The U.S. Military Is In a Climate Change Conundrum

Itn November 2020, a flatbed truck pulled onto the Sterling Heights, Mich., campus of military contractor BAE Systems and unloaded two huge, lozenge-shaped Bradley vehicles—a special delivery from the U.S. Army. The vehicles were moved into a garage where workers began to disassemble them, replacing smaller petrol engines with electric motors and adding a new lithium-ion batteries (the precise capabilities of the battery are classified as military secrets). The result, a hybrid-electric troop transport, is best likened to a 28-ton Prius, plus tank treads, a turret, and a 25mm cannon—all with an expected 10% to 20% improvement in fuel economy. “The Army is getting greater capability, dependability, and survivability with hybrid-electric drive,” says Jim Miller, head of business development at BAE’s combat-systems division. “And then they get the environmental impact.”

To be clear, even a hybrid-electric Bradley is about as friendly to the environment as it is to anyone on the wrong end of its Bushmaster chain gun—the electric upgrade could push fuel economy close to 0.9 m.p.g., from 0.75 before. But the improvement could amount to substantial fuel savings—and accompanying emissions reductions—across all U.S. forces, especially if BAE is able to apply its hybrid technology to other armored vehicles, as the company hopes.

Military vehicles, along with the forces that use them and the industries that supply them, represent a huge climate problem, accounting for 5% of the world’s carbon emissions every year. And there’s no bigger actor in that space than the U.S. military, which sucks up more petroleum than any other institution on earth to fly jets, heat buildings, and ferry food and supplies to 750 bases spread across the world, a process that, all told, produces an emissions footprint greater than that of the entire country of Sweden.

This could change. In recent months the Department of Defense (DOD), which claims to be working towards a greener American combat force, has launched a decarbonization campaign. But many environmentalists and academics say that fully decarbonizing the country’s current military and its vast network of overseas bases simply isn’t realistic. According to them, carbon reductions will involve trade-offs. At some point, we will need to make difficult choices about how to reduce our armed forces in order to prevent ecological catastrophe.

Actually, the U.S. army has beenEven though the subject has lost political support, we have been talking about it for quite some time. Almost two decades ago, for instance, when the Bush Administration was still denying that human-caused climate change was real, the DOD’s Office of Net Assessment commissioned a controversial 2003 report on how rising temperatures could affect U.S. national security. Many more reports have followed, with strategists and planners routinely studying how a changing climate will impact the military’s mission.

In general, most of those initiatives have focused either on climate adaptation—finding ways to protect military installations like Navy bases from rising seas and extreme weather—or on a changing geo-strategic landscape—like new theaters of conflict in newly opened Arctic waterways. What hasn’t been discussed much is the prospect of actually reducing the DOD’s own substantial carbon footprint.

The Obama Administration established a new Pentagon Office, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy. Although the role was intended to address climate change, it had its main purpose of reducing fuel costs during wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to decrease the number of fuel transport convoys that were susceptible to attacks by Taliban or other hostile insurgents. Sharon Burke was appointed in 2010. She worked to incorporate new energy technologies into field operations and attempted to make energy consumption a part of military plans and strategies. However, she sometimes found it difficult to do so because the military is resistant to change. “I used to call it ‘affable noncompliance,’” she says.

Trump’s administration has seen the operational energy position lose its influence. But some important Obama-era initiatives remained in place, including a 2016 DOD directive outlining internal policies and roles to “assess and manage risks associated with the impacts of climate change.” Not much happened under that directive during the Trump Administration, but it was still technically in effect. And when the Biden Administration came in, it provided an institutional framework to build on to turn the military bureaucracy’s attention toward climate change.

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Now, a year into the Biden presidency, the military’s emissions messaging has undergone an unprecedented shift. Appointees to the Defense Department have begun talking about cutting emissions, and the Pentagon sent inquiries out to companies regarding emissions reporting and accounting. In September, the DOD released a climate-adaptation plan that stated the need to begin considering emissions in “all the Department’s strategies and policies.”

The Biden administration has avoided setting hard limits for DOD emission. In a December Executive Order, President Biden pledged to cut the federal government’s carbon footprint to zero by 2050, but exempted anything related to national security. Liberal lawmakers opposed the cut-out, noting that military energy consumption has been between 77% to 80% over the last two decades. And to make matters even less certain, a future GOP Administration could reverse any of Biden’s green efforts.

Some military branches still push ahead. On February 8, the Army released a revised climate strategy, stating its intent to be net-zero by 2050. Some green-technology projects have picked up steam, with military contractors building out new offerings in hopes of cashing in on the climate momentum—though some projects are still only in the early stages of a long and complex process of actually integrating them into the military’s operations. In May, the Army hosted a demonstration at Fort Benning, Georgia, for potential electric reconnaissance-vehicle concepts; the branch is planning for all noncombat vehicles to be electric by 2035, and to start using electric tactical vehicles by 2050.

In the meantime, the Air Force began contacting suppliers regarding new adaptive cycle engines that are more effective for its combat fighters. In many cases, though, the military’s impetus for rolling out greener technologies is really less about climate concerns than about getting better at the armed forces’ main job: fighting. These adaptive cycle engines will provide a 25% increase in range for Air Force fighters. New hybrid-electric drive system for naval warships may have fuel-economy advantages, but they also provide more electricity to power powerful radar and laser systems. Concepts like the hybrid Bradley, which is an electric vehicle and a concept similar to it, could help reduce Army emissions. They also lower Army dependence on vulnerable fuel supply lines for support of its distant bases.

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In some sense, it’s a good thing that some of those green technologies are a win-win for fighting ability and the climate. But it also shows that the military isn’t interested in emissions reductions that run counter to its broader aims. Jack Surash—who serves under the unwieldy title of “senior official performing the duties of assistant Army secretary for installations, energy, and environment”—has hinted as much. “Climate change and its effects obviously pose a very serious threat,” he said, speaking at the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army in October. “But I want to stress that … climate change does not alter the Army’s overall mission, which is to deploy, fight, and win.” Joe Bryan, senior climate adviser to the Secretary of Defense and the Defense Department’s chief sustainability officer, was more blunt. “DOD’s mission is to provide the military forces needed to deter war and ensure our nation’s security,” he wrote in a statement to TIME. “We will never compromise on that.”

Kenneth Agee maintained his position during a conference call.A plastic tube filled with white waxy material. “You think of crude oil as black,” he said. “But this is synthetic crude—it’s white as snow.” Agee is founder and president of an Oklahoma-based company called Emerging Fuels Technology, which helped produce jet fuel from carbon dioxide in the air as part of an Air Force demonstration project last August.

Twelve engineers sent Agee a tank filled with carbon monoxide they made with atmospheric CO and electricity. Emerging Fuels Technology fed the gas to its own process. It combined it with hydrogen, which can either be made from methane, or water using electricity, to create synthetic crude. This is full of long hydrocarbon string like crude oil. To produce a mixture of hydrocarbons similar to those in jet fuel, they put that substance through a “cracking” process akin to a miniature oil refinery, then poured a gallon of it into a glass jar and shipped it off to scientists at the Air Force for further study.

The Air Force says a 50-50 mix of that fuel and petroleum could be used in aircraft, and has expressed optimism that units in the field could use synthetic jet fuel made in this way—though it says there are still “unanswered questions,” like where those soldiers would get the electricity needed to power the process in the field. Another fuel plant using EFT’s part of the technology and supported by the Air Force (but with biomass instead of carbon monoxide as a primary input) is under construction in Oregon, but the project has endured multiple delays and financing problems.

If it’s completed, that plant would be able to turn out 16 million gallons of fuel a year—less than 1% of the approximately 2 billion gallons of jet fuel that the Air Force uses annually. Supplying the whole Air Force, not to mention Army and Navy aircraft, and a commercial aviation sector, would require many hundreds of such plants—an entirely new industrial sector, built from scratch.

Military aviation accounts for about 70% of all the DOD’s energy use, and to some researchers, the implications are obvious. “The only way to reduce [fuel use] is to reduce how often jets are flying,” says Heidi Peltier, director of programs at Brown University’s Costs of War project. She says that this means that the military can’t maintain its global reach and be carbon neutral. The sustainable military must be smaller with fewer bases and troops to care for and less transporting goods to the personnel in Germany from Guam. That reduction could have climate co-benefits, with all the public money currently being spent on EV Hummers and hybrid tanks potentially redirected to projects to help build America’s sorely lacking green infrastructure, like renewable energy production, EV charging stations, and public transportation.

Doug Weir, research and policy director at the U.K.-based Conflict and Environmental Observatory, says the military will have to bite the bullet eventually and start reducing fuel use in ways that don’t necessarily have strategic upsides. “There’s going to have to be a point where they [make] emissions cuts because there’s a climate emergency which is going to destabilize the planet and human civilization,” he says.

That idea—making emissions cuts that run counter to U.S. strategic interests—is laughable to some military strategists, since it would amount to an intentional weakening of military strength abroad. “Electrification for the military has to be something that’s operationally valuable, rather than being strictly for the purposes of climate change,” says Bryan Clark, a fellow at the conservative-leaning Hudson Institute. “Your opponents are not going to unilaterally disarm.”

From the Pentagon’s point of view, the U.S. doesn’t have a choice but to maintain a powerful force to engage in international confrontations, like the current standoff in Ukraine. “Nobody wants war, but you don’t always get to choose,” says Burke, the former Obama Administration official. “They say in the military, ‘The enemy gets a vote.’”

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According to some researchers, the U.S. should consider whether conflict could have an impact on its emissions as it decides how it responds to those threats. However, as the effects of climate change increase tensions in many parts of the globe, others worry that other nations may militarize their response to create a vicious cycle. “You can’t win a climate change war,” says Nick Buxton, a researcher at the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute. “Our atmosphere observes no boundaries. It’s just obvious that that nationalist approach in the end won’t serve us.”

The U.S. can choose one of two courses: to completely recast its military mindset for the sake of emissions cuts, or else just slot some greener tech into its massive war machine—like a $700 billion Bradley tank with a new hybrid engine. And for now, it appears set on the latter—defense budgets are sacrosanct in Congress, and in the most recent defense authorization bill, passed in December, legislators forbade the Defense Department from closing even U.S. bases that the Pentagon had deemed to be unnecessary. Even if some representatives agreed to give up economically precious bases in their districts, it’s not as if anyone in the White House or the DOD is talking seriously about pulling back deployments to counter a bellicose Russia and an increasingly powerful China.

Still, in recent months, emissions moves from the Defense Department have at least come as a long-overdue acknowledgment that the military’s climate footprint is a serious issue—even if they don’t seem to be quite getting to the root of the matter. “I liken it to Alcoholics Anonymous,” says Weir. “The first step is admitting that you have a problem.”

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To Alejandro de la Garza at


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