Image credit: Photo by Ching Oettel, Source: Florida National Guard

March 03, 2022

A Climate Change–Ready Force

How Climate Innovation within the Department of Defense Can Strengthen National Security

By Bethan Saunders

In its new Climate Adaptation Plan, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has identified climate change as a critical national security challenge. Climate change effects, such as more extreme weather and more severe droughts, are “threat multipliers” that drive political instability and terrorism, put significant pressure on the U.S. military, and endanger national security. Climate change also threatens the operational capacity of U.S. military bases. Since 2017, climate-related damages to U.S. military installations have cost taxpayers over $13 billion in damages and threatened the operational resiliency of key bases. As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a January 2021 statement, “There is little about what the Department does to defend the American people that is not affected by climate change.” However, the DoD is also the world’s largest institutional user of petroleum and the 55th largest producer of greenhouse gases globally—more than the entire country of Portugal. With more than 1,700 DoD installations at risk from rising sea levels, the DoD must invest in innovative climate technology to ensure a resilient defense infrastructure and a climate change–ready force.

DoD investments in cutting-edge climate technology will produce three main benefits. First, climate technology will improve military readiness and lethality. Alternative fuels, battery technology, and energy storage are not only effective tools to combat climate change but are also critical technologies for creating a mobile and flexible fighting force that is less reliant on fossil fuels. In 2005, then-Lieutenant General James Mattis called on military technologists to “unleash us from the tether of fuel.” Moving fuel tankers across U.S. bases during the Iraq War was one of the most dangerous tasks—nearly 3,000 contractors died or were injured transporting oil between 2003 and 2007. Electric vehicles (EVs) can reduce the military’s dependency on liquid fuels and offer exportable power through bi-directional charging that lessens reliance on towed generators. There are also tactical advantages on the battlefield: the lower heat signature and noise of EVs make tactical vehicles less likely to be detected by enemy forces. However, these technologies are not without their shortcomings—EV technology is limited by recharging infrastructure and may still require transport to bases. Beyond alternative energy, investments in AI and machine learning could help predict electricity needs on bases to make energy more reliable, particularly during and after natural disasters. Advanced solar-powered drones, more efficient microgrids, and hydrogen energy are other nascent solutions to advance climate resiliency and efficiency across the armed forces.

Second, DoD investments in climate technology will help strengthen U.S. geopolitical influence with allies. While the United States produces many of the most sophisticated commercial technologies in the world, there are fears that the U.S. military risks ceding technology leadership to competitors such as China and Russia. Sea level changes in the South China Sea, melting ice caps, new trade routes in the Arctic, demand for batteries and renewable energy, and more devastating natural disasters all pose new threats to the United States and to U.S. allies. Leading in cutting-edge climate technologies will protect and enhance U.S. influence with allies as threats from climate change grow.

Building a climate change–ready force will require integrating and adopting innovative climate technologies across the entire DoD.

Third, DoD investments in climate technologies can support U.S. job growth and expand the climate technology industry. There is a historical precedence of DoD investments catalyzing the growth and commercial adoption of innovative technology. Radar, GPS, and Arpanet (the precursor to the internet) all received instrumental launch capital from the DoD. The Pentagon was also an early adopter of solar panels and helped scale the solar industry in 2007, when the Air Force contracted the largest solar plant in the United States at Nellis Air Force Base. Increasing DoD investments in innovative climate technologies for military use could provide the industry with crucial capital to innovate and develop affordable technology for commercial use.

Building a climate change–ready force will require integrating and adopting innovative climate technologies across the entire DoD. Because of its agility and track record of innovation, the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) is the best-placed organization to spearhead and launch critical investments in climate technology within the DoD. In particular, the DIU should create a new climate technology focus area to identify and scale the most cutting-edge climate technology to strengthen U.S. national security.

The DIU strengthens U.S. national security “by accelerating the adoption of commercial technology throughout the military and growing the national security innovation base.” It is the only DoD organization focused exclusively on rapidly scaling commercial technology across six focus areas: advanced energy and materials, artificial intelligence, autonomy, cyber, human systems, and space. Furthermore, it is incredibly nimble. The DIU can award contracts in under three months, whereas the traditional DoD contract process often takes more than six times as long. The DIU also lowers high barriers to entry for DoD contracts and helps avoid the “valley of death”—the dreaded gap between a company’s successful prototype contract and when their product finally becomes part of a DoD program of record.

Adding climate technology as a DIU core focus area will help expand and scale climate technology investments. The DIU’s procurement agility can advance the integration and adoption of critical climate technologies across the entire DoD. Moreover, its streamlined connectivity with the private sector and “fail fast” model allows for quick identification of the best commercial solutions for addressing climate change. In fact, the DIU has already invested in technology with climate change applications. The DIU’s advanced energy & materials portfolio has lines of effort in “next-generation” fuels and mobility. In the artificial intelligence portfolio, the DIU has supported the deployment of computer vision algorithms to assist first responders in conducting post-disaster damage assessment and humanitarian assistance during wildfires. A new climate technology portfolio within the DIU can leverage this existing work and the expertise of the DoD’s Climate Working Group and senior climate advisor to identify the most effective climate technologies to strengthen U.S. national security.

Overall, DoD investments in climate technology will improve military readiness and resiliency, strengthen U.S. geopolitical influence with allies, and benefit the American economy. Empowering the Defense Innovation Unit to invest in climate technology will prepare the U.S. military for conflicts in an uncertain future and a changing climate.

About the Author

Bethan Saunders is an MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), where she is the professional development chair for Women in Defense, Development, and Diplomacy and a student coordinator for the Cambridge Project, which works with graduate students to augment the Defense Innovation Unit’s mission of accelerating commercial technology for national security. She is also the co-chair of the Gender Working Group as part of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Initiative. Prior to HKS, Saunders was an associate at Morgan Stanley, chair of the Philanthropy Committee for the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund, and director of outreach for the New York chapter of Women in International Security. Saunders graduated from Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service with a major in international politics and security and a certificate in African studies.

Acknowledgments

Thank you to Laura Brent, the former CNAS Senior Fellow in the Technology and National Security Program, for her invaluable feedback and insight on this article. Special thanks to Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Initiative Comms Consultancy, particularly Jack Miller and Andrew Overton, for their consistent support in developing my idea from the very start of the pitch process. Thank you to Cecilia Zhou, Ben Richardson, and Annalise Blum for their insights as practitioners, and Harvard Kennedy School’s writing consultant Jerry Lanson.

I am grateful to the entire CNAS Pitch team, particularly Carisa Nietsche, Nathalie Grogan, and Katie Galgano, for their support throughout this process. Finally, thank you to CNAS for this opportunity and for elevating the voices of diverse young professionals in national security through the Pitch competition.

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