May 13, 2011

How the U.S. Military Can Defuse Resource Wars

Conflict over natural resources may well go beyond oil in the 21st century. Rising powers such as China and India race for strategic control of energy and mineral supplies around the world, even as the U.S., Canada, Russia and European countries circle around the rich resources of the melting Arctic. Even shrinking fisheries spark armed disputes and piracy in regions ranging from Southeast Asia to Somalia.

That means U.S. national security must also consider both non-renewable and renewable natural resources, says Christine Parthemore, director of the natural security program for the Center for a New American Security.

Parthemore talked with InnovationNewsDaily about how the U.S. military can get beyond oil dependency, climate change disruptions, and the future resource wars. She recently discussed her latest report about the vulnerability of global supply chains for irreplaceable minerals used by U.S. military hardware.

InnovationNewsDaily: How have natural resources played a role in sparking conflict historically, and has that changed at all in the 21st century?

Christine Parthemore: Conflicts are not generally sparked by one variable, whether that’s natural resources or political disputes. That said, natural resources often play a role in the political, economic and security trends that do lead to conflict. This century has already seen vast changes in how countries trade, produce and consume natural resources, with rising demand counting as one of the most important trends. To me, the trump card is the prominent role Asian countries like China, Japan, South Korea and India will play in the 21st century. Each of these countries considers energy, minerals, food supplies and other natural resources to be of very high strategic importance, and this automatically elevates the role resources will play in all political affairs — whether that’s conflict or cooperation.

InnovationNewsDaily: You previously recommended that the U.S. military should aim to operate all of its systems on non-petroleum fuels by 2040. How well do you think the Department of Defense (DOD) is doing in terms of getting there?

Parthemore: When my co-author and I wrote that report (Fueling the Future Force: Preparing the Department of Defense for a Post-Petroleum Era), DOD’s energy goals were almost entirely short term in nature and focused heavily on efficiency. We did not think that this was sufficient to signal to the markets what DOD needs to meet its unique requirements. Unlike the private sector, DOD relies on liquid fuels (petroleum, today) for almost 80 percent of its energy use. Yet most of its energy policies were focused on the 20 percent electricity use that generally represents less risk for the department. After surveying reserve-to-production ratios, speaking with oil companies and renewable fuel developers, the National Labs, government experts and others, we calculated that if DOD can operate on non-petroleum fuels by 2040, the U.S. military should be able to weather the strained market, unaffordable prices and potentially insufficient refined products that we can conservatively expect a few decades from now. Based on everything we’ve seen, we also believe that it’s quite feasible to produce renewable liquid fuels at scale and at affordable prices within a much shorter timeframe than the 30-year timeline we suggested.

[See Reliance on Foreign Oil Can Cost U.S. Lives, Panel Says]

Luckily, DOD has come a long way toward this kind of energy goal in the past year. Each of the armed services have unique energy goals to meet their specific mission needs, but the Navy’s goals for increasing the use of alternative fuels are the most ambitious. What is still missing is an overarching, long-term energy strategy for the entire department that will get it smoothly through the transition in the world energy economy that will take place over the coming decades. Of course, DOD needs to be able to operate globally, but energy is additionally important for the U.S. military because it purchases assets meant to last for decades. The aircraft and maritime assets that DOD purchases today could still be in use 30, 40, 50 years from now when the energy market is significantly different from today’s.

InnovationNewsDaily: Oil seems to be on the minds of military planners when it comes to preparing for conflict. But why is it important to also consider renewable resources, such as water, forests and fish stocks, as well as biodiversity loss and climate change?

Parthemore: There is a bias in the policy community to focus mostly on non-renewable resources like oil and minerals because they seem to present a zero-sum situation. Since we wrote our report “Sustaining Security” last summer, however, I think Washington is really waking up to the broader set of potentially destabilizing environmental conditions. For example, the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee recently produced a report on water stress in South and Central Asia.

InnovationNewsDaily: Pentagon planners and the U.S. Navy have at least recognized how climate change can affect national security problems, especially in the Arctic. What else do you think they could be doing?

Parthemore: DOD and especially the Navy have done a great job in analyzing how climate change will affect them. My main suggestion going forward is that they bring equal attention to regions outside of the Arctic. It is perhaps the first case of climate change directly impacting U.S. security interests, but we need to be well prepared for the next cases that are sure to come.

InnovationNewsDaily: Climate change also affects access to resources such as fresh water or fisheries. What kind of resource-driven conflicts do you expect we'll see in the 21st century?

Parthemore: I don’t think the world is on a set path. We see great tensions arising in the South China Sea and in the Yemen/Horn of Africa region that involve natural resources, but that holds the potential to create new avenues of cooperation, not just conflict. If security and foreign policy analysts and policymakers work hard to tilt the balance in favor of cooperation, I’m hopeful that the worst potential effects of resource competition can be avoided.