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Reality Check

July 22, 2022

Reality Check #13: Great-power competition threatens climate disaster response

By Evan Cooper and Alec Evans

Key points

  • The US military, particularly the National Guard, is instrumental in responding to natural disasters in the United States. As climate change increases the severity and frequency of major disasters, the unique capabilities of the military to conduct disaster response will be in even higher demand.
  • The Biden administration’s shifting focus to great-power competition could draw resources and attention away from improving domestic disaster response capabilities, even as these requirements become increasingly urgent. A significant amount of materiel and units need to be available to ensure that effective disaster response can be carried out domestically. Large-scale deployments abroad could endanger national disaster response and ultimately reduce the ability of the United States to successfully engage in future conflicts.
  • The administration should link the planned National Climate Strategy to the National Security Strategy, avoid double-counting units in force planning, develop clear guidelines for when military support is needed for domestic disaster assistance and when it can be withdrawn, and ensure that the National Guard is empowered to train for disaster response.

What’s the issue?

Climate change poses a fundamental threat to US national security, according to the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of Homeland Security, and others. A recent National Intelligence Estimate cautioned that climate change will “exacerbate geopolitical tensions, social instability, and the need for humanitarian aid” around the globe. In addition to heat waves, droughts, flooding, and ocean acidification, the United States will face larger, more frequent, and more severe wildfires and hurricanes.

Although policy makers’ awareness of the impacts of climate change has grown, US leaders pay less attention to the more immediate burdens imposed on the US military by climate-driven disasters. In 2019, the National Guard logged more than 2.1 million days supporting state and federal homeland missions, responding to sixty-three natural disasters—including seven hurricanes or tropical storms, nineteen floods, twenty winter storms, and twelve fires. In 2020 (the most recent year for which data are available), the Guard spent 10.9 million days responding to various emergencies, which included running a large portion of the country’s COVID-19 response. Battling summer blazes has become a yearly routine for thousands of National Guard servicemembers: in the last five years, the Guard’s personnel requirements for fire suppression have increased more than tenfold. In 2021, fires in the western United States required 170,000 person hours of firefighting by the National Guard, up from 14,000 person hours just five years earlier. Military aircraft, which play a substantial role in aerial firefighting, are being called upon more and more often as US wildfires become more frequent and intense. Hurricanes, which are increasing in strength due to climate change, have also required major mobilizations. In response to Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012, 24,000 DoD personnel were mobilized, a larger force than the active-duty military of Norway. Even optimistic forecasts predict that hundreds of thousands of refugees will seek asylum in the United States in the face of climate disasters in Latin America; active-duty units have already been diverted to support border control efforts and help process refugees.

Today’s military planners must contend with two potentially conflicting demands: growing requirements for the US military to respond to disasters and the effort to restructure the force for great-power competition.

Amidst the expanding need for military capabilities at home, the military’s responsibilities are expected to expand even further abroad because of climate change. According to a recent DoD climate report, civil authorities will require increased military support from Northern Command and Indo-Pacific Command in response to climate threats in the near future.

Today’s military planners must contend with two potentially conflicting demands: growing requirements for the US military to respond to disasters and the effort to restructure the force for great-power competition. In the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, President Joe Biden made clear that he would continue shifting the focus of US forces to potential conflict with China and Russia, writing “In the face of strategic challenges from an increasingly assertive China and destabilizing Russia, we will assess the appropriate structure, capabilities, and sizing of the force. . . ” The military challenges posed by China and Russia are immense in their own right, but they cannot be accurately evaluated without considering the omnipresent and growing needs at home for US military capabilities.

Why does it matter?

The readiness of US forces and the ability to maintain the security and productivity of the homeland are critical factors for any and all future conflicts. Policy makers plan for both wars and disasters under the assumption that military resources will be available for such efforts. However, these plans fail when expected resources are otherwise deployed. For example, firefighters in Oregon usually rely on air support from military Chinook helicopters, but during the massive summer wildfires of 2021, these aircraft were 7,000 miles away, participating in the evacuation of Afghanistan, leaving the firefighting response dangerously under-resourced. Conversely, hundreds of active-duty soldiers, including mechanized infantry, have been called upon to fight wildfires in California. If the United States was engaged in a major war, military officials would have to make a choice: reduce warfighting capacity by tasking military resources to disaster response or face major domestic disruption by deploying disaster-response resources overseas.

Compounding the challenge of both responding to disasters and overall readiness is the burden posed by the immediate effects of climate change. The US Navy has for years been raising the alarm that their operations are threatened by rising sea levels, with one report identifying 128 US naval bases under threat and eighteen likely to be fully submerged by 2100, including the Navy’s largest base, Naval Station Norfolk. In 2019, 30 percent of the US Air Force’s F-22 Raptor fleet had to be relocated, with four of the planes severely damaged, after a category five hurricane hit Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. Almost every building on the base was damaged, and 70 percent had to be bulldozed. A 2019 after action “fire season” review by the Readiness Division at Fort Wainwright in Alaska found that wildfires had prevented critical training from taking place at the base, with two Pacific Air Forces fighter squadrons unable to conduct important exercises in July 2019. And In April of this year, a massive fire consumed 15 percent of the Army’s Fort Hood, requiring thousands of hours of firefighting by military personnel. Less than a month later, Joint Base San Antonio had to be evacuated due to a large fire. Rising sea levels, stronger storms, and increased risk of fires all negatively affect readiness for the military’s primary missions and can harm the military’s ability to provide effective disaster assistance.

What is the solution?

Considering the growing burden from climate change and the challenge of reorienting the military to a focus on great-power competition, policy makers should consider the importance of having units and platforms available for disaster response, as well as ensuring that the US military is prepared to handle a wide range of disaster contingencies. Four specific recommendations are outlined below.

1. Do not discount disaster response in force planning. Policy makers value DoD’s planning and estimates, and these may inform decisions on whether and how to engage in a great-power war. Policy makers should consider that deploying US military units and assets overseas can degrade the ability of the United States to respond to domestic disasters, which can in turn undermine warfighting capabilities. Last year, for example, eight C-130s were deployed for weeks at a time fighting wildfires, flying 945 sorties, with an additional four conventional C-130s required to assist those outfitted to drop fire retardant. Units and assets that could be deployed to fight a major war and are also needed at home to manage the increasing burden of disaster response should not be double counted. Planners should consider changing the primary mission of certain Guard units to disaster response and develop contingencies for replacing those units with civilian volunteers in extreme situations when those Guard units are needed elsewhere. Large-scale deployments abroad, without trained civilian replacements, could endanger national disaster-response and ultimately reduce the ability of the United States to successfully engage in future conflicts.

2. Reemphasize disaster response training for the National Guard. As a central component in US disaster relief, the National Guard should be prepared and empowered to take on the increasing burden of climate-driven disasters. However, changes to the Guard have instead oriented them towards federal missions instead of state-focused disaster relief, with one former J3 Functional Advisory Council Chairman saying in an interview, “The Guard without the State nexus has transformed into the Army Reserve.” Recently, the Chief of the National Guard Bureau affirmed this transformation is purposefully occurring, stating, “We’re here to fight and win our nation’s wars. At the end of the day, that’s why the National Guard exists.” The training priorities for Guard units have commensurately shifted, with emphasis placed on federally required training (behavioral and policy-driven training), requisite readiness periods (such as the Army Combat Fitness Test and Basic Marksmanship), and individual and collective training, leaving little time and money for domestic mission training. This leaves Guard units far less able to conduct important trainings, such as with state’s search and rescue teams, and less prepared for the types of missions they will be increasingly called upon to accomplish.

3. Consider force posture in the National Climate Strategy. The Biden administration had planned to release a national climate strategy this year, but congressional politics appear to have upended those plans. Although policy makers’ focus on the NCS has understandably centered on how the United States can meet the administration’s emissions reduction goals, the document should also include a clear explanation of how the administration plans to structure disaster response and increase capabilities and how those plans align with the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. In linking the documents, policy makers should review the NATO Climate Change and Security Action Plan, which deftly connects climate change with increased security threats and challenges to operation readiness. The NCS should consider how the US government can best leverage the US military for both climate mitigation and disaster response. Clear expectation-setting at the strategic level will help with planning in both DoD and in disaster-response agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the United States Forest Service (USFS), enabling them to effectively work together to leverage their capabilities. The Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) program is an example of the importance of interagency coordination: DoD provides the C-130s at the request of the USFS, which manages the MAFFS that the planes are outfitted with to fight fires.

4. Develop guidelines for when military assets can be withdrawn from disaster relief. FEMA, as the lead agency coordinating major disaster response, should develop indicators as part of the National Incident Management System’s National Response Framework for when military assets can be withdrawn from disaster-relief activities and responsibilities handed over to civilian actors. These indicators should be informed by those used in international disaster response and would improve planning and budgeting for disaster-response operations. A streamlined process for rotating units and assets out of disaster zones will help ensure maximum availability for units’ primary missions and reduce costs. The use of 32 USC § 502(f) authorities for National Guard disaster responses, which keep units under state command but are fully funded by the DoD (and can operate under a mission assignment from FEMA, such as during the COVID-19 response), should be limited to avoid the Guard further becoming seen as a standing force that can fully replace the civilian role in disaster management. 

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Related Experts: Evan Cooper

Image: An Air National Guardsman in a C-130J aircraft follows a Forest Service plane under a large column of smoke while preparing to drop retardant on the Pier Fire southeast of Fresno, Calif., Aug. 29, 2017. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeff Allen