to develop new products and technologies.

Individual connected to a system during research phase. Credit: Nato.

Nato delineates the numerous opportunities the technology offers the defence industry:

  • Military medicine and rehabilitation of military personnel, by leveraging advancements in prosthetics, devices and treatment;
  • Mobility of operators, especially by using ‘exoskeletons’ to assist with physically demanding or dangerous tasks; and
  • Cognitive awareness, especially in complex operational environments where human-machine interfaces and fatigue countermeasures can enhance decision-making beyond baseline human capabilities.

Ultimately, Nato’s strategy is shaped by its common values and commitment to international law. Through this approach, Nato aims to form a framework by which standards are applied to the emerging sector.

It will foster a timely and safe development, adoption and integration of BHE into allied forces; enhance monitoring and protection of the alliance’s BHE technologies and ability to innovate; while also identifying and safeguarding against threats from adversarial use of BHE.

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Strategic competition in BHE sector

Nato points out that Russia continues to invest heavily in BHE capabilities. The country has also undermined global norms against the proliferation and use of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

“Russia has dangerously increased the spread of disinformation about biological and chemical weapons, including during the war against Ukraine. The alliance has grave concerns that Russia is considering further use of chemical or biological weapons in the future,” Nato warns in its summary of the new strategy.

In March 2022, within a month after launching its invasion of Ukraine, Russia initiated a disinformation campaign about non-existent US biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine. 

These false allegations about biological weapons use and development not only sow distrust at the global level but also weaken existing biological disarmament norms by indirectly encouraging other countries to breach them, a report published by the National Defense University Press indicated.