Climate Change & Climate Action Security & Defense Technology & Innovation United States and Canada
GeoTech Cues October 1, 2021

Building smarter military bases for climate resilient communities

By Kiran S. Jivnani and Inkoo Kang

For years, climate change has been considered one of the most serious threats to U.S. national security and humanity at large. Thus, there is little doubt that a rapidly shifting environment will continue to shape the geopolitical landscape. In fact, according to the latest version of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, even under the lowest emissions scenarios, a 1.5-degree warming (compared to pre-industrial temperatures) or worse over the next two decades is “more likely than not” before the planet can begin to recover. Some environmental changes courtesy of warming temperatures are already irreversible within the current generation’s lifetime. This means that over the next two decades, humans are bound to see an increase in direct environmental disasters, and an increase in social and political fallout after these natural disasters. Essentially, humanity is at the brink of catastrophe and must stop pushing environmental boundaries or risk the humanitarian and fiscal costs of inaction.

Unlike previous U.S presidential administrations, the Biden administration has been relatively quick to recognize the dangers posed by climate change and has issued an executive order (EO) positioning it as a critical domestic and foreign policy crisis. The EO directs national security and foreign policy agencies including the Department of Defense (DOD), to incorporate climate change into their missions. The DOD in particular is increasingly struggling to cope with climate change, especially due to threats to its installations and bases.

A 2019 report released by the DOD analyzed 79 mission assurance priority installations based on their operational roles. It documented current and potential vulnerabilities to each of these installations over the next two decades and showed current or possible climate-related threats (e.g. recurrent flooding, drought, desertification, wildfires, and thawing permafrost). Unchecked climate change, along with sharp rises in severe weather disasters, will exacerbate global instability, resource deprivation, forced migration, and even violence. Without proper infrastructural adaptation and policy-based mitigation, the increasing frequency of extreme climate disasters will negatively affect U.S. military missions (including humanitarian aid missions), strategic positioning, and readiness.

Biden’s executive order is a good first step. However, meaningful action will not be possible without cooperation and bold actions from Congress and DOD. To properly cope with climate-related dangers, the military must be able to future-proof its installations to defend themselves against twenty-first-century threats, specifically by capitalizing on the use of smart technologies.

Domestic communities and military bases already affected by climate change

One of many areas near the southeast side of Offutt Air Force Base affected by flood waters is seen in Nebraska, U.S., March 16, 2019. Picture taken March 16, 2019. Courtesy Rachelle Blake/U.S. Air Force/Handout via REUTERS

In 2019, Offutt Air Force Base, headquarters of U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the Pentagon’s nuclear strategic deterrence and global strike capabilities, experienced extreme flooding after a bomb cyclone storm flooded the Missouri River. Floodwaters reached up to 7 feet high and forced one-third of the base to relocate its offices. The base’s personnel had to scramble to save sensitive equipment, munitions, and dozens of aircraft. Col. David Norton, commander of Offutt, revealed the extent of flooding saying, “In the end, obviously the waters were just too much. It took up everything we put up.” He added, “[t]he speed at which it came in was shocking.” 

Although the extent of the flood may have taken some by surprise, the risks to Offutt were long known to the U.S. military. In 2011, floodwaters from another storm crept up 50 feet of the base’s runway. Despite knowing that this base was vulnerable to flooding, relevant agencies acted slowly. The risks exposed by the 2011 flood were only formally recognized in 2015, and construction was not approved quickly enough to reinforce an earthwork levee system that could protect against flooding. In the end, the approval only came in 2018, and the base flooded before construction even began. Estimates indicate the disaster will likely cost much more to repair than it would have cost to prevent; preventative action would have cost only $22.7 million, but instead, Congress had to approve approximately $650 million for a four-year rebuilding effort.

The Air Force is not the only branch of the military that has suffered severe climate-related disasters. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune is the main East Coast infantry base for the Marines. Unfortunately, Lejune was not built to withstand strengthening climate disasters such as Hurricane Florence, which caused an estimated $3.6 billion in damages to the base in 2018. Notably, the buildings at Lejeune that were constructed recently and at higher climate standards suffered little to no damage, while older buildings, including many key headquarters, were unable to withstand the high winds and flooding. According to Navy Captain Miguel Dieguez, Camp Lejeune’s facilities director, “Hurricane Florence… exposed the soft underbelly of our infrastructure here.”

The Marines must now rebuild to incorporate climate measures and resiliency at Camp Lejeune. In this case, such action is reactive, considering that earlier reports predicted such destruction and recommended preventive measures. Shana Udvardy of the Union of Concerned Scientists co-authored a report in 2016 highlighting the threat that climate change, especially sea-level rise, and flooding, poses to several bases, including Lejeune. Additionally, a Center for Climate and Security report was issued only months before Hurricane Florence hit Camp Lejeune. The report discussed the risks to the base and recommended significant upgrades to the base’s utilities to make them less vulnerable to storms and flooding.

However, because little action was taken to heed these warnings, Camp Lejune, like the multiple military installations that have faced climate disasters in the past decade, will take years to recover. Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper noted, ​​“You guys [Lejune] are competing with just one of many disasters.” Between just 2018 and 2019, contracted labor teams have had to travel across the country to fix multiple storm-ravaged bases, such as Tyndall Air Force Base, in Florida; Offutt Air Force Base, in Nebraska; and Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, in South Carolina.

Although such disasters have led to few human casualties, the increasing frequency and strength of these disasters suggest that climate change may soon lead to grave consequences for the armed forces.  Since the Gulf War, the United States has lost more F-22s to climate change than enemy combatants. And when Hurricane Michael decimated Tyndall Air Force Base in 2018, it crippled seventeen of the US’ F-22s (10% of the total inventory) and caused an estimated $4.7 billion in damages.

The truly tragic aspect of these losses stems from the fact that top leaders knew that this could be a possibility long before Hurricane Michael. Retired Gen. Gilmary “Mike” Hostage noted that an insufficient number of Tyndall’s hangars were built “to withstand the strength of the hurricane that hit [Tyndall], even though they had hurricanes like that back in the day.” More importantly, he was quick to note that other bases that faced “traditional” threats (e.g. missiles, enemy fighters, etc.) have long had the infrastructure to protect against storms because hangers needed to withstand enemy missiles could just as effectively shield the base against high winds. The fact that Tyndall did not have the proper infrastructure was not because it would have been financially imprudent or logistically impossible. It was simply the result of leadership failing to consider that climate change could be as destructive as an adversary.

Damage caused by Hurricane Michael is seen on Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, U.S., October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

While Tyndall’s aircraft were not called to any operational missions during repairs, the changing geopolitical landscape may soon levy heftier demands and leave little room for error when it comes to military readiness.  In fact, Tyndall itself will soon house the F-35 fighter jets making it even more critical to focus on its design and protection.

Smart military bases translate to more resilient communities

Fortunately, much of the armed forces have already recognized this imperative and have begun to pilot initiatives designed to integrate climate resilience via smarter technologies and greener practices into “bases of the future.” While initial plans appear promising, they are being delayed by significant bureaucratic hurdles. It is imperative that the United States not wait till the next catastrophe but rather boldly expand these initiatives as most of the military’s strategic bases, while not yet damaged, are under critical threat.

Naval Station Norfolk, the largest base in the world and the US’s most important naval installation, is a prime example of an at-risk base. It is the fifth most vulnerable US base to climate change according to a report from the American Security Project.

The Navy has known about the risks of climate inaction for years and has pushed for greener practices long before Biden’s executive order. In 2009 for example, it launched the Great Green Fleet, an ambitious effort that sought to transition the Navy to partially run on biofuels. However, Congressional responses to the initiative were varied. The House Armed Services Committee constantly threatened to undercut the project by prohibiting the Navy from enacting the Great Green Fleet. Maj. Gen. John Pletcher, the Air Force’s deputy assistant budget secretary, highlighted the difficulties such political deadlock could have for military readiness, “I can’t submit a request to Congress for an unknown weather event,” Pletcher said. “What [the military is] always doing is chasing … the disasters that occur. If I submit to [Congress] a wedge that says, ‘I want to have this money in case something happens,’ it’ll probably be the first place that they have to go to source other requirements.”

Such Congressional inaction would be short-sighted and foolish, not just from a defense perspective, but also from an economic one. Climate disasters will become more frequent and destructive, and short of miraculous global climate action, they will continue to affect U.S. military installations and their surrounding areas. Proactive investment will allow these installations to better withstand climate threats while minimizing costs.

Military bases, especially those in the Continental United States (CONUS) have historically served as the lifeblood for hundreds of communities across the United States. They are often cultural hubs and the leading source of employment for communities that may otherwise not exist. One study found that in the state of Arizona alone, military bases contributed over $9.1 billion to the state’s annual revenue and accommodated over 96,300 jobs.  Tyndall Air Force Base (AFB), according to some estimates, has a “$2.5 billion-a-year economic impact” and accounts for 20,000 jobs. In short, investing in the climate resilience and efficiency of bases directly translates to investing in community infrastructure– a staple of Biden’s Build Back Better Initiative.

It is high time that Congress breaks its historic aversion to climate renovation and proactively invest in the climate resiliency of U.S. military bases. Note the numerous case studies in which Congress took prudent, preemptive actions in order to adapt to changing strategic dynamics. For example, in 1954, Congress authorized the research, design, and construction of a nuclear navy. The first ships, the USS Nautilus and USS Enterprise (CVN-65), which cost over $58 million and approximately $451.3 million (or the equivalent in $3.3 billion in 2010) respectively, would serve as the foundation for America’s nuclear navy for over 60 years. Today, all U.S. supercarriers and submarines are nuclear-powered. There is no reason why Congress could not find similar solutions for military bases. 

As mentioned in the National Defense Strategy, even the most protected military bases are no longer sanctuaries from threats. Unfortunately, it failed to mention that climate change could pose an equally grave threat to the homeland as traditional threats. Climate change is and will continue to be a strategic and existential threat to the armed forces. Changing environmental conditions could soon force the military to perform a vast array of functions ranging from traditional operations to humanitarian aid missions, power generation, and even water purification. To properly address this challenge, Congress, the military, and private partners must work together and utilize emerging technologies to build back better and build smarter bases.

Key recommendations

  • Partner with private-sector companies working to incorporate advanced technologies into “smart cities.” According to Deloitte, “smart military bases are the logical extension of existing smart cities.” The key benefit to a smart base would be that the inclusion of smart technologies would allow for flexibility and adaptiveness necessary to carry out the base’s primary mission irrespective of dynamic threats like a changing climate. Additionally, smart bases could be built incrementally over longer periods of time, which would grant fiscal flexibility and opportunities to test vulnerabilities via strategic reviews and wargaming. AT&T, The University of Georgia’s Institute for Resilient Infrastructure Systems, and the Defense Logistics Agency have all already become critical partners in rebuilding Tyndall, in a prime example of successful public-private partnership.
  • Invest heavily in improvements in climate data and analysis. Although the US already has some of the most advanced climate modeling equipment, there are still areas for improvement, particularly when it comes to increasing computing power. Higher resolution and increases in computing power will better capture many of the small-scale effects that are very important to analyzing regional climate change particularly in coastal areas.1
  • The DOD should mandate modeling high-likelihood climate disaster scenarios at critical bases. The analysis should take the following factors into consideration: warning time, response time, impact on infrastructure (particularly transportation and energy infrastructure), impact on military assets, and impact on the surrounding communities. The climate disasters experienced by the world today are worse than the projections that were made in the past decades, so in many cases, the defense community should assume that current worst-case scenarios may become future median or best-case scenarios. In order to prepare for high-risk disasters, the DOD must invest in smart technologies that are better able to integrate current and projected climate impact scenarios into DOD planning cycles and war games to make prudent assessments, investments, and infrastructure modifications.2

Looking Ahead

Today, there are more than $30 billion worth of maintenance and repair backlogs in the Air Force alone. Many of those issues can be directly attributed to climate change and its degrading effects on military readiness. Amidst renewed great power competition, emerging technologies, and unprecedented changes to the natural environment, the United States must shift its approach and focus on rising areas of vulnerability. Air Force chief of staff, General Charles Q. Brown put it simply: we must “accelerate change or lose.” Climate change is one of the most pressing challenges to the armed forces today, and reactive mitigation efforts will not suffice. Individual service branches can only do so much and cannot reasonably be expected to prepare for the most devastating climate disasters without significant strains on their budget. It is time that Congress recognizes new strategic shifts and reorients America’s military bases to confront the challenges and threats of the twenty-first century.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Air Force, Department of Defense, or the US Government.

The GeoTech Center champions positive paths forward that societies can pursue to ensure new technologies and data empower people, prosperity, and peace.

Image: Damage caused by Hurricane Michael is seen on Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, U.S., October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester