The Chinese military is building sophisticated biological weapons and small-scale electronic tools made with nanotechnology that could be used in future covert warfare, a major new study warns.
“China’s invisible arsenals encompass a range of advanced weaponry that are distinctly focused on providing the Chinese Communist Party with a range of asymmetric warfare options, including the delivery of biological, biochemical and neurobiological weapons on target populations,” according to a report by three open-source intelligence analysts.
The People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, is developing nanoweapons using highly sophisticated microscopic materials that enhance the effects of biological weapons, according to the report, titled “In the Shadows of Science: Unravelling China’s Invisible Arsenals of Nanoweapons.” It was made public earlier this month.
It warns that Chinese advancements in biotechnology raise new fears about dual-use, civilian-military applications to produce genetically engineered pathogens for biological warfare, including difficult-to-trace bioweapons.
Additional nanotechnology weapons in development include miniature electronics and sensors in nano-devices for conducting data theft and disrupting critical infrastructure without detection.
Infrastructure attacks using nanorobots “could lead to blackouts, communication failures, or financial disruptions, posing severe threats to national security and stability,” the report said.
“Moreover, with the integration of [artificial intelligence] into nano-devices, China’s military can create autonomous AI-driven nano-weapons capable of making real-time decisions and executing cyber-attacks with unparalleled sophistication and unpredictability,” the study said.
Beijing has long been eyeing such capabilities. The report cites a 2021 Chinese research paper that explains how “molecular communication” will be used to target advanced networks with precision cyberattacks.
Molecular communication is a nanotechnology that uses the release of tiny devices, like molecules, into liquid or gas that can provide instructions to a receiver.
One of the Chinese institutes that published the 2021 paper, the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, has been linked by the U.S. government to PLA cyberattacks against the U.S., the report said.
Other potential uses include the employment of nanomaterials to manipulate light and electromagnetic waves. Such technology will be used in advanced stealth warplanes, warships and military vehicles.
Chinese nanotechnology also will power autonomous weapons, such as nanorobots, used in swarms for spying or military command and control.
“These tiny yet powerful machines could be weaponized for tasks like reconnaissance, infiltration, or even targeted assassinations,” according to the recent intelligence analysts’ report.
Combined nano-cyber biological weapons are also an area of deep concern. Experts warn they could be used in hybrid Chinese weapons that could infect computers, disrupt communications networks or control biological agents remotely.
Other work in China includes “nanoparticle-enhanced energy weapons” that will boost the power of directed energy weapons, such as lasers or electromagnetic pulse devices. These arms are designed to produce “more precise and devastating attacks,” the report warns.
‘New domain of war’
Publication of the private study came just days after the Pentagon released its first biological defense posture review. The review said that China views biology as a “new domain of war” and is leveraging genetic engineering, precision medicine, and brain-sciences technology for military purposes.
Deborah Rosenblum, U.S. assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, last week raised the threat of advanced technology applied to biological arms.
China and Russia pose the most serious threats related to biological arms, Ms. Rosenblum said, noting that a major concern is the use of existing and emerging technologies for biological warfare programs.
“We must maintain our momentum to prepare for any number of complex potential biological threats,” she said during a conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
Ms. Rosenblum is the leader of the Pentagon’s new Biodefense Council, charged with improving defense and military measures against biological threats.
The Pentagon said the main goal of its biodefense review is to improve homeland defenses from the “growing multi-domain threat posed by the People’s Republic of China.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry, in response to the Pentagon report, accused the United States of engaging in covert biological weapons development.
“When it comes to biosecurity threats, the U.S. is the most active and suspected country in conducting bio-military activities,” Wang Wenbin, a ministry spokesman, told reporters recently.
The open-source intelligence report was produced by a group called the CCP Biothreats Initiative, and written by L.J. Eads, Ryan Clarke, and Xiaoxu Sean Lin, all experts in Chinese military and arms programs. All have experience in military, defense and intelligence services. They said Chinese advances in nanotechnology could make it more difficult to trace the source of future public health crises, including pandemics.
“While the CCP’s attempts to obfuscate the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s role in the SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 pandemic was unsuccessful, nanotechnology delivery systems would make future investigations and determinations of specific attribution more challenging,” the report said.
China’s biological warfare work is conducted within civilian research institutes, frustrating efforts by intelligence agencies to gather detailed information on the threat.
A key danger outlined in the report is China’s use of nanotechnology medicine that can produce medical advances but also be misused for bioweapons.
“Nanoscale drug delivery systems could be tailored to deliver toxic agents specifically to target individuals or groups, making it challenging to trace the source of the attack,” the report said.
A Chinese team of researchers at the Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology, National Center for Nanoscience and Technology, Institute of High Energy Physics, and the Kunming Institute of Zoology produced a nanomaterial the institutes say can stop the spread of COVID-19 infections by trapping the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
According to their report, the nanomaterial selectively binds to the virus spike protein, thus short-circuiting the infection process. Details were published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
But the same virus-stopping technology also could be used by the Chinese military.
“The adaptability and stealthy properties of nanomaterials could enable precise and undetectable delivery of harmful agents, posing significant risks to global biosecurity and necessitating strengthened international regulations and cooperation,” the report said.
Another Chinese nanotechnology designed to detect nerve agents also could be used by the Chinese military to develop more efficient and sophisticated chemical weapons, the report said.
Using the detection technology, the Chinese military could design chemical agents that inhibit chemical activity “leading to severe nerve agent-like effects on the nervous system of the targeted individuals or populations,” the report said.
“Additionally, the technology could facilitate targeted assassinations, as the detection systems might be used to identify and track specific individuals or groups exposed to toxic agents,” the report added.
New weapons of war?
The technology can be used for either defensive or civilian applications. But offensive military applications cannot be ruled out.
The Chinese military is expected to develop genetically engineered pathogens with specific virulence or drug resistance profiles, allowing for targeted biological attacks against enemy forces or populations, the report said.
U.S. intelligence agencies have obtained information that China is working on biological weapons designed to attack specific ethnic groups, a U.S. official with access to intelligence told The Washington Times in May 2020.
The State Department’s most recent annual report on foreign nations’ compliance with arms agreements raised concerns that China has failed to comply with its obligations regarding germ weapons, based on work at Chinese military medical facilities.
China’s biological research included activities with potential germ weapons applications, the State Department warned, adding that China has “reportedly weaponized ricin, botulinum toxins, and the causative agents of anthrax, cholera, plague, and tularemia.”
Other U.S. agencies are taking steps to curb potential Chinese biological weapons programs.
The Commerce Department recently placed tighter controls on synthetic biology and genomic editing technology because of concerns China is building toxin weapons, according to recent congressional testimony by Thea D. Rozman Kendler, assistant commerce secretary for export control.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence earlier this year reported that progress in synthetic biology and genomic editing “could enable the development of novel biological weapons that evade detection, attribution, and treatment,” Ms. Rozman Kendler said.
China could use the technology to try and achieve specific military and geopolitical aims. China “views nanotechnology-driven warfare as a core component of its asymmetric warfare strategy against the United States and its allies,” the intelligence analysts’ report said.
“These research programs are not obscure ‘moonshots’; they are core strategic focus areas that are designed to be utilized over the near-term and within current state strategic circumstances, such as in Taiwan.”
In a Taiwan conflict scenario, PLA troops could be immunized and deployed to areas where a specific weapons bacterial strain is released using nanotechnology delivery tools to eliminate enemy resistance, the report said.
Remaining points of resistance to the Chinese invading force could be neutralized with neurobiological weaponry that would instill intense fear and other forms of cognitive incoherence to produce inaction.
The result would allow the PLA to achieve absolute control over an area like Taiwan while blunting any U.S. military intervention.
“This scenario is based on known existing CCP research programs and what the clear strategic aims of those programs are,” the report said.