A Greener Future for the Military?

A Greener Future for the Military?

What impact will the transition to eco-friendly vehicles have upon military operations reliant upon civilian fossil fuel infrastructure?

In December, policymakers and academics gathered at the University of Cambridge for a CSaP-hosted discussion on the future of military operations and rapid response to humanitarian disasters in a changing energy landscape. These operations are presently very energy-intensive and highly fossil fuel dependent. As new environmentally friendly innovations become part of the mainstream and as the policy environment surrounding the use of fossil fuel-powered vehicles shifts – with a ban on petrol and diesel powered cars scheduled to come into effect in the UK in 2040 –questions about the future of energy supply will prove vital to understanding the future context in which security actors will operate.

The military is presently dependent upon civilian infrastructure for the delivery of fuels, while more than half of the military’s energy dependence comes from its ‘white’ fleet – the cars, minibuses, trucks and lorries which transport people and carry out logistics. As civilian infrastructure transitions towards greener alternatives, fossil-fuel burning military vehicles with long lifespans and long procurement cycles may face challenges in maintaining levels of access to traditional fossil fuel supply chains. These fossil fuels presently offer numerous benefits to those operating in conflict and humanitarian contexts, including high energy density and the ability to cost effectively power large vehicles. Given the nature of long military procurement cycles, planning for disruptions to supply chains or energy transitions needs to be considered years in advance.

This is not the first time that military leaders have encountered large scale energy and infrastructure transitions. Historic examples, where fuel efficiency, technological changes, and the desire for fuel independence prompted the need for innovation, included the transition from horses to cars and the shift from coal to wood and gas. History has demonstrated that the military can be leaders in developing technological solutions to complex problems, with the civil sector catching up afterwards.

In the case of the upcoming transition to greener energy sources, roundtable participations suggested that a gradual transition will be required, and could initially focus on the white logistical fleet, rather than the ‘green’ fleet of tanks and other operational combat vehicles. While there remain significant challenges to transitioning heavy aircraft and large vehicles, other vehicles may be able to transition to diversified energy sources such as biofuels, low-carbon synthetic fuels made from sea water using nuclear reactors, and electricity. These technologies come with their own benefits, including reducing military reliance on fuel convoys which can be targeted during operations, and the possibility that electric planes may be more agile. However, there are also challenges – such as a possible increased reliance upon vulnerable electricity grids, which could create new challenges both in disaster recovery missions and in circumstances where adversaries consequently deemed the grids a target.

Creative solutions, and changes to the nature of warfare, may also have impacts upon the outcome of energy transitions within military contexts. In addition to the possible employment of tools such as carbon offsetting and adding modifications to current operational vehicles, the military may be able to reduce its carbon footprint through the increased use of autonomous technology or cyber warfare, which reduce emissions through reductions in operational personnel and supply transports. These changes and challenges should be viewed as an opportunity to think creatively, and to develop new capabilities and technologies which may prove to be viable exports during a global green transition, and which may also contribute to changes in balance of powers in the global energy landscape.

This article was written by Kate McNeil, Communications Officer for PaCCS and Communications Coordinator for Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP). This article was originally published on the CSaP website, and has been republished with permission. CSaP’s mission is to improve public policy through the more effective use of evidence and expertise. They do this by creating opportunities for public policy professionals and academics to learn from each other.

Photo credit: Robert Sullivan – Royal Air Force (RAF) Panavia “Tornado GR4” –