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Foreign Policy

The Pentagon expects the British to face the “hazard zone” of the local weather

June 1, 2021, 11:35 a.m.

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

And as the Biden administration publishes its first budget, U.S. Department of Defense officials see the UK as a role model, where the Department of Defense is already envisioning the use of military aircraft, ships and vehicles powered by sunlight and sustainable fuels in the near future. It’s a vision that British officials insist on building a stronger military, while many in the United States are nervous that a green military will be less willing to take on China.

“It should be about improving or at least not reducing military capabilities,” Lt. Gen. Richard Nugee, UK Defense Department head for climate change and sustainability, told Foreign Policy. “Anything that reduces military capabilities is not good. If you finish second in a war and are the greenest military in the world, you still finish second in a war. And we don’t get paid for that. We’re paid to come first. “

And interest is growing as defense planners now add storms, forest fires, and other climate change impacts such as drought and mass migration to their portfolios. The UK side is becoming increasingly ambitious with its climate targets as it deepens experimentation with new technologies such as biofuels, Nugee said. British Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Wigston has suggested that converting his fleet of fighters, bombers, tankers and transport aircraft to biofuels could make the service carbon neutral 10 years ahead of schedule, by 2040.

But some suggest UK planners are also using experimental technologies such as biofuels, which are not currently being sold at a competitive price and are not as powerful in their current form. The US Department of Energy suggests that high-level biofuel blends may be lower in energy and cause storage problems that may be problematic for large-scale consumers like the Department of Defense who would use and store the fuel in large quantities.

“I think sustainable aviation fuel will be part of our mix,” said Sharon Burke, senior advisor at New America and former assistant secretary of defense during the Obama administration. “The challenge will be how to get there. At the moment these fuels are not competitive. “

Like the British, President Joe Biden is relying on the Pentagon to cut emissions as part of US efforts to reduce pollution by 50 to 52 percent over the next decade. But Pentagon officials have yet to take a moon shot to the climate. Politico first reported in March that the Pentagon hopes to have all non-combat-ready vehicles powered by electricity by 2030. As the world’s largest consumer of oil, the Department of Defense could send a strong demand signal to companies around the world about the viability of green technologies over the next few years.

Biden’s budget proposal, released Friday, calls for $ 617 million in new investment to mitigate the Pentagon’s climate impact, with more than 40 percent of the money going to make U.S. bases more resilient to severe weather disruption. Within the newly created cash pot, the agency also plans to spend nearly $ 200 million on prototypes of weapons technologies that are less reliant on fossil fuels, and another $ 153 million to improve the energy efficiency of aircraft and ships that are already in operation and vehicles to improve budget documents.

But in the past, the Department of Defense struggled to align dollars with climate priorities. Former Navy Minister Ray Mabus’ Great Green Fleet initiative to run the Navy on half a mixture of diesel and biofuels stalled after a maiden voyage to Europe in 2016. And while the US Air Force has worked to make biofuels in limited quantities, it’s still mostly based on traditional fuels.

And not everyone is convinced that there is a lot of green in the “DNA” of defense. Republicans on Capitol Hill fear that moving too quickly towards a greener army, navy, and air force will slow guns off the line – and get the Pentagon deeper into domestic issues. Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Forces Committee, said in a statement that he intended to anger Pentagon leaders at hearings about how the shift in focus to the climate or “other domestic policy priorities” is towards the concentration of the Department of Defense could affect his first task: fighting wars.

“The Department of Defense already has too many non-core missions. We need to make sure that the military continues to focus on operational readiness and capabilities rather than the things that are more appropriate [the Environmental Protection Agency] or John Kerry’s office, ”Inhofe said.

Some see the problem even more sharply as China’s navy, now the largest in the world, extends its reach across the Indo-Pacific. “[If you’re] If you turn the US Navy carbon neutral into a compressed timeframe, you will not have a US Navy, ”said a former senior defense official in the Trump administration.

But donating dollars – or pounds – to greening the military is an issue on both sides of the Atlantic. Even the UK, where military facilities are now studying natural carbon sequestration mechanisms to achieve their goals such as peat bogs, still have money to invest, according to experts.

“It’s great that you are saying that,” New America’s Burke said. “It will get better if you do that.” A spokesman for the UK Department of Defense said the agency’s defense innovation arm recently allocated £ 6 million ($ 8.5 million) to explore sustainable options for generating electricity and disposing of fuels and oils.

But whatever the Biden government officials have put into the Pentagon’s budget, the climate change threat is slowly beginning to reshape the military’s operations, both in terms of the way U.S. forces hit the battlefield as well as the situation they will be faced with upon arrival.

Planners have started to focus on putting the Pentagon’s complex logistic chain in war game scenarios against the warming planet and are focused on getting fuel into battle. In September, the Pentagon also released a climate assessment tool designed to assess how bases are prepared for the threat and how to maintain weapon systems that may not function as well in hot temperatures. Nugee, the UK defense official, said the US and UK forces need to find a way to adapt technologies like marine engines that could be affected by rising temperatures.

Officials are trying to incorporate climate into the National Defense Strategy 2022, but it is not clear what role it will play. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is on a mission to get officials to include climate risks in simulations such as war games, Burke said, while the United States is re-examining possible US fighting in the Arctic, Asia, and counterterrorism missions in Africa could be at risk from rising temperatures, just as the Asia-Pacific region is faced with rising sea levels, typhoons and monsoons.

In a war game conducted last month by the Pentagon’s Bureau of Stability and Humanitarian Affairs and Joint Staff J5 called “Elliptic Thunder,” participants mapped a future battlefield in East Africa where climate change is affecting states in the region Droughts and scarcity had weakened, giving extremist groups a greater chance of gaining a foothold in the area. Several experts and former officials speaking with Foreign Policy expected US forces to devote more time to humanitarian and disaster relief efforts related to the changing climate, such as hurricane relief and forest fire relief.

There was broad bipartisan consensus on green investments in US military facilities under threat from the climate, money flowing into the coffers of the Pentagon. However, some argue that the changes in global climate that are already being observed, from the melting of the ice caps to the escalation of forest fires, signal that the Pentagon must be ready to go much further. What is needed, say some former officials, is a military industrial revolution to prepare for the climate of the future. The Biden administration could have a leg up there: The Pentagon has long considered extending the drone revolution to driverless ships and in-flight refueling, measures that would reduce fuel consumption and the climate impact of US military platforms.

“If we had known we were getting into this crisis in the 1940s, would we have built our vehicles and transportation the way we did?” Said Rod Schoonover, the former director of the environment and natural resources at the National Intelligence Council, which now heads the Ecological Futures Group. “I don’t think we would.”

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