The cause of climate change may remain a contentious topic on Capitol Hill, but the Department of Defense must prepare for the challenges that rising sea levels, melting permafrost and prolonged heat waves present to operational readiness now and in the future, former military officials and security experts say.
Updated forecasting equipment, cold-weather gear and improved base protection are among the technology investments needed to combat the effects of climate change in the Arctic region, in the Asia-Pacific and on domestic and international coastal bases, experts say.
In 2015, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in an op-ed in Time Magazine called climate change “a global threat multiplier” that could increase conflicts such as resource disputes, ethnic tensions and economic discontent.
“Preparing for climate change is about risk — even if we do not understand every aspect of the scientific predictions, we know that the consequences of not acting may be significant,” he wrote.
The government this year released several reports that highlight the role its effects play on national and global security, and provide recommendations for new planning initiatives.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon published a directive on climate change adaptation and resilience that established policies and assigned responsibility across the department to assess and manage risks.
The department also recently released a report delivered to Congress in June called “Resourcing the Arctic Strategy,” which noted where the Pentagon is making science and technology investments in the northern region. That same month, the National Intelligence Council published a white paper, “Implications for U.S. National Security of Anticipated Climate Change,” that predicted where its effects are likely to pose wide-ranging security challenges over the next 20 years.
Monitoring equipment is “the biggest and most important” technology investment that the military could make to deal with the effects of climate change, said Andrew Holland, senior fellow for energy and climate at the American Security Project, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
“That goes to space capabilities, computer capabilities, weather satellites, predictive capabilities from weather forecasting and long-term climate forecasting,” he said. “That’s a significant investment that they should be making.”
The Defense Department directive on climate change puts “a lot of onus” on each military base and station to conduct a risk assessment, he said. “The first step is they need to be able to predict [the risk].”
Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets and cold-weather equipment will certainly be needed in the Arctic region, where melting ice caps and warmer oceans are opening up new opportunities for commerce and transport that countries like China and Russia are eager to seize upon. Defense officials including Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson have recently noted the growing need to focus on the region.
The Pentagon is looking to spend about $6 billion on new assets in the Arctic in fiscal year 2017, according to the department’s Arctic strategy report to Congress.
That number includes developing anti-icing surfaces, testing Arctic propulsion systems and improving forecasting and prediction of sea ice, most of which would be overseen by the Navy, the report said.
After years of discussions, the Coast Guard has begun efforts to procure a new icebreaker, at an estimated cost of $1 billion. The service currently only has two such ships — the Polar Star and the Healy — in operation, while other countries have made significant investments in their icebreaker programs.
Other possible areas of investment include ice-hardening equipment for ships, weapons that can fire reliably in extreme weather conditions and new cold-weather gear for sailors, Holland said.
“You’ll need things as simple as gloves that allow you to have full and complete range of motion,” he said.
The Navy will need to protect propellers and rudders against ice, or develop new techniques to deal with freezing sea spray in a big storm, said retired Rear Adm. David Titley, a meteorology professor and director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Change at Pennsylvania State University.
“Right now, the Navy method of getting rid of the ice is a bunch of junior seamen out there with hammers and mallets, knocking the ice off,” he said.
ISR technology will play an important role when a commanding officer needs to know where fresh ice may be lying in wait, Titley said. Maritime surveillance aircraft like the P-3 Orion or P-8 Poseidon, or an unmanned aerial vehicle could be useful, he said. The “Resourcing the Arctic Strategy” report recommends over $460 million to invest across the services in improved surveillance, enhanced communications and next-generation radar systems for the polar region.
Military personnel at home and abroad will need to contend with risks caused by rising sea levels.
The Center for Climate and Security, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, recently released a report on the impact of sea level rise on the U.S. military. The report’s authors — all retired military personnel — found that the domestic and international coastal bases face significant risks from sea level rise that could eventually impact readiness, operations and national security strategy.
“The complex relationship between sea level rise, storm surge and global readiness and responsiveness must be explored down to the operational level, across the services and joint forces, and up to a strategic level as well,” the report’s summary read.
Francesco Femia, president of the Center for Climate and Security, said the report looked at a range of sea level rise possibilities through 2035, and found that the impact “is only going to get worse.”
“That is certainly the climate-related phenomenon that the U.S. military is concerned about over the next 10 years,” he said.
An aerial view shows the effects of flooding in Valley Park, Missouri.
Sea level rise could impact the military readiness of service members stationed at coastline military bases, Titley said. If a Navy base is flooded, personnel can’t train properly.
“When we train our people, they’re being done on a schedule, and they have to be ready by a certain date,” he said. “It’s a whole chain of how we go from units that can keep themselves safe, all the way to combat readiness forces, and the bases are absolutely critical to that.”
Looking at how sea level rise will affect military bases is not as easy as saying, the global sea level will rise an inch or two, because the seas won’t all rise at the same rate around the world, Holland noted.
“Some predictions say that the American East Coast will see higher levels than other places around the world,” he said.
An example is the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, where the world’s largest naval station is located. Norfolk has become “the poster child” of the impact rising sea levels could have on military bases, Titley said. The Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean is another example, he said.
That means Norfolk and other coastal bases will have to improve their sea walls, or invest in more adaptive and resilient protections, Holland said. Wetlands and marsh areas can act as natural sponges and slow the speed of flood waters. Naval Station Norfolk officials did not respond to interview requests.
Hotter temperatures in the United States can impact how often or thoroughly servicemembers are trained on base, Titley said. If a base has an excessive number of “black flag days” where troops can’t train to full exertion, that can have a negative impact on their readiness when they are deployed to hot climates, such as the Middle East or Africa.
If a base in California chooses to cancel training for the day because the weather is too hot outside, that affects how prepared a soldier could be for a similar climate in Iraq, Holland said.
“You can’t choose not to go into battle because it’s too hot today,” Holland said. Lighter body armor will be a necessary investment, he said.
“I had a buddy who spent a year in Iraq, and he said they outfit you with so much stuff, and are telling you to go out in 120 degrees and do things when it’s hard enough just to think, and you’re trying to drink enough water to make it through the patrol,” he said.
The Army has been investing in lighter body armor materials and new technology like the soldier protective system, which aims to achieve at least a 10 percent weight reduction. Academic institutions are also developing lighter armor prototypes, as is the rapid reaction technology office, which is housed under the deputy assistant secretary of defense for emerging capability and prototyping.
More frequent periods of severe drought, significant fires or chronic smoke conditions will also impact how the services operate fire support, especially in bases in California or Alaska, Titley said.
Disaster response and humanitarian assistance are areas that could see more demand as warming ocean temperatures cause more frequent and intense tropical storms in areas like the Caribbean and the Asia-Pacific, experts said.
“Just about every major exercise we do with other countries now has some HADR [humanitarian assistance and disaster relief] exercises, which is pretty new. It used to be kind of an ad-hoc thing,” Holland said.
U.S. Pacific Command is working to implement guidance from the office of the secretary of defense on climate change, especially in the disaster relief area “as Pacific storm seasons intensify and low-lying islands face significant impacts,” said Navy Cmdr. Dave Benham, a spokesman for Pacom.
New technology may not be the whole answer, however. Better planning and more risk management could give military leaders more time to consider where to make long-term changes, at a lower cost than acquiring new equipment, said Army Lt. Col. James Brindle, a Defense Department spokesman.
Areas where planning could be improved include disaster relief, emergency response, weapon system acquisition, theater campaign and installation master planning, he said in an email.
“We need to build resiliency into our efforts to adapt to a ‘normal’ that will continue to change over time,” he said. “Climate is not stationary and neither is national security.”
The Defense Department is working with the office of science and technology policy, and the interagency science and technology community through the department’s research and engineering organizations to bring a “whole of government approach” to identifying technology needs and how they may be satisfied, he said.
“Preparing for climate change, it’s actually not as much about the equipment; it’s about the mindset,” Holland said. “It requires foresight and thinking and planning."
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Photos: iStock, Defense Dept.