Center for Strategic Communication

Sailors train for chemical and biological warfare. Photo: Navy

Sailors train for chemical and biological warfare. Photo: U.S. Navy

CARLISLE, Pennsylvania — A rogue state is on the verge of developing a deadly biological weapon against which the rest of the world has no defense. Through its connections to extremist groups and smugglers, the regime could be planning to launch bio attacks on U.S. allies and interests.

With tensions mounting, a cabal of American military officers, intelligence agents, scientists, industry officials and theoreticians gather at a secure facility within the Defense Department’s oldest base. Their mission: to plot America’s response to the bio-weapon threat. The ideas — some good, some bad, a few downright horrifying — flow freely.

A quiet man wearing a dark suit stands and the room grows silent. In clinical terms he describes a new technology, previously unknown to most of the cabal, that could disrupt the rogue state’s bio-terror scheme — but at a cost. If the Pentagon unleashes this weapon now, it will forever alter the strategic landscape, with unpredictable results. The new system, the man says, is a “game changer.” Like the atom bomb.

The scenario — the rogue state with its bio-weapon — is fictional. But the meeting, which took place at the Army’s historic Carlisle Barracks in southern Pennsylvania in mid-August, is real. The two-day war game, orchestrated by Australian consulting firm Noetic and hosted by the Army War College, posited a range of military threats in 2025 and the future technologies, in their infancy today, that the Pentagon could potentially use to counter those threats.

The NextTech Workshop, as the war game was branded, was actually the second in a four-part series of intellectual exercises meant to explore how “future advancements in different technology focal areas may be used in given scenarios,” according to a Noetic handout. The first war game session, held in Washington, D.C. in June, focused on the science behind five new technologies: drones, software, directed energy, biological enhancement and 3-D printing. The Carlisle event approached the techs from a U.S. military standpoint. Future workshops will consider the enemy’s use of the same technologies — and also the legal and ethical implications.

In attendance: scores of mid-level civilian government officials, influential researchers, scientists and engineers plus mostly mid-career officers from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and the Australian military, among other armed forces. Danger Room attended alongside reporters from at least two other media outlets. The event was under Chatham House rules — meaning the identity of the participants could not be revealed, except with their permission. However, a few key participants agreed to go on the record; others would only be identified anonymously. The views expressed are the speaker’s alone, and do not reflect U.S. government policy.

The rules of the game were simple: a Noetic representative introduced the basic concept before giving the floor to experts in each of the technology fields. The experts outlined the state of the art in their respective disciplines — in essence, telling the war-gamers what new weapons they would possess in four simulated battles.

Besides the bio-terror scenario, the workshop also gamed out: a ground battle in a city fortified by enemy tanks; a naval blockade pitting American aircraft carriers against an enemy’s own flattop, World War II-style; and a disaster-relief situation similar to that in Haiti two years ago. The players tried to imagine how drones, cutting-edge software, bio-mods, energy weapons and 3-D printing could help U.S. forces win the battles faster, more quietly, more decisively and with less bloodshed.

Though not without risk. The experts and event organizers constantly reminded the gamers to consider “second- and third-order effects” — that is, the unforeseen and sometimes terrible consequences of unleashing a new technology on human societies unprepared to handle them. “The human mind thinks in linear terms, but most technological change happens exponentially,” one official warned.