The Climate Threat to the U.S. Military

I’m not trying to compete with Fabius Maximus here, but with the spate of stories about the U.S. Department of Defence mandating a focus on climate change it seems to be something a vet can opine about.


Taking the obvious threats of sea level rise, rising temperatures and increased areas for vector-borne diseases (which in all wars prior to WWII killed more soldiers than any enemy), it is not clear to me that U.S. defence capabilities are threatened by the climate change that the IPCC forecasts–between 26 and 98 cm of sea level rise, 1.5-4C average temperature rises, increased spread of vector-borne diseases in limited areas of Africa, South Asia and South America.

The U.S. military has bases (oh, does it have bases–over 500 outside the U.S., almost 6,000 within) and some of them could be affected by climate change. It also has the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Seabees and other units that could climate proof them quite quickly. The U.S. has more military bases than it needs and if it wanted to close a few it could start with those most at risk. Kwajalein, Diego Garcia, etc. I imagine they’ll want to hang on to Pearl Harbor, but we could let go of Gitmo.  As shown on the map above, most bases located outside America are well inland–think Ramstein, Incirlik, etc.

The ability of the U.S. military to project a credible deterrent force outside the U.S. relies primarily on its dozen carrier groups, the strategic bombing capabilities of its Air Force and its nuclear powered submarine fleet. They would not be affected by climate change.

A good part of U.S. naval capabilities are centered around littoral combat, landing troops on a beach safely and effectively. Again, these would not be affected by climate change even if the beach is a bit further inland.

Strategic and tactical planning both have always taken weather into account, the famous example being the careful forecasting required for D-Day in 1944. So too with navigational threats for both the Navy and Air Force. As climate change from a military standpoint is just slow weather, I don’t know how it would affect planning.

It is apparent that the major operational threat would consist of the mobility and effectiveness of ground-based troops operating in an offensive posture. If it’s hotter, troops are slower and less effective. The U.S. has a lot of recent practice operating in very hot climes, although the lack of humidity may have made it easier.

The Cadillac nature of the military as it is currently constituted weighs down our ground forces. They are asked to carry too much. Technology seems to be well on its way to resolving this, from robot sherpas to carry the load to exoskeletons that will strengthen the soldiers, to drones that will extend the eyes and ears of troops and are armed as well. It would seem possible–perhaps even probable–that the Army will be less vulnerable to climate conditions, rather than more so.


The strategic threat then seems to be that climate change will unsettle the world to such an extent that there will be more call for the armed forces to be used. Certainly some of the areas vulnerable to sea level rise, flooding and increased temperature and disease are poor, unstable and under authoritarian regimes. It is a possibility that planners should take into account. The famous example of the Syrian civil conflict preceded by drought will weigh on their minds, perhaps more heavily than it should.

However, looking at the threats to the U.S. today, we see Russia, unaffected by present and probably future climate change, North Korea, unaffected by present and probably future climate change and mainland China, unaffected by present and probably future climate change. (Agriculture will perhaps have to shift geographically in China if climate change comes in at the high end of IPCC predictions, but it is fully capable of doing so and improving productivity as a result.) I don’t consider Iran a strategic threat to the U.S., and I frankly see little appetite for further adventures in either Asia–we still remember Vietnam–or Central or South America. If Mexico were to destabilize that would be problematic, but I find it difficult to assess either the likelihood of that or Mexico’s capabilities should it occur.

Therefore I think that climate change is something that the Pentagon will use as a barometer for evaluating its support infrastructure–they own a lot of buildings that could go green–and its operating budget, looking at renewable energy to lower their fuel costs. And those are worthy things to do.

But I doubt if anybody in the military is actually losing sleep over climate change.

sleeping solder


6 responses to “The Climate Threat to the U.S. Military

  1. Every dollar spent on “cliamte change” as a military or strategic threat is a wasted dollar. Every moment spent designing “strategies” to deal with “climate change” is a moment that should have been spent out flanking the growing alliance between Iran, N Korea and /or China and Russia…
    The waste of resources due to the climate obsession is going to leave us vulnerable to a surprise attack that will dwarf Pearl Harbor.

  2. The USA military is an appendage of the Washington bureaucracy, controlled by the current president, who has developed global warming mania. This means the armed forces are dutifully following orders, and executing them as they think they should. Those officers who don’t toe the party line are either punished, or forced to retire. This is what happens when the USA makes military blunders, such as invading Iraq.

    As regards the USA military base in Guantanamo, a better choice would be to hand it over to free Cubans, so it can become an entity similar to Hong Kong. I realize nowadays many of you are bamboozled into supporting the Castro family dictatorship. But we who know its truly evil nature, will continue to fight it.

    Like Obama said, this is now an internal matter, and when it comes to overthrowing dictatorships, if peaceful methods don’t yield progress, asymmetric violence is usually the tactic of choice (an outcome our dear Washington DC imbeciles don’t seem to grasp).

  3. A priority of the Defense Department and the top brass in the Pentagon is defending their budgets. They can count on the support of most congressional Republicans, who are in their thrall. Climate change is just a way to sell their budgetary demands to Democrats.

    Note that I am criticizing the brass, not the brave men and women who actually put their lives on the line for our sake.

    • The fact that you feel you need to add a tidbit about the ‘brave military” says a lot about USA militarism and soldier worship. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a country with so much zeez boom bah about these guys. I suspect it’s because they are getting mistreated by being sent to fight wars they know are fairly meaningless. The cheering seems to be a compensating mechanism?

      To me it’s evident any enlisted person below three stars lacks any say on anything regarding policy. Soldiers even have problems trying to change can openers, getting better gloves, and lip cream. Global warming isn’t really on their radar.

      • Fernando, we love our soldiers because they are fellow citizens who have volunteered to go into harm’s way for the common good. Unlike far too many countries, we have never had a military junta or coup. the US military is at once extremely careful but very docile in its loyalty….so far. Our zeez boom bah kept Europe from being under a certain German expansionist program on a long term basis, and rolled back Japan when they had visions of an Asian empire… lately? better to skip over some of that…

      • Fernando,

        I am not sure I see your point.

        Soldiers returned from Vietnam were treated horribly by much of the public, even though that war was not in any way their fault. Once passions cooled from that, it got turned around, so that anyone who criticized the military, or opposed some particularly ridiculous bit of military spending, was likely to be accused of attacking the ordinary soldiers. That got really bad during the early days of Bush’s war on terror, and is still done to some degree. So the distinction does seem to be made.

        Maybe there is some compensation going on since so few of us are willing to fight to defend our freedom. But, at least in the U.S., we still recognize that freedom is something that has to be fought for from time to time.

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