John Ratcliffe, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, said on Thursday that U.S. intelligence found China conducted human testing in the hope of developing soldiers with “biologically enhanced capabilities.”
“U.S. intelligence shows that China has even conducted human testing on members of the People’s Liberation Army in hope of developing soldiers with biologically enhanced capabilities,” Ratcliffe wrote in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. “There are no ethical boundaries to Beijing’s pursuit of power.”
Titled, “China Is National Security Threat No. 1,” Ratcliffe’s op-ed warned that China is “developing world-class capabilities in emerging technologies,” with modified soldiers being one of those developments.
The concept of genetically enhanced soldiers, or super soldiers, is one that has been featured throughout video game and movie franchises. Characters like Marvel’s Captain America and Halo’s Master Chief are genetically modified super soldiers, enhanced with superhuman strength and speed.
Last year American researchers Elsa Kania and Wilson VornDick, published a paper for the Jamestown Foundation, examining the Chinese military’s biotechnology studies, including the use of a gene-editing tool known as CRISPR, which stands for “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” to genetically enhance soldiers.
Kania, who is an expert on Chinese defense technology at the Center for a New American Security, and VornDick, who is a former Navy officer, wrote, “While the potential leveraging of CRISPR to increase human capabilities on the future battlefield remains only a hypothetical possibility at the present, there are indications that Chinese military researchers are starting to explore its potential. Of course, genetic engineering has numerous military applications in materials science, such as those that can involve maritime and aerospace applications.
Kania and VornDick wrote, “The Central Military Commission (CMC) Science and Technology Commission is also supporting research in human performance enhancement and ‘new concept’ biotechnology, the potential intersections of these interests merit concern and consideration. For instance, a doctoral dissertation titled ‘Evaluation and Research on Human Performance Enhancement Technology,’ published in 2016, envisions CRISPR as one of three primary ‘human performance enhancement technologies’ (人效能增强技术, ren xiaoneng zengqiang jishu) that can be utilized to boost personnel combat effectiveness. The researcher argues that because CRISPR holds such ‘great potential’ as a ‘disruptive’ technology, China must ‘seize the initiative.’”
In November 2018, Chinese biophysics researcher He Jiankui claimed he had carried out the first instance of gene-editing on humans when he genetically removed the CCR5 gene from twin babies to render them immune to HIV. In December 2019, the BBC reported He was convicted of violating a Chinese government ban on genetic experiments on humans and sentenced to three years in jail and a fine of three million yuan (about $459,000).
In their paper, Kania and VornDick wrote “some scientists speculate that He may have removed the gene to boost the babies’ cognitive power, which is believed to be an added bonus of that modification.” The two researchers cited an MIT Technology Review article about He’s gene-editing experiment and its potential to enhance their brain function.
VornDick, in a phone interview with NBC, said he is less concerned about the battlefield advantages China may gain with genetically modified soldiers and more concerned about unforeseen consequences of genetic modifications.
“When we start playing around with genetic organisms, there could be unforeseen consequences,” VornDick told NBC.
Chinese officials did not respond to NBC’s requests for comments about the allegations.
Ratcliffe also said, “I am hoping now that the election is over, now that people have voted, and if there is a Biden administration, that they will get past politicizing intelligence and be honest about China and acknowledge that China, and China alone is the greatest national security threat that we face.”