NATO powers are pushing their militaries to lead by example on climate change and rein in operational emissions, even as threat assessments point to a continued need for long-distance operations in remote and diverse locations, creating a need for new types of fuel and innovation.
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The 30-nation alliance, which dates from the Cold War and is led by the US, is emerging from its bruising engagement in Afghanistan, where fuel supply issues loomed large, eying new potential threats and with them challenges over energy, mobility and climate change.
Fuel supply problems are nothing new for the military, but Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister with an interest in climate change and the Arctic, is pushing for an action plan at NATO's upcoming summit on June 14 encompassing security aspects of climate change and the military's own historically burdensome fuel use.
Topics such as the opening of the 'northern sea route' between Europe and Asia due to melting ice are among those being weighed, while on fuels, Stoltenberg told a climate summit in April: "It makes little sense to have more and more electric vehicles on our streets, while our armed forces still rely only on fossil fuels."
"NATO must set the gold standard on understanding, adapting to, and mitigating the security impacts of climate change."
Military emissions are an obvious place to start for governments looking to meet climate goals. In the UK, defense accounts for half of central government emissions, while in the US, Defense Department vehicles and equipment accounted for nearly 90% of fuel consumed by all federally owned vehicles and equipment in 2019, according to the Department of Energy. The UK defense ministry says it will be in the "vanguard" of emissions reductions and has cut its emissions by 48% since 2009-10.
On the plus side, the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan helped reduce the fuel use of NATO militaries along with associated logistical complexity and loss of life. Thousands of soldiers and contractors were killed or injured in attacks on fuel convoys travelling through Pakistan to Afghanistan, while mid-air refueling relied on fragile alliances with Central Asian nations such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
Oil consumption by the US air force, over 50% of all oil consumed by the Defense Department, dropped by 7% from 2014, when the presence in Afghanistan was substantially cut back, to 45.3 million barrels in 2019. Jet fuel consumption by the US military fell 30% from 2010 to 2019 to 2.75 billion gallons (65 million barrels) in the latter year, according to the Department of Energy. For the UK, overall military fuel consumption was 42% lower in 2019-20 than a decade earlier, at 719 million liters.
And militaries are stepping up the use of sustainable fuel derived from biofuel or recycled waste as "drop-in" alternatives, including in fighter jets and helicopters. The US began the process a decade ago with the 'Green Hornet' F18 fighter jet, and the UK said last year it would permit substitution by sustainable fuels up to a level of 50% in all military aircraft.
But while US President Joe Biden is re-engaging with European allies and embracing the climate issue, the days are long gone when NATO planners could mainly focus on a dedicated European network of military pipelines. NATO and the US are recrafting their military objectives, and increasing their presence both in familiar locations and parts of the world where support infrastructure is less strong.
UK military fuel use has actually started to increase again after the Afghan drawdown as the government has commissioned new aircraft carriers it hopes will project influence, particularly in Asia.
And sourcing sustainable fuels at scale and at competitive prices is a challenge. While the US is a leading biofuel producer, regulation prioritizes its use for road transport, and NATO air forces effectively compete for fuel with civil aviation. In 2018, US renewable diesel production exceeded 300 million gallons, against just 2 million gallons for sustainable aviation fuel, according to the Department of Energy. The Defense Department has a number of biorefinery projects it is supporting on home turf in the US to try and alleviate the issue.
The supply issue is complicated, however, by the military's heavy reliance on supplies outside home territory; some 48% of Defense Department 'operational' energy purchases were made outside the US in 2019, including in the Middle East and East Asia.
Further reductions in military fuel use by the US and its allies will entail a range of measures including improvements to logistics and engine technology, greater use of lighter, unmanned aircraft and potentially unmanned tanks, use of alternative fuels such as LNG, and potentially supporting electricity and battery-based infrastructure upgrades in parts of Africa. The potential for battery-powered drones is also being explored.
All of this adds up to increasing complexity in the eyes of planners focused increasingly not just on longstanding areas of conflict like the Middle East, but on China and Russia, countries classed as "near-peer competition" in military parlance.
In its 2019 report, the US Defense Department's supply branch, the Office for Acquisition and Sustainment, underlined this perceived "near-peer" threat, the resultant need for "long-endurance" surveillance systems with heightened energy requirements, and a potential threat to energy infrastructure itself.
"The tyranny of distance and the need for persistent surveillance can significantly affect the requirements for operational energy," the report said. "The shift toward strategic competition with Russia and China means that the role of energy will only grow, especially as these adversaries develop multi-domain threats to the delivery of energy."