Natural Security: Despite what General Scales said, U.S. military leaders are taking icecap melting seriously
The Russian Defense Ministry recently announced that experts would be flying over the Arctic in early April to check whether the conditions were favorable for "dropping cargoes and possible landing of troops."
By Sharon Burke
Best Defense climate czarina
The Russian Defense Ministry recently announced that experts would be flying over the Arctic in early April to check whether the conditions were favorable for “dropping cargoes and possible landing of troops.”
This does not necessarily mean that Alaska is the next target for a takeover, but it surely means Russia will keep building up its Arctic military presence. In the last two years, Russia has allegedly established a new Northern Command, restored Cold War era bases and built new ones, added air defense and coastal missile batteries, and conducted snap military exercises in the region.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy is just wrapping up Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2016 to “research, test, and evaluate operational capabilities in the Arctic region.”
Why all of the sudden military activity in this hazardous, inhospitable region? Simple: the Arctic is melting, so for the first time in human history, the area will be accessible for transit and resource extraction, and it is highly attractive for both ends. That makes it a region worth defending — and coveting — especially for nations such as Russia or Canada whose national identity is tied into the “far north.”
So, it is curious, then, that a decorated combat veteran would tell Congress that “nations simply don’t go to war because the polar ice caps are melting.” With ICEX, other military exercises, and various statements, it is clear that’s not what today’s military leaders think. And yet it’s just what Major General Robert Scales (USA, ret) said in his written testimony for the U.S. Senate on April 13th.
To be fair, General Scales’ main point was that rising temperatures do not directly cause wars. I do not disagree with him, but I also don’t know anyone who is saying that. Not in the Pentagon, at any rate. There was a fair amount of tilting at strawmen in his testimony.
Nonetheless, there is a military role in dealing with climate change. This is fundamentally a challenge for civil society, but it will also affect defense roles, missions, and capabilities.
The Department of Defense is responsible for some 28 million acres of land, with half a million structures and buildings, most of which are essential to the defense mission in one way or another. That ranges from staging points for military operations to storefronts for recruiting new troops. The Department wants to know how climate change may affect those properties, especially coastal installations and training ranges: Will extreme weather have an impact on available training days, for example? So far, the measures the Department has adopted to deal with a changing climate are largely no or low cost — changing building codes and such. This basically amounts to saying: If you’re going to build a new building, don’t put it in a worsening flood zone.
The Department also wants to know how climate changes may affect military missions. That includes shifts in the frequency and/or severity of humanitarian and disaster relief missions, such as those that followed Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, but also Typhoon Haiyan, which hit our strategically important ally, the Philippines, hard. These may not be core, warfighting missions, but any Commander-in-Chief is going to send U.S. forces when they are needed under such circumstances.
It’s also important for the Pentagon to understand how climate effects may shape future security. General Scales said that “hatred and fear” drive nations to war, but conquest for resources and territory have historically been a strong draw, as well, and human misery is a fine incubator for conflict, including the kind that spills over borders. The Pentagon can’t conquer climate through force of arms, but strategists and planners need to understand how changing access to food, water, and energy resources, and the possibility for mass migrations might shape the global security landscape and affect U.S. economic and security interests. Or in the Pentagon’s own terminology, how climate change may be a “threat accelerator.” This is an area ripe for more rigorous analysis.
At the Munich Security Conference in February, Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev talked about “the new Cold War.” He was using the word “cold” in the figurative sense — there’s not going to be a shooting war in the Arctic any time soon. But we’ve all learned the hard way what can happen when the United States doesn’t take Russian aggression seriously. Political correctness can cut both ways, and today’s military leaders should not let the politics on this issue stop them from due consideration of climate change.
Sharon E. Burke, a senior advisor at New America, served as the assistant secretary of defense for operational energy from 2010 to 2014. When so moved, she writes the Natural Security column for this blog.
Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Wikimedia Commons