President-elect Biden called climate change the “greatest threat” to US national security and reiterated many national security and military leaders. It has already made historic climate and clean energy commitments to address this threat. As the largest institutional energy consumer in the world, the Department of Defense (DoD) plays a vital role in meeting these commitments. Energy is vital to every aspect of military operations, from fueling ships and aircraft to powering military bases. Investing in clean energy will strengthen US military capabilities and resilience, while making significant strides in meeting climate goals.
The incoming Commander in Chief and U.S. Forces face a turbulent global strategic environment. The US military must be prepared for the resurgence of strategic competition among nations, global instability caused by climate change and political upheaval, and the threat to the homeland from space and cyberspace. Resilience and flexibility are the watchwords of the next generation of national security challenges, and the United States must invest to develop these capabilities in its armed forces.
The United States must change the way it powers its military to meet these challenges. Clean energy can be a weapon that enables armed forces to deploy faster and longer, and to keep troops and homes safe. A new DoD clean energy innovation agenda will strengthen military capabilities and resilience, strengthen US leadership in the race to develop breakthrough clean energy technologies, and create thousands of American jobs to accelerate economic recovery from the pandemic.
Invest in breakthrough technology for emergency responders
Military leaders have long been concerned about the US military's reliance on fossil fuels. In 2003 Lt. General Jim Mattis, commander of the First Marine Expeditionary Force, stated that future US forces “must be released from the fuel belt.” The US Army later estimated that between 2003 and 2007 one in twenty-four fuel convoys ended in a US accident, and during that period attributed more than three thousand US military and DoD contractor deaths to fuel convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan.
US forces know that clean energy technologies can reduce fuel consumption, extend range and duration, and reduce risk. Marines and soldiers have used solar backpacks and blankets to charge the batteries for their communications equipment. The army is investing in the electrification of its vehicles and weapon systems in order to reduce fuel consumption. And the US Navy has used hybrid-propelled ships to extend the time at sea. Many of these initiatives have shown promise and effective, only to stagnate under the current leadership.
A new DoD energy innovation office, led by a senior official, could coordinate research and development efforts between DoD and the rest of the government. These efforts would focus on electrifying Tactical Advantage, including: accelerating the development and deployment of renewable microgrids and moving to new electrically powered tactical vehicles, unmanned underwater and surface water vehicles, and remotely controlled aircraft.
The Pentagon should also work with other government agencies and commercial aviation to launch a research and development initiative focused on flight redesign. Jet fuel makes up most of the Department of Defense's energy budget, and aviation has proven difficult to decarbonize. This initiative would invest in the development of new hybrid and electric aircraft propulsion systems, improved aerodynamic missile designs, more durable and lightweight advanced materials, and low-emission renewable fuels.
Investing in these breakthrough technologies would strengthen the U.S. military's ability to operate and project power in controversial environments. In addition, these technologies have the potential to transform the clean energy economy, just as many technologies originally developed for military use led to revolutionary innovations such as microwaves, radar, and the Internet.
Use clean energy technologies to protect critical infrastructures
Clean energy is a powerful tool for strengthening the security of military installations. The U.S. military is increasingly relying on its domestic bases for critical missions and capabilities. From unmanned airplanes monitoring troops on the ground to cyber operators preventing foreign opponents from disrupting elections, the U.S. military relies on domestic critical infrastructures like power grids and communications networks.
This critical infrastructure is at unprecedented risk. Energy providers in the western United States preventively switch off the power supply to mitigate forest fires. Devastating storms over the US Gulf and Atlantic coast are only getting more frequent and severe. Foreign opponents were able to gain operational access to the power grid, including the control centers for power plants. The Trump administration has rolled back on climate change policy and eliminated the DoD senior position on climate adaptation despite storms and floods causing nearly $ 10 billion in damage to domestic DoD bases.
The US military must invest in a major program to deploy clean energy and energy storage systems to protect critical defense missions and facilities. This program could build on the recently announced Federal Consortium for Advanced Batteries to develop a state-wide approach to energy storage.
First, the United States should scale its clean energy production capacity to strengthen its economic and national security. Many of the energy storage systems used today are based on imported batteries, which creates potential weak points in the supply chain. For example, lithium is a critical material used in most energy storage applications and found in significant quantities in many countries. However, only one mine is currently in operation in North America. The Department of Defense could rely on the Defense Production Act (DPA) to create a domestic supply chain for critical materials and production capacity for advanced energy storage systems. With the help of the Data Protection Agency, the US government could expedite the development and manufacture of secure materials, particularly for systems that support national security resources and facilities.
Second, the US Department of Energy (DOE) has significant technical and intelligence skills and is the sector-specific agency for the energy sector. DOE should analyze network threats and assess market opportunities for battery use on military bases and in defense communities, and focus research and development investments on long-term energy storage and microgrid controls.
Ultimately, the Department of Defense should allocate at least $ 5 billion to deploy resilient energy storage systems in critical installations across the United States, which would greatly improve the security of key national security resources and facilities. The impact of this investment could increasingly be expanded by private sector funding for DoD energy projects. DoD has already delivered hundreds of megawatts of renewable energy through public-private partnerships. The Department of Defense should streamline these agencies and focus them specifically on projects that provide security and resilience.
Establish DoD Clean Energy Leadership
The Biden Harris administration can reestablish the Department of Defense and the U.S. Forces as leaders in clean energy. The next defense minister should set aggressive climate security and clean energy goals and an organizational structure to achieve those goals, including dedicated leadership roles with budgetary and political powers. These high-level executives should ensure that new DoD buildings and non-tactical vehicles are carbon and energy-free, and that existing facilities are upgraded within the next decade. In addition, climate and energy influences should be taken into account in the development of weapon systems and platforms as well as in future basic decisions.
Military and national security leaders from across the political spectrum know that climate change is a threat and that moving to clean energy is critical to a secure future. Now is the time to act to meet the scale of the challenge.
Jon Powers is the president and co-founder of CleanCapital, a former special advisor on energy to the US Army and the former chief sustainability officer of the federal government. Michael Wu is the director and co-founder of Converge Strategies, LLC and a former senior energy consultant with the US Air Force.
The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute a DoD endorsement.
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