In February, as the coronavirus pandemic gathered steam worldwide, the Trump administration asked Congress to slash by more than a third the Pentagon’s spending on a program that helps other countries — and ultimately America — prevent, detect and respond to disease outbreaks.
The Biological Threat Reduction Program, funded at $203 million in the current fiscal year, is buried inside the Pentagon budget, which tops $700 billion. But it is the costliest U.S. program — and one of the largest in the world — focused on finding and fighting emerging global diseases as early as possible, experts said.
In fact, on Jan. 13, just a few weeks before the budget request for next year went to Capitol Hill, a lab in Thailand supported by the Pentagon program had discovered the first case of the new coronavirus outside of China.
Yet Defense Department officials have said the money they want to subtract from the biological threats program is needed instead for what the officials called more pressing defense initiatives.
These include upgrading the nuclear arsenal and developing the hypersonic weapons that President Donald Trump calls “super-duper missiles.”
The biological program and related efforts were comparatively less important, the Pentagon said in a report to Congress made public in early February, because they addressed “low-to-near zero probability threats” — even though new coronavirus cases were already occurring at that point and the general threat of pandemics had been the urgent subject of numerous internal and public warnings for years.
The cut proposed in the president’s February budget submission — from $203 million this year down to $127 million in fiscal 2021 — attracted little attention at the time. But experts call the proposal indefensible. And lawmakers and staff on most of the panels that oversee Pentagon spending told CQ Roll Call this week they agree.
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s new defense authorization bill, or NDAA, would restore $50 million of the proposed $76 million cut. The House Armed Services Committee, which starts writing its bill on June 22, and the House Appropriations Committee appear quite likely to approve at least that much funding, if not more, with Senate appropriators’ views not yet clear.
Rhode Island Democrat Jim Langevin, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities, which oversees the program, called it “absolutely vital.”
“The committee urges the Department to reconsider this misguided decision and focus on this essential mission,” Langevin told CQ Roll Call in a statement.
Likewise, the top Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee and the emerging-threats panel — Mac Thornberry of Texas and Elise Stefanik of New York, respectively — told CQ Roll Call in a joint statement they are concerned about the administration's proposed cut to the biological program.
"As we continue to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that programs like these are vital to our national security," Thornberry and Stefanik said.
Evan Hollander, a spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, said: “This cut to a highly effective program is short sighted and will ultimately make the American people less safe."
A Republican aide on the Senate Armed Services Committee told CQ Roll Call: “The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of biosafety and biosurveillance programs around the world, and therefore the Committee felt it would not be wise to cut this program by so much at this time.”
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., an Armed Services Committee member, said efforts like the biological threats program are “critical.”
Question of priorities
The Trump administration had sought to scale back the Pentagon’s biological threat program in its fiscal 2020 request, too, by about 10 percent. But Congress pushed back last year and provided more funds than Trump requested, as it probably will again this year.
The cutback proposed for fiscal 2021 was a small part of $5.7 billion in funding changes that emerged from a budgetary assessment that Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper called the Defense-Wide Review. Esper proposed moving the money from lower-priority programs to not only nuclear and hypersonic weapons but also to missile defenses, artificial intelligence, space, communications technologies and exercises for crisis-response units.
“Unfortunately, Secretary Esper is focused like a laser on preparing for a kinetic or even nuclear war with Russia and China, and he apparently has little use for Defense Department programs to prevent weapons of mass destruction attacks,” said Andrew Weber, a former Pentagon assistant secretary for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks.
Congressional aides said the Pentagon has provided few details about these budget moves, especially about what exactly would be dispensed with — for example, which biological preparedness efforts would be jettisoned.
The Pentagon did not immediately answer such questions from CQ Roll Call this week.
This year’s proposal was one of several examples of the Trump administration’s attempts reduce federal spending on public health. The administration also dismantled in 2018 a National Security Council team focused on pandemic response. The president issued a congressionally mandated National Biodefense Strategy in 2018. But prior to March, he did not act in any major way on government agencies' warnings about biological threats, and he publicly minimized the coronavirus after its emergence had become clear.
The argument over funding the Pentagon biological threats program is a microcosm of a larger debate over security spending priorities. A growing chorus, mainly among Democrats, is arguing that natural perils such as pandemics and climate change are greater threats than any military or terrorist force. U.S. government spending should still account for traditional threats but should be rebalanced, they say.
Whether or not less money should be spent on weapons, top experts on public health say more money, not less, should be spent at the Pentagon and beyond on preventing or fighting pandemics.
“COVID-19 demonstrates the havoc that can be caused by biological threats,” said Beth Cameron, vice president for global biological policy and programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative think tank. “The DoD Biological Threat Reduction program is a critical piece of America’s first line of defense against biological threats, with partnerships around the world aimed at detecting outbreaks and preventing bioterrorism.”
Kingston Reif, an expert on threat reduction programs at the Arms Control Association, said the proposed cut to the biological initiative was “the wrong move at the time of the budget build and even more so now given what we know about the spread of the coronavirus. It's simply outlandish to claim that R&D on hypersonic weapons should be a higher priority at this time than the department's flagship international counter-pandemic program.”
Gregory Koblentz, an associate professor at George Mason University and director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the university’s Schar School of Policy and Government, said the Pentagon’s biological threats program increases America’s warning time.
“It’s incredibly shortsighted for the Pentagon to move funds from global health security to great power competition in the middle of a pandemic,” Koblentz said. “The Pentagon needs to realize that, in the pandemic era, global health security is national security.”
The Biological Threat Reduction Program is part of a larger Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which was launched in the early 1990s to dismantle or safeguard Soviet nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
The threat reduction program’s mission later morphed into an effort to mitigate these threats worldwide, whether natural or human-made.
The Pentagon is seeking $239 million for the overall CTR program in fiscal 2021, a decrease of $135 million, or 36 percent, below the fiscal 2020 level.
The $76 million cut to the biological threats program falls within that total and represents just over half the overall reduction.
Despite the proposed budget cut, the Defense Department has touted the biological program’s effectiveness. An official Pentagon news story about the program published this month was titled “DoD Supports Partner Nations With COVID 19 Assistance.”
The story noted that the Pentagon’s biological program has helped some 30 countries since 2004 to improve safety and security at labs to prevent the accidental or unauthorized release of pathogens.
And the National Academy of Sciences, in a two-year study culminating in a 203-page April report on the program, called it “highly effective” and said the program office should expand its role and help lead all U.S. government efforts at addressing biological dangers.