Report

Pentagon Looks to Brits to Face Climate ‘Danger Zone’

Britain is eyeing ambitious targets to green its military as the Pentagon faces a budget fight.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
At Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada on August 1, 2008, SunPower Corporation has built North America's largest solar farm, where over 72,000 solar panels now supply upwards of 14 megawatts of clean electricity to meet about 25 percent of the base's needs and save a million dollars annually.
Solar panels at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada on Aug. 1, 2008. More than 72,000 solar panels supply upwards of 14 megawatts of clean electricity to meet about 25 percent of the base's needs and save a million dollars annually. Olivia Hampton/AFP via Getty Images

British military planners have set a target of making the Royal Air Force carbon neutral by 2050. They want to make half of their fuels sustainable and see a future where troops travel to the battlefield in battery-powered armored vehicles and where aircraft carriers capture carbon from the flight deck, in line with an ambitious target by the British government to slash emissions by nearly 80 percent over the next decade and a half.

And as the Biden administration releases its first budget, officials at the U.S. Defense Department are looking to the United Kingdom as a model, where the Defence Ministry is already envisioning deploying military planes, ships, and vehicles powered by sunlight and sustainable fuels in the near future. It’s a vision that British officials insist is all about building a stronger military, whereas many in the United States are jittery about a green military being less ready to take on China.

“This should be about enhancing military capability or, at the very least, not diminishing it,” Lt. Gen. Richard Nugee, the climate change and sustainability lead for the British Defence Ministry, told Foreign Policy. “Anything that diminishes military capability is not good. If you come second in a war and you are the greenest military on the planet, you still come second in a war. And we’re not paid to do that. We’re paid to come first.”

British military planners have set a target of making the Royal Air Force carbon neutral by 2050. They want to make half of their fuels sustainable and see a future where troops travel to the battlefield in battery-powered armored vehicles and where aircraft carriers capture carbon from the flight deck, in line with an ambitious target by the British government to slash emissions by nearly 80 percent over the next decade and a half.

And as the Biden administration releases its first budget, officials at the U.S. Defense Department are looking to the United Kingdom as a model, where the Defence Ministry is already envisioning deploying military planes, ships, and vehicles powered by sunlight and sustainable fuels in the near future. It’s a vision that British officials insist is all about building a stronger military, whereas many in the United States are jittery about a green military being less ready to take on China.

“This should be about enhancing military capability or, at the very least, not diminishing it,” Lt. Gen. Richard Nugee, the climate change and sustainability lead for the British Defence Ministry, told Foreign Policy. “Anything that diminishes military capability is not good. If you come second in a war and you are the greenest military on the planet, you still come second in a war. And we’re not paid to do that. We’re paid to come first.”

And the interest is going up with defense planners finding storms, wildfires, and other impacts of climate change such as drought and mass migration now falling into their portfolio. The British side is becoming increasingly ambitious with its climate targets as it deepens experiments with emerging technologies such as biofuels, Nugee said. British Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Wigston has suggested that turning his fleet of fighters, bombers, tankers, and transport aircraft to biofuels could get the service to go net carbon neutral 10 years ahead of schedule, by 2040.

But some think British planners are also taking a leap of faith on such experimental technologies as biofuels, which aren’t currently being sold at a competitive price and do not provide as much power in their current form. The U.S. Energy Department suggests that high-level biofuel blends may have less energy content and present storage issues, possibly problematic for big consumers such as the Defense Department, which would need to use the fuel—and store it—in bulk.

“I think that sustainable aviation fuel is going to be part of our mix,” said Sharon Burke, a senior advisor at New America and a former assistant secretary of defense during the Obama administration. “The challenge is going to be how do you get there. Right now, those fuels are not competitive.”

Like the Brits, President Joe Biden is also leaning on the Pentagon to help drive down emissions as part of a U.S. effort to reduce pollution by 50 to 52 percent over the next decade. But Pentagon officials have yet to take a moonshot on climate. Politico first reported in March that the Pentagon is hoping to mandate all noncombat vehicles to go electric by 2030. As the world’s single biggest oil consumer, the Defense Department could send a powerful demand signal to companies around the world about the viability of green technology over the next several years.

Released on Friday, Biden’s budget request calls for $617 million in new investment to mitigate the Pentagon’s climate impacts, with more than 40 percent of the money focused on making U.S. bases more resilient to severe weather disruptions. Within the newly created pot of money, the agency also plans nearly $200 million of new spending to prototype weapons technologies that are less reliant on fossil fuels and another $153 million to improve energy efficiency for planes, ships, and vehicles already in operation, according to budget documents.

Yet in the past, the Defense Department has struggled to match dollars with climate priorities. Former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’s Great Green Fleet initiative to run the Navy on a half-and-half mixture of diesel and biofuels stalled after a maiden voyage to Europe in 2016. And while the U.S. Air Force has worked to produce biofuels in limited quantities, it still mostly relies on traditional fuels.

And not everyone is convinced that there’s much green in the “DNA” of defense. Republicans on Capitol Hill worry that going in the direction of a greener Army, Navy, and Air Force too quickly will slow down weapons coming off the production line—and get the Pentagon more deeply entangled in domestic political issues. Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that he plans to grill Pentagon leaders in hearings about how shifting focus to climate or “other domestic priorities” could impact the Defense Department’s focus on its first job: fighting wars.

“The Department of Defense already has too many non-core missions. We have to ensure that the military stays focused on operational readiness and capabilities, not things more appropriate for [the Environmental Protection Agency] or John Kerry’s office,” Inhofe said.

Some see the issue in even sharper terms, with China’s navy, now the largest in the world, expanding its reach throughout the Indo-Pacific. “[If you’re] making the U.S. Navy carbon neutral into a compressed time frame, you’re not going to have a U.S. Navy,” one former senior Trump administration defense official said.

But committing dollars—or pounds—to greening the military is an issue on both sides of the Atlantic. Even Britain, where military installations are now looking at natural carbon capture mechanisms to help meet their targets, like peat bogs, still needs to put its money where its mouth is, experts say.

“It’s great that they’re saying this,” New America’s Burke said. “It will be even better when they’re doing this.” A spokesperson for the British Defence Ministry said the agency’s defense innovation arm has recently provided 6 million pounds ($8.5 million) to explore sustainable options for power generation and disposal of fuels and oils.

But whatever Biden administration officials put in the Pentagon’s budget, the threat of climate change is slowly beginning to reshape the military’s operations, both in the ways that U.S. troops get to the battlefield and the situation they’ll face when they arrive.

Planners have begun putting an emphasis on pitting the Pentagon’s complex logistics chain up against the warming planet in war-gaming scenarios, focusing on getting fuel to the fight. In September, the Pentagon also released a climate assessment tool designed to assess how bases are prepped for the threat and is looking into how to sustain weapons systems that might not operate as well in hotter temperatures. Nugee, the British defense official, said U.S. and British forces will need to find a way to adjust technologies like ship engines, which could be impacted by rising temperatures.

Officials are trying to slot climate into the 2022 National Defense Strategy, but it’s not clear what role it will take. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has made a point of getting officials to include climate risk into simulations such as war games, Burke said, as the United States reexamines how possible U.S. fights in the Arctic, Asia, and counterterrorism missions in Africa could be imperiled by rising temperatures, just as the Asia-Pacific faces rising sea levels, typhoons, and monsoons.

In a war game conducted last month by the Pentagon’s Office of Stability and Humanitarian Affairs and the Joint Staff J5, dubbed “Elliptic Thunder,” participants mapped a future battlefield in East Africa where climate change had weakened states in the region by causing droughts and shortages, giving extremist groups a bigger shot at gaining a toehold in the area. Several experts and former officials who spoke to Foreign Policy expected U.S. troops to spend more time on humanitarian and disaster relief efforts associated with the changing climate, such as hurricane and wildfire relief.

There has been broad bipartisan consensus on green investment in U.S. military installations under climate threat, money that surged into the Pentagon’s coffers. But some think that the changes already being seen in the global climate, from the melting of the ice caps to the escalation of wildfires, signal that the Pentagon needs to be ready to go much further. What’s needed, some former officials say, is akin to a military-industrial revolution to prepare for the climate of the future. The Biden administration may have a leg up there: The Pentagon has long been considering extending the drone revolution to driverless ships and aerial refueling, moves that would reduce fuel burn and climate impacts from U.S. military platforms.

“If we knew we were going to be in this crisis in the 1940s, would we have built our vehicles and mass transit the way that we did?” said Rod Schoonover, the former director of environment and natural resources at the National Intelligence Council, who now leads the Ecological Futures Group. “I don’t think we would.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.