What the U.S. Military Will Be Doing in a Climate Crisis Future
The Situation Room, October 2039: the president and vice president, senior generals and admirals, key cabinet members, and other top national security officers huddle around computer screens as aides speak to key officials across the country. Some screens are focused on Hurricane Monica, continuing its catastrophic path through the Carolinas and Virginia; others are following Hurricane Nicholas, now pummeling Florida and Georgia, while Hurricane Ophelia lurks behind it in the eastern Caribbean.
On another bank of screens, officials are watching horrifying scenes from Los Angeles and San Diego, where millions of people are under mandatory evacuation orders with essentially nowhere to go because of a maelstrom of raging wildfires. Other large blazes are burning out of control in Northern California and Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington State. The National Guard has been called out across much of the West, while hundreds of thousands of active-duty troops are being deployed in the disaster zones to assist in relief operations and firefighting.
With governors and lawmakers from the affected states begging for help, the president has instructed the senior military leadership to provide still more soldiers and sailors for yet more disaster relief. Unfortunately, the generals and admirals are having a hard time complying, since most of their key bases on the East and West Coasts are also under assault from storms, floods, and wildfires. Many have already been evacuated. Naval Station Norfolk, the nation’s largest naval base, for example, took a devastating hit from Monica and lies under several feet of water, rendering it inoperable. Camp Pendleton in California, a major Marine Corps facility, is once again in flames, its personnel either being evacuated or fully engaged in firefighting. Other key bases have been similarly disabled, their personnel scattered to relocation sites in the interior of the country.
Foreign threats, while not ignored in this time of domestic crisis, have lost the overriding concern they enjoyed throughout the 2020s when China and Russia were still considered major foes. By the mid-2030s, however, both of those countries were similarly preoccupied with multiple climate-related perils of their own — recurring wildfires and crop failures in Russia, severe water scarcity, staggering heat waves, and perpetually flooded coastal cities in China — and so were far less inclined to spend vast sums on sophisticated weapons systems or to engage in provocative adventures abroad. Like the United States, these countries are committing their military forces ever more frequently to disaster relief at home.
As for America’s allies in Europe: well, the days of trans-Atlantic cooperation have long since disappeared as extreme climate effects have become the main concern of most European states. To the extent that they still possess military forces, these, too, are now almost entirely devoted to flood relief, firefighting, and keeping out the masses of climate refugees fleeing perpetual heat and famine in Asia and Africa.
And so, in the Situation Room, the overriding question for U.S. security officials in 2039 boils down to this: How can we best defend the nation against the mounting threat of climate catastrophe?
The Unacknowledged Peril
Read through the formal Pentagon literature on the threats to American security today and you won’t even see the words “climate change” mentioned. This is largely because of the nation’s commander-in-chief who once claimed that global warming was a “hoax” and that we’re better off burning ever more coal and oil than protecting the nation against severe storm events or an onslaught of wildfires. Climate change has also become a hotly partisan issue in Washington and military officers are instinctively disinclined to become embroiled in partisan political fights. In addition, senior officers have come to view Russia and China as vital threats to U.S. security — far more dangerous than, say, the zealots of ISIS or al-Qaeda — and so are focused on beefing up America’s already overpowering defense capabilities yet more.
“Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” the Department of Defense (DoD) affirmed in its National Defense Strategy of February 2018. “Without sustained and predictable investment to restore readiness and modernize our military to make it fit for our time, we will rapidly lose our military advantage.”
Everything in the 2018 National Defense Strategy and the DoD budget documents that have been submitted to Congress since its release proceed from this premise. To better compete with China and Russia, we are told, it’s essential to spend yet more trillions of dollars over the coming decade to replace America’s supposedly aging weapons inventory — including its nuclear arsenal — with a whole new suite of ships, planes, tanks, and missiles (many incorporating advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and hypersonic warheads).
For some senior officers, especially those responsible for training and equipping America’s armed forces for combat on future battlefields, weapons modernization is now the military’s overriding priority. But for a surprising number of their compatriots, other considerations have begun to intrude into long-term strategic calculations. For those whose job it is to house all those forces and sustain them in combat, climate change has become an inescapable and growing concern. This is especially true for the commanders of facilities that would play a critical role in any future confrontation with China or Russia.
Many of the bases that would prove essential in a war with China, for example, are located on islands or in coastal areas highly exposed to sea-level rise and increasingly powerful typhoons. Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia, a major logistical and submarine base in the Indian Ocean, for example, is situated on a low-lying atoll that suffers periodic storm flooding and is likely to be submerged entirely well before the end of the century. The Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, focused on preparing American defenses against the future use of nuclear missiles by either North Korea or China, is located on Kwajalein Atoll in the midst of the Pacific Ocean and is also destined to disappear. Similarly, the country’s major naval base in Asia, at Yokosuka, Japan, and its major air facility, at Kadena on the Japanese island of Okinawa, are located along the coast and are periodically assaulted by severe typhoons.
No less at risk are radar facilities and bases in Alaska intended for defense against Russian Arctic air and naval attacks. Many of the early-warning radars overseen by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, a joint U.S.-Canadian operation, are located on the Alaskan and Canadian shores of the Arctic Ocean and so are being threatened by sea-level rise, coastal erosion, and the thawing of the permafrost on which many of them rest.
Equally vulnerable are stateside bases considered essential to the defense of this country, as well as its ability to sustain military operations abroad. Just how severe this risk has become was made painfully clear in late 2018 and early 2019, when two of the country’s most important domestic installations, Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida and Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, were largely immobilized by extreme storm events — Hurricane Michael in one case and a prolonged rainfall in the other.
Tyndall, located on a narrow strip of land projecting into the Gulf of Mexico, housed a large fraction of America’s F-22 “Raptor” stealth fighter jets along with the 601st Air and Space Operations Center (601st AOC), the main command and control unit for aerial defense of the continental United States. In anticipation of Michael’s assault, the Air Force was able to relocate key elements of the 601st AOC and most of those F-22s to other facilities out of the hurricane’s path, but some Raptors could not be moved and were damaged by the storm. According to the Air Force, 484 buildings on the base were also destroyed or damaged beyond repair and the cost of repairing the rest of the facilities was estimated at $648 million. It is, in fact, unclear if Tyndall will ever again serve as a major F-22 base or house all the key military organizations it once contained.
Offutt Air Force Base plays a similarly critical role in America’s defense operations, housing the headquarters of the Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), which is responsible for oversight of all U.S. nuclear strike forces, including its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Also located at Offutt is the 55th Wing, the nation’s premier assemblage of reconnaissance and electronic-warfare aircraft. In March 2019, after a severe low-pressure system (often called a “bomb cyclone”) formed over the western plains, the upper Missouri River basin was inundated with torrential rains for several days, swelling the river and causing widespread flooding. Much of Offutt, including its vital runways, was submerged under several feet of water and some 130 buildings were damaged or destroyed. USSTRATCOM continued to operate, but many key personnel were unable to gain access to the base, causing staffing problems. As with Tyndall, immediate repairs are expected to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars and full restoration of the base’s facilities many millions more.
Wildfires in California have also imperiled key bases. In May 2014, for example, Camp Pendleton was scorched by the Tomahawk Fire, one of several conflagrations to strike the San Diego area at the time. More than 6,000 acres were burned by the blaze and children at two on-base schools had to be evacuated. At one point, a major munitions depot was threatened by flames, but firefighters managed to keep them far enough away to prevent a catastrophic explosion.
An even more dangerous fire swept through Vandenberg Air Force Base, 50 miles north of Santa Barbara, in September 2016. Vandenberg is used to launch satellite-bearing missiles into space and houses some of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense missile interceptors that are meant to shoot down any North Korean (or possibly Chinese) ICBMs fired at this country. The 2016 blaze, called the Canyon Fire, burned more than 12,000 acres and forced the Air Force to cancel the launch of an Atlas V rocket carrying an earth-imaging satellite. Had winds not shifted at the last moment, the fire might have engulfed several of Vandenberg’s major launch sites.
Such perils have not (yet) been addressed in Pentagon documents like the National Defense Strategy and senior officers are normally reluctant to discuss them with members of the public. Nonetheless, it’s not hard to find evidence of deep anxiety among those who face the already evident ravages of climate change on a regular basis. In 2014 and 2017, analysts from the U.S. Government Accountability Office visited numerous U.S. bases at home and abroad to assess their exposure to extreme climate effects and came back with startling reports about their encounters.
“At 7 out of 15 locations we visited or contacted,” the survey team reported in 2014, “officials stated that they had observed rising sea levels and associated storm surge and associated potential impacts, or mission vulnerabilities.” Likewise, “at 9 out of 15 locations we visited or contacted, officials stated that they had observed changes in precipitation patterns and associated potential impacts,” such as severe flooding or wildfires.
Look through the congressional testimony of top Pentagon officials and you’ll find that similar indications of unease abound. “The Air Force recognizes that our installations and infrastructure are vulnerable to a wide variety of threats, including those from weather, climate, and natural events,” said John Henderson, assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and energy, at a recent hearing on installation resiliency. “Changing climate and severe weather effects have the potential to catastrophically damage or degrade the Air Force’s war-fighting readiness.”
Threats to the Home Front
At a time when U.S. bases are experiencing the ever more severe effects of climate change, the armed forces are coming under mounting pressure to assist domestic authorities in coping with increasingly damaging storms, floods, and fires from those same climate forces. A prelude to what can be expected in the future was provided by the events of August and September 2017, when the military was called upon to provide disaster relief in the wake of three particularly powerful hurricanes — Harvey, Irma, and Maria — at the very moment California and the state of Washington were being ravaged by powerful wildfires.
This unprecedented chain of disasters began on August 26th, when Harvey — then a Category 4 hurricane — made landfall near Houston, Texas, and lingered there for five agonizing days, sucking up water from the Gulf of Mexico and dumping it on that area in what proved to be the heaviest continuous rainfall in American history. With much of Houston engulfed in flood waters, the DoD mobilized 12,000 National Guard and 16,000 active-duty Army troops to assist in relief operations.
Such cleanup operations were still under way there when Irma — a Category 5 storm and one of the most powerful hurricanes ever detected in the Atlantic Ocean — struck the eastern Caribbean, Puerto Rico, and southern Florida. Guard units sent by Florida’s governor to assist in Texas were hastily recalled and the Pentagon mobilized an additional 4,500 active-duty troops for emergency operations. To bolster these forces, the Navy deployed one of its aircraft carriers, the USS Abraham Lincoln, along with a slew of support vessels.
With some Guard contingents still involved in Texas and cleanup operations just getting under way in Florida, another Category 5 storm, Maria, emerged in the Atlantic and began its fateful course toward Puerto Rico, making landfall on that island on September 20th. It severed most of that island’s electrical power lines, bringing normal life to a halt. With food and potable water in short supply, the DoD commenced yet another mobilization of more than 12,000 active-duty and Guard units. Some of them would still be there a year later, seeking to restore power and repair roads in remote, harshly affected areas.
If finding enough troops and supply systems to assist in these relief operations was a tough task — akin to mobilizing for a major war — the Pentagon faced a no less severe challenge in addressing the threats to its own forces and facilities from those very storms.
When Hurricane Irma approached Florida and the Keys, it became evident that many of the Pentagon’s crucial southern installations were likely to suffer severe damage. Notable among them was Naval Air Station (NAS) Key West, a major hub for U.S. operations in the Caribbean region. Fearing the worst, its commander ordered a mandatory evacuation for all but a handful of critical personnel. Commanders at other bases in the storm’s path also ordered evacuations, including at NAS Jacksonville in Florida and Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia. Aircraft at these installations were flown to secure locations further inland while Kings Bay’s missile-carrying submarines were sent to sea where they could better ride out the storm. At least a dozen other installations were forced to relocate at least some personnel, planes, and ships.
Clusters of Extreme Events
While the extremity of each of these individual climate disasters can’t be attributed with absolute certainty to climate change, that they occurred at such strength over such a short time period is almost impossible to explain without reference to it. As scientists have indicated, the extremely warm waters of the Atlantic and Caribbean contributed to the fury of the three hurricanes and extreme dryness in California and the American West has resulted in severe recurring wildfires. All of these are predictable consequences of a warming planet.
That means, of course, that we can expect recurring replays of summer 2017, with multiple disasters (of ever-increasing magnitude) occurring more or less simultaneously. These, in turn, will produce ever more demands on the military for relief services, even as it is being forced to cope with the impact of such severe climate events on its own facilities. Indeed, the National Research Council (NRC), in a report commissioned by the U.S. Intelligence Community, has warned of just such a future. Speaking of what it termed “clusters of extreme events,” it noted that warming temperatures are likely to generate not just more destructive storms, but also a greater concentration of such events at the same time.
“Given the available scientific knowledge of the climate system,” the report notes, “it is prudent for security analysts to expect climate surprises in the coming decade, including… conjunctions of events occurring simultaneously or in sequence, and for them to become progressively more serious and frequent thereafter, and most likely at an accelerating rate.”
Combine the ravages of Harvey, Irma, Maria, Katrina, and Sandy with the wildfires recently blasting across California and you get some sense of what our true “national security” landscape might look like. While the Pentagon, the National Guard, and local authorities should be able to cope with any combination of two or three such events, as they did in 2017 (although, according to critics, the damage to Puerto Rico has never been fully repaired), there will come a time when the climate assault is so severe and multifaceted that U.S. leaders will be unable to address all the major disasters simultaneously and will have to pick and choose where to deploy their precious assets.
At that moment, the notion of focusing all our attention on managing military rivalries with China and Russia (or other potential adversaries) will appear dangerously distracting. Count on this: U.S. forces sent to foreign bases and conflicts (as with the never-ending wars of this century in the Greater Middle East and Africa) will undoubtedly be redeployed homeward to help overcome domestic dangers. This may seem improbable today, with China and Russia building up their arsenals to counter American forces, but scientific analyses like those conducted by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the NRC, suggest that those two countries are then no less likely to be facing multiple catastrophes of their own and will be in no position to engage in conflicts with the United States.
And so there will come a time when a presidential visit to the Situation Room involves not a nuclear crisis or the next major terrorist attack, but rather a conjunction of severe climate events, threatening the very heartbeat of the nation.