WASHINGTON — The aftermath of Hurricane Florence dumping 36 inches of rain on North Carolina in 2018 saw three Marine Corps installations flooded, costing taxpayers $3.6 billion in damage. A few weeks later, Hurricane Michael ripped through Tyndall Air Force Base, causing about $4.7 billion in damage at the Florida facility.
Then last year, leaders evacuated Travis Air Force Base in northern California due to nearby raging wildfires.
And today, Arctic Air Force bases hosting radar early warning systems and communication equipment are suffering coastal erosion, which is damaging seawalls, runways and infrastructure. Thawing permafrost and erosion threatens bases in the Arctic, damaging infrastructure. NASA tracks the extent of Arctic sea ice and estimates a declining 13.1 percent rate of change per decade.
“Climate change is going to cost us in resources and readiness,” Joe Bryan, senior climate adviser at the Pentagon, said during a July webinar. “The reality is that it already is.”
Now, after years of the Trump administration sidestepping the issue, the Biden administration has asked for $617 million in fiscal 2022 for climate change preparation, adaptation and mitigation. In addition, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, having already identified climate change as a top priority, launched a Climate Working Group in response to a January executive order signed by President Joe Biden. Climate change is no longer a problem for future defense leaders; it is an immediate challenge.
According to NASA, climate change is driven by increased levels of greenhouse gases causing global temperatures to rise, the ocean to warm, polar ice to melt and sea levels to rise. Since the late 1800s, Earth’s average surface temperature has risen 2.12 degrees Fahrenheit, and the last seven years have been the warmest. The year 2020 is tied with 2016 for the warmest year on record.
Biden warned in his executive order that the world is facing “a profound climate crisis. We have a narrow moment to pursue action at home and abroad in order to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of that crisis and to seize the opportunity that tackling climate change presents.”
The problem is becoming clearer. The Congressional Research Service found that the Department of Defense manages more than 1,700 global military installations on coastlines that could prove vulnerable to rises in sea level. A 2019 departmental survey involving 79 installations warned that about two-thirds are vulnerable to recurrent flooding and that another half are under threat by drought or wildfires.
Melting Arctic ice opens new avenues to potential conflict; sea level rise threatens hundreds of millions of people globally and impacts military installations; and extreme heat can influence training and operations.
With the White House and the Pentagon signaling the prioritization of climate measures, Defense News reached out to the Army, Air Force and Navy about their efforts to adapt.
Innovation at the Air and Space forces
Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Virginia — home to Air Combat Command and host to critical fighter aircraft as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities — sits just 8 feet above sea level.
Diego Garcia — an atoll in the Indian Ocean that often hosts deployments of U.S. bombers and is central to operations in Afghanistan, South Asia and East Africa — sits only 6.5 feet above sea level. And the Marshall Islands — where the Space Force is building a $1 billion radar installation to track satellites and space junk, known as the Space Fence — sits just 10 feet higher than the ocean.
“Nearly all of our installations are exposed to some natural or climate-related threat such as hurricanes, tornados, wildfires, and extreme winter weather,” Air Force spokeswoman Sarah Fiocco told Defense News. “These climate considerations have a direct impact on our ability to launch our missions, as our installations are a platform from which we project air power.
“The Department of the Air Force is actively working toward making our installations more resilient to the potential impacts of climate change and extreme weather.”
For example, Fiocco said, construction projects deliberately located in flood plains for mission purposes are built 3 feet above the design flood elevation (or the highest point of a possible flood that a retrofitting method is designed to protect against).
Amid ongoing disaster recovery at Tyndall Air Force Base, the service is constructing new buildings 19 feet above sea level if they are near the Gulf of Mexico. Fiocco said the projects at Tyndall are also built to withstand a minimum of 165 mph.
“Due to integrating severe weather and climate change design into our DoD building code, every project accounts for future changes in the climate and possibility of increased severe weather events,” she said.
The changing climate, particularly underway in the Arctic, also creates new mission challenges for the U.S. military. For example, a 2020 report from the think tank Rand said the melting Arctic ice and Russian military activity in the area means the U.S. Air Force must prepare for “an increase in demand for intercept flights” in the region.
“That’s a sensing challenge [because] we need to know what’s coming over the poles, which can be difficult,” said Raphael Cohen, acting director of strategy and doctrine program at Rand’s Project Air Force. “It’s a communications challenge because the way communications work in the high north are somewhat different. And then there’s a military capability question too. How much ... resources you put up there? That is also a thing that we have to consider.”
Fiocco told Defense News that the service recognizes climate change “may drive increased mission demands or contingencies in new regions (e.g., Arctic) in response to resource competition, geopolitical instability, and a growing need for humanitarian assistance and disaster response to recover from climate-related events.”
“The Department of the Air Force is reviewing its current posture to inform necessary pivots in operational planning, locations and activities based on climate change considerations,” she added.
That includes projects with the Air Force Research Laboratory dedicated to improving communication capabilities in the high north. Arron Layns, the lab’s Arctic portfolio manager, said the organization is specifically working on new satellite and laser communications, and on bolstering high-frequency communications in the region.
Space-based communication for the Arctic is particularly challenging, as forecasting capabilities beyond Earth’s atmosphere are still maturing, and the North Pole’s environment is especially “dynamic,” Layns said. That’s in part due to the aurora — or northern lights — and how it interferes with satellite communications.
“The space environment is woefully under-observed, and the models are coming up, but they’re just not quite there for what we need,” Layns said. “The space environment has huge impacts on a variety of things. And if you don’t get that environmental information right, you might not know how your satellite’s going to work, or you might not know how your communications or [if] your navigation is really going to work properly.”
The Air Force, which is itself a major contributor to climate change, is looking at novel ways to improve the combat capability of its fleet while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. According to Fiocco, the service wants to increase the fuel economy of its legacy aircraft, in particular its mobility fleet.
In congressional testimony in July, Jennifer Miller, the acting assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and energy, said the service is funding “small items” that can increase efficiency, such as modifying aircraft with little winglets or adjusting the angle of windshield wipers.
Additionally, the planning tool JIGSAW, developed by the Air Force software factory Kessel Run and the Defense Innovation Unit — the Pentagon’s liaison for nontraditional contractors — now saves the service 180,000 gallons of fuel per week.
The Air Force is also exploring advancements in airframes and engines that would be “significantly more efficient” and increase combat power. According to Fiocco, the service is eyeing third-stream engines, which would be 25 percent more efficient than engines currently in use, as well as blended wing body aircraft, which would be about 30 percent more efficient.
However, she said, the potential for those capabilities is “limited by both technology and budgetary issues.”
The Army is currently writing its own climate change strategy, which is scheduled for release this fall, according to Jack Surash, the senior official performing the duties of assistant secretary of the Army for installations, environment and energy. Following the release, the service will unveil a “very detailed” climate change action plan that outlines a broad, “multiyear effort” for how the Army will tackle climate issues, he told lawmakers in July.
Asked by Defense News how the Army plans to adapt to potentially harsher environmental conditions, the service’s answers largely focused on energy storage.
“The Army is examining improved energy density and reliability of energy supply and storage technologies, [artificial intelligence]-enabled system-level power distribution (microgrids) and the use of renewable energy sources for use in operational contexts, including forward operating bases, tactical vehicles and on the battlefield,” Surash said in a statement.
He added that the Army wants “increased battery capacity, auxiliary power, electrification and alternative fuel sources that will increase operational endurance within the force, while reducing carbon emissions.”
Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, also emphasized the military’s need to generate power on the battlefield in challenging environments.
“Coming up with new ways to generate power is going to be essential. Not just because of the ‘feel good, we need to be more clear’ military perspective to combat climate change, [but] because the military is going to operate in places where the host nation may have made those choices already and therefore they don’t have a bunch of electric power available for us to use,” he said.
The service is also exploring hybrid and fully electric vehicles, though top Army leaders said this year that hybrid vehicles are more likely to be a successful option in the near term. In congressional testimony, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said the service is considering hybrid vehicles that reduce fuel consumption by 25 percent. Meanwhile, Bruce Geil, chief of the power integration architecture branch at the Army Research Laboratory, said his portfolio is focused on making hybrid power systems more capable, but also smaller.
The lab also has several ongoing efforts related to climate prediction and planning that help commanders map out operations.
“If you have a climatological sense of what’s going to be in that area, then commanders can plan for those regions and know what weapon systems are going to work,” said Robb Randall, chief of the lab’s Atmospheric Science Center and the Atmospheric Dynamics and Analytics Branch. “How do I outfit my personnel and supply your need? How much water do I need to bring?”
The lab is also working on risk-assessment and decision-aid technology for desertification, in which fertile land becomes desert, to predict areas that are more prone to the change in the long term, Randall said. It’s also developing predictive capabilities for flash droughts — a rapid onset of drought — which can cause regional instability.
In a 2019 report to Congress, the Army listed desertification as the top climate threat to nine of its top 10 most vulnerable stateside bases. The service listed drought as the secondary threat to all 10. The same year, the Army War College released a report naming challenges the service will face due to climate change, including rising temperatures and an increased need for water. The report warned that the service is “precipitously close to mission failure concerning hydration of the force in a contested arid environment.”
In addition, the Army Research Lab and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency each have ongoing projects tackling hydration. The lab is exploring how to decontaminate polluted water using an aluminum panel that concentrates solar energy for purification. DARPA has chosen six partners to find unique ways to extract potable water from the atmosphere.
The Army Corps of Engineers is also contributing to departmentwide efforts, having designed the DoD Climate Assessment Tool, which projects the effects of climate change on almost 1,400 DoD locations. Additionally, the corps is researching unique approaches to developing construction materials to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Navy preps for new missions
A Pentagon report this year on the impact of environmental changes to installations found the Navy had a “greater range of climate exposure” than the other services, with it facing drought, heat and coastal flooding in the United States as well as East Asia and the Middle East.
The Navy did not answer questions from Defense News by press time about how it is adapting to the changing environment.
In congressional testimony in July, Todd Schafer, acting assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment, stated broadly that the service is working to “build climate resiliency” into its installations.
Sea level rise particularly threatens naval bases. The Hampton Roads, Virginia, area, home to the largest concentration of military infrastructure in the world, is already under threat of flooding, with the sea level near the area expected to rise 1.5 feet in the next 20-50 years, according to the Congressional Research Service. The worst effects are expected at the end of this century.
John Conger, former acting assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment, told Defense News that in areas like Hampton Roads, the emphasis must be on protecting investments rather than taking the costly step of moving them.
“What the smart play is, in the near term, is to make your infrastructure more resilient,” said Conger, who leads the Center for Climate and Security and serves as a senior U.S. adviser to the International Military Council on Climate and Security.
DARPA is exploring new solutions to mitigate the effects of a rising sea level and the subsequent flooding. The agency’s Reefense program is looking to use reef-mimicking ecosystems to reduce the impact.
Lori Adornato, the Reefense program manager, said the Army Corps of Engineers is interested in the project. “Because we have a number of bases on the coast, one of the ways that we can think about protecting them is taking advantage of how nature has protected coasts over time.”
The Navy will also need to adapt to new missions, as fresh sea routes spring up amid the melting of Arctic ice — pathways for which U.S. adversaries Russia and China might take advantage.
The service will also need to improve its weather forecasting capabilities. That effort is underway with the Office of Naval Research, which is collecting data in the Arctic about waves, sea ice, and atmospheric and water circulation.
But there’s a lack of data.
“We don’t have the pattern of operations in the Arctic to have built the type of expertise that the Navy has, in terms of conducting things like detailed weather forecasting” in other regions, said Joshua Tallis, research scientist at Virginia-based think tank CNA.
To operate more frequently in the Arctic, the Navy may need ice-hardened ships — an expensive capability. In Senate testimony in July, Vice Adm. Jim Kilby, deputy chief of naval operations for war-fighting requirements and capabilities, said the service would make future ship design decisions based on where “we think we are going to operate.”
Tallis noted that the investment in ice-hardened ships is a tough choice for an armed service that operates globally.
“Part of what the Navy has to think about as it is building the force that combatant commanders will use in the future: It is this question of, is that demand for a specialized, ice-hardened capability sufficient in order to warrant the expense for the relatively niche capability that they would purchase? And so far, at least from a Navy standpoint, the cost benefit hasn’t worked in that favor.”
Andrew Eversden covered all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. Beforehand, he reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.