Warfare is Carbon Intensive
Beginning during the second half of the twentieth century, fossil fuel consumption by the world’s militaries grew substantially. As warfare has become increasingly carbon intensive, military aircraft and other large war machines have continued to guzzle massive amounts of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Today’s modern armies, air forces, and naval fleets are consuming fossil fuels at unprecedented rates. In addition to using fossil fuels to power machinery like tanks and battleships, weapons manufacturing also guzzles a significant amount of energy and fossil fuels.
Former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and retired United States Army General David Petraeus once famously said, “Energy is the lifeblood of our warfighting capabilities” (Crawford, 2019). As the world’s largest military power, the U.S. military is the single biggest consumer of fossil fuels and producer of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. In addition to concerns about climate change, American military officials continue to highlight the national security implications of being overly dependent on fossil fuels.
Climate Change Concerns
During a 2019 climate-change town hall debate hosted for the Democratic presidential candidates, former vice president Joe Biden highlighted some of the concerns related to climate change and U.S. military operations. “The first thing that happened when President Obama and I were elected, we went over to what they call the Tank, in the Pentagon, sat down and got the briefing on the greatest danger facing our security. Know what they told us it was? The military? Climate change. Climate change. Climate change is the single greatest concern for war and disruption in the world, short of a nuclear exchange (Darby, 2019).”
Joe Biden’s assertions were taken directly from a U.S. Department of Defense report that outlined how climate change would impact America’s ability to defend itself in the future. In 2018, approximately 2,792 active-duty American armed service members suffered from heat stroke, which is a 60 percent increase when compared to the previous decade (Darby, 2019). In addition to the threat of heat-related impacts to service members, the U.S. Department of Defense report also highlighted how many of the military’s critical operational facilities were in the process of being threatened by severe flood events, droughts, and even wildfires. As a direct result of human-driven climate change, numerous immediate risks to U.S. national security have been identified. Ironically, one of the world’s biggest emitters of global carbon emissions is the U.S. military itself.
The American Military Machine
With an authorized U.S. Department of Defense budget of over $700 billion in federal fiscal year 2019, the United States spends more on its military than any other country in the world (Crawford, 2019). To put this in perspective, the U.S. spends more on its military than Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, United Kingdom, and Germany combined (Crawford, 2019). Moreover, according to data released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Defense is the world’s largest user of petroleum products and the single biggest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions.
The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University estimates that the U.S. military has emitted roughly 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions since the global war on terror began in 2001 (Darby, 2019). This level of greenhouse gas emissions is equivalent to operating 257 million passenger cars annually. The carbon emissions from war-related activity in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria is projected to have reached 400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide through 2019 (Darby, 2019).
Increasing Fuel Consumption
During the Cold War, which lasted from the 1950s through the 1980s, energy researchers estimate that military operations accounted for only about five percent of primary energy consumption in the Soviet Union and the United States (Pirani, 2018). However, during periods of increased armed conflicts around the world, the same researchers estimate that military-related primary energy consumption in the U.S. climbs to about 15 to 20 percent (Pirani, 2018). Moreover, when looking purely at jet fuel consumption during any given year, nearly one quarter of all global jet fuel consumption is utilized for defense and military purposes (Brown et al, 1991).
In recent decades, military forces around the world have dramatically altered the way that they use fossil fuels. As one of the most well-known energy researchers in the world, Dr. Sohbet Karbuz of the Mediterranean Observatory for Energy (OME) has conducted a vast amount of research related to oil and natural gas markets, energy security, energy geopolitics, and energy scenario building. He has also extensively studied how global military forces have continued to increase their consumption of fossil fuels. Research conducted by Dr. Karbuz shows how the U.S. military has increased fuel consumption per service man and woman from 3.8 liters of oil per day during the Second World War, 34 liters per day in the Vietnam War, 38 liters per day in the 1991 Gulf War, and 57 liters per day during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (Pirani, 2018). Astonishingly, in 2006, the U.S. Air Force consumed more fuel in Iraq and Afghanistan (roughly 9.85 billion liters of jet fuel) than all the airplanes flown by American forces during the entire Second World War (Pirani, 2018).
Fossil Fuel Dependence
Part of America’s ability to dominate global military action has come as a result of the ability to continually pour ever-greater quantities of fossil fuels into military vehicles, aircraft, and weapons manufacturing. Without fossil fuels, America’s global military operations would crumble. A typical U.S. tank battalion of 348 tanks consumes 2.3 million liters of fuel per day, while an aircraft carrier battle division uses 1.6 million liters, and an F-16 fighter jet uses as much fuel in an hour as a typical vehicle would consume throughout a two-year period (Karbuz, 2007). Because of this massive amount of fuel consumption, U.S. Department of Defense data shows that the American military is a larger consumer of fossil fuels than the entire country of Nigeria, which has a population of upwards of 191 million residents (Pirani, 2018). However, due to the nature of classified military data, the actual amount of fossil fuel consumption from American military activities may be much higher due to military operations conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy, American private military contractors, the NASA space agency, and other American forces stationed around the world.
Reducing Dependence on Fossil Fuels
As the single largest institution contributing to global environmental change, the U.S. Department of Defense has started to make commitments to reduce dependency on fossil fuel consumption. Despite the Trump administration’s commitment to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, U.S. military leaders have recognized the need to reduce carbon emissions and utilize alternative sources of energy. After decades of increasing fossil fuel consumption with little signs suggesting a slowdown, the U.S. military is surprisingly becoming one of the leading federal agencies to invest in alternative energy research and adopt strategies to become less dependent on fossil fuels (Gilbert, 2012). Some of the largest alternative energy and climate change-related investments that the U.S. military has been making include projects related to solar power, biodiesel, and reinforcing military base infrastructure to withstand the effects of rising sea levels (Bigger & Neimark, 2017).
Contradictory Policies and Actions
However, while the U.S. Department of Defense has made strides in recent years to evaluate how to reduce fossil fuel consumption, the agency’s climate policy remains contradictory to its actions. While research is being conducted towards alternative energy projects and initiatives, continued U.S. military operations around the world and investments in fossil fuel-related technology will likely continue to increase military-related carbon emissions for years to come. The overall life‐cycle carbon emissions from the U.S. Department of Defense’s existing fleet of military aircraft, vehicles, and warships will undoubtedly continue to increase planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions for the foreseeable future.
In addition to concerns related to climate change and dependency on carbon-based fuels, fossil fuel consumption costs the U.S. Department of Defense billions of dollars annually. In 2017, roughly 30 percent of the energy usage by the U.S. Department of Defense went towards heating, cooling, and electricity costs. These relatively small energy consumption sectors racked up $3.5 billions in costs for the military (Crawford, 2019). The other 70 percent of military-related energy consumption goes toward operational infrastructure, which would include the everything from tanks, vehicles, planes, and warships. These tremendously fuel-inefficient vehicles and machines have massive carbon footprints and equally massive operational costs.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which is a bipartisan and nonprofit science advocacy organization, the U.S. military bought 269,230 barrels of oil a day in 2017. This is representative of more than $8.6 billion in fuel costs for the Army, the Navy, the Marines, and the Air Force (Crawford, 2019). In order to reduce fossil fuel consumption in the military, some energy experts have pointed to the need to reduce the size of the U.S. military. However, since the U.S. military is the largest employer in America with over 2.15 million active duty members and 732,000 civilian employees across its 4,800 military bases in 160 countries throughout the seven continents, the simple act of reducing the size of the military would have dramatic political and economic ramifications (Crawford, 2019).
Fueling Famine and Economic Instability
Interestingly, a significant portion of American military activity around the world is dedicated to securing American access to fossil fuel reserves. Reducing fossil fuel dependence would therefore also reduce the need for a great deal of military infrastructure and activity in much of the Middle East and within other countries that produce fossil fuels. Another contradicting aspect of American military spending and fossil fuel consumption can be seen with regards to the surge in migrants from Syria and Central America. There is a well-established connection between fossil fuel consumption and climate migration. As climate change continues to fuel famine and economic instability in countries around the world, the U.S. will likely have to increase its military activity to deal with the impending climate refugee crisis. Unfortunately, increased military activity is likely to increase carbon emissions, thereby making the refugee crisis even worse.
A Greener Future
Reducing energy use has become a top priority for the U.S. Department of Defense. As new reports continue to suggest the danger of fossil fuel dependence, top defense leaders from all branches of the military have started to speak about oil as a matter of national security. While work has begun on energy conservation programs and alternative energy investments, there is still a great deal of work that must be done to make measurable progress. Through the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) and the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP), both the Army and the Navy hope to establish net zero initiatives aimed at reducing energy consumption, as well as water usage and waste generation.
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Bigger, P., & Neimark, B. (2017). “Weaponizing nature: The geopolitical ecology of the US Navy’s biofuel program.” Political Geography, 60, 13–22.
Brown, L., et al. (1991). “State of the World 1992: A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society.” Conservation of Natural Resources.
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Pirani, S. (2018). “Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption.” Pluto Press: London.
Westervelt, A. (2012). “Why the Military Hates Fossil Fuels.” Forbes.