Assembly lawmakers examine COVID-19 lessons for bioweapon defence, urge to boost space defences

17 May 2021

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The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the susceptibility of NATO nations to biological weapons, and Allies must take advantage of public awareness about the challenges such arms pose to bolster their defence strategies, parliamentarians were warned on Sunday. 

At a meeting of the Science and Technology Committee during the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s 2021 Spring Session, legislators from Allied and partner countries also debated new security threats in space and the importance of stronger scientific and technological (S&T) cooperation with the Alliance’s partner countries in the Asia-Pacific region. 

The rapid spread of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 3.3 million people, has raised public awareness of the risk of biological attacks, according to a Committee preliminary draft report. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed global vulnerabilities to biological threats and provides an insight into the potential consequences of a large-scale biological event,” said Canadian parliamentarian Leona Alleslev, who authored the bioweapons text. 

“It is important that we take steps urgently to mitigate the impact of future incidents – whether deliberate, accidental, or naturally-occurring – on our societies,” she told Committee members. 

The draft report looks at the challenges posed by biotechnology advances, weighs the risk that non-state actors like terrorist groups might obtain biological weapons and offers suggestions on how the Alliance can strengthen its defences. 

The legislators were urged to consider how scientific advances and the internet can make bioweapons cheaper and more accessible to malign actors wanting to take advantage of the “fear factor” involved with using such unpredictable arms among civilians. 

Alleslev recommended that biodefence be moved up NATO’s agenda and that the 30 member countries ensure their capabilities and policies can deal with this evolving threat. NATO should be used as a platform to exchange experiences and best practices, she said. She implored Allies not to reduce defence spending. 

The Alliance’s potential weaknesses in space were also up for debate in the Committee as parliamentarians weighed the rising presence of Russia and China in what was officially designated the NATO’s “fifth operational area” in 2019. 

“Our space-based hardware is becoming increasingly vulnerable. Space remains central to NATO's deterrence and defence capabilities,” said German legislator Karl-Heinz Brunner, author of a draft report on space and security. 

The text notes that China is now considered an equal competitor to the United States and its Allies. Moreover, other countries possess weapons systems that can destroy or interfere with satellites. The rising risk of accidental collisions in space is also a major concern. 

Brunner said incidents linked to weapons tests in this increasingly crowded domain “could easily get out of control and could potentially lead to conflict, even on Earth, I’m afraid. We must avoid an arms race and the weaponisation of space.” 

The draft report warned that the international legal framework governing military and civilian activities in space lags behind developments, as private companies compete with countries in an environment where the rules remain essentially as they were in the 1960s. 

In a separate draft report, parliamentarians were told about the importance of expanding NATO’s S&T cooperation with partner countries in the Asia-Pacific region. 

UK legislator Nusrat Ghani said NATO’s S&T network is gravely under-appreciated. It provides partner countries with access to thousands of scientists across the 30-nation Alliance. Collaboration within the NATO’s Science and Technology Organisation (STO) is important too as the pace of technological change intensifies. Close partner countries should be allowed to become Enhanced Opportunity Partners in the STO, if they wish. 

The draft notes that the Asia-Pacific has become “a strategic centre of gravity in the international system” that is critical to the global economy. The region, which is increasingly relevant for NATO’s security, is also emerging as a global S&T hub. 

“Participation in these networks and programmes is a win-win for both sides,” Ghani said, making the network “greater than the sum of its individual parts” and able to allow “each participant to overcome its individual S&T deficiencies.” 

The text focuses notably on the advantages of NATO linking up more closely with Japan and the Republic of Korea. It also looks at tech developments in Singapore, which is not a NATO partner but is a global innovation leader and has good ties with the Alliance. 

In a presentation, Dr Tarja Cronberg, from the European Security Programme the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), updated the Committee on talks to bring all signatories of the agreement over the Iranian nuclear programme – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – back into compliance.  

Cronberg emphasised that getting the JCPOA back on track is important for arms control in general and therefore in the interests of all parties. But she said it is hard to predict whether the talks will be successful. 

Download the Science and Technology Committee preliminary draft reports
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