from Energy Realpolitik and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Climate Change Is a Threat to Military Security

Damage caused by Hurricane Michael is seen on Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, U.S., October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

January 23, 2019

Damage caused by Hurricane Michael is seen on Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, U.S., October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester
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This is a guest post by Benjamin Silliman, research associate for Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) released a congressionally-mandated report detailing the challenges climate change poses to the U.S. military. Citing increased exposure to recurrent flooding, drought, desertification, wildfires, and thawing permafrost, the report highlights how climate change affects U.S. military readiness to respond to national security emergencies.

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The report includes a list of selected events where mission related activities at military installations were compromised due to environmental vulnerabilities as well as a brief list of policies taken to mitigate future damages. To quantify the extent to which the military is threatened by climate change, the report tracked seventy-nine priority American domestic installations chosen by their critical operational roles. While the public report was circumspect on details given the sensitive strategic nature of the subject, it did identify climate change as an important and tangible threat to the U.S. military.

The report represents another in a series of public acknowledgements that spans four administrations that the military is not immune to extreme weather. Last year, numerous concrete examples raised public awareness of the issue. In October, category four Hurricane Michael thrashed the Florida coast with winds reaching one hundred and thirty miles per hour on Florida’s panhandle. In its way was U.S. Air Force Base Tyndall, which houses not only the headquarters of the Florida Air National Guard, but also the 325th Fighter Wing, a major combat force of F-22 Raptors and a principle training center and testing site for their pilots, maintenance crews, and equipment. The base, like surrounding civilian areas, was not able to regain a normal operating status for almost a month. During the recovery period, critical training and maintenance schedules for the almost a third of the nation’s F-22s was disrupted, forcing the fighter jets to relocate to other regional airbases less able to run such a high volume of them. Additionally, rebuilding has been costly and time consuming, thereby diverting man-hours and resources that could have been spent on other matters. The situation starkly demonstrates how a severe weather event can be tumultuous for critical but routine activities such as patrolling and training.

Tyndall is not the only base exposed to weather related threats. Of the seventy-nine installations analyzed in the report, 67 percent reported that they are currently facing problems from recurrent flooding, and 76 percent reported that flooding has the potential to create vulnerabilities in the next twenty years. Acute extreme weather events, like hurricanes, have a higher probability of occurring in the future due to climate change. This means there is possibly more stress that could come to Tyndall and other coastal bases in the future.

California’s wildfires have also taken their toll on nearby military bases. The Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, which is based near the Sierra Nevada, was forced to evacuate in September of last year when wildfires got too close. According to the DoD report, 46 percent of the installations analyzed are now vulnerable to wildfires. This is in addition to facility vulnerabilities from drought, which, in turn, increases the risk of fire in Western Regions of the country. Stressed water supplies from extended periods of drought can also require contingency planning for when bases are must be temporarily put out of commission.

Of course, protecting operational bases against severe weather events is not the only worry the military has in the face of climate change. The warming of the poles has also opened a new strategic landscape which directly connects the United States and Canada to Russia and China via the Arctic Ocean. As ice that used to cover the ocean melts and it becomes possible to move significant traffic through the area, policing the region against China and Russia will become a critical, and expensive, mission for the U.S. Navy. Arctic ice melt will also increase the extent to which foreign military vessels have access to North American shores.

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Beyond direct U.S. military activities related to the homeland, the DoD report mentions that the U.S. military carries out significant humanitarian and disaster relief efforts, as directed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). If climate change does lead to an increased severity of global natural disasters, the military may need to expand its capacity to deal with traumatic events in different parts of the globe, on top of expanding requirements and strains at home.

Climate change also threatens increased destabilization in regions outside of the United States, which may put strain on deployed troops or even require U.S. military intervention. Sea-level rise could threaten rapidly developing cities along the coast of Africa like Mogadishu, Djibouti City, and Mombasa with damaged infrastructure and compromised water supplies. Any major displacement from these major cities would be a geopolitical risk and put even more strain on the already stressed global immigration channels. This could also cause an increase in piracy if economic conditions deteriorate around the Horn of Africa.

With so many present and future challenges being exacerbated by changing global climate patterns, it is important that military leadership internalize these threats and examine the entire military system to prepare for the challenges it will be facing. The DoD report lists some of the activities currently being undertaken by the military. Major initiatives include designing construction standards to better withstand natural events and developing research programs to better understand facility risks from environmental vulnerabilities. However, the report was very limited in its scope as compared to the mission of the DoD. For example, it neglected to cover international installations or the Marine Corps. It also did not provide congress with strategies to prioritize resources for mitigating future threats.

Moving forward, the DoD should expand on the initial report to fill in missing gaps and provide congress with more actionable budget recommendations. Specifically, DoD should develop and maintain a separate fund dedicated for research and systematic improvements to address these environmental vulnerabilities. The DoD should also commission robust studies for each Geographic Combatant Command to better understand how climate change may impact each region of the world in which the United States has strategic or militaristic interests. This will be important for understanding how climate change could impair access or movements of deployed troops and equipment and allow the military to improve planning for future types of climate-related missions the military may have to conduct. Contingency plans are needed for vulnerable bases that might need to be evacuated or otherwise go offline due to a natural disaster.

Dangerous skepticism at the highest levels of political leadership can still limit the DoD’s ability to respond adequately to the changing world. The report was sent directly to Senator Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Committee on Armed Forces, who is notable for his speeches on the Senate floor denying the existence of climate change. What Congress decides to do moving forward from this initial report could have lasting implications for national security. Congress could call for more robust analytical reports and create new funding channels to drive research and preparation for environmental specific threats, or Congress could ignore the report, claiming satisfaction, and leave the military scrambling to work on this important issue by diverting resources from other budgets and performing sub-par preparation. So far, little news has surfaced from Congress about the report, indicating that it may be business as usual for the DoD.

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