From wind and coal to oil and electricity, energy use in military operations has been a dominant strategic and tactical consideration since ancient times. The invention of the steam and internal combustion engines made warfare significantly more energy-intensive, allowing for rapid movement and maneuvering capabilities by ever-larger motorized military formations. Renewables’ contribution to the reshaping of the global energy mix provides a new perspective from which to consider future risks and the nature and sources of conflict.
The 21st-century transformation of defense sectors is prompted by a radical shift in the nature of threats, including widespread technological advances, increasingly asymmetrical operations, a greater need for expeditionary engagements, and a broadening defense mandate that goes beyond traditional national security considerations.
How does the alternative energy megatrend fit into this profound defense transformation?
- The expanding defense mandate
A range of broader security considerations are increasingly defining the defense sector’s purview and expanding its overall mandate to now include environmental security and resource scarcity to name just two. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III noted in October 2021, “To keep the nation secure, we must tackle the existential threat of climate change. The unprecedented scale of wildfires, floods, droughts, typhoons, and other extreme weather events of recent months and years have damaged our installations and bases, constrained force readiness and operations, and contributed to instability around the world. Climate change touches most of what this department does, and this threat will continue to have worsening implications for U.S. national security.”
Environmental security, resource scarcity, and interstate rivalry over access to energy resources can be root causes of destabilizing trends. The U.S. Department of Defense’s October 2021 “Climate Risk Analysis” report highlights some specific security impacts of climate change including increased requests for humanitarian aid and disaster relief, increased instability within and between countries, altered or limited environments for military operations, increased demand for DoD support of civil authorities, and increased need for transportation, communication, and monitoring in harsh environments such as the Arctic. The military could also be tasked to protect new international renewables-based power grids and facilities. Alternative energy development is critical in alleviating or preventing environmental threats that could lead to these evolving geostrategic risks.
- New forms of power projection
Energy is a factor of power projection, military dominance, and geopolitical control. Energy, after all, is the blood that sustains the armed forces and their operations. Current energy requirements burden defense budgets, restrict logistical flexibility (especially in frontline operations), and endanger lives when lengthy supply lines must be protected.
The military is heavily dependent on infrastructure, both in terms of forward-operating facilities and home basing. This reinforces the need to reduce operational energy needs for these installations, which account for a quarter of the DoD’s energy use. These fixed installations are ideal testbeds for next-generation energy technologies, as they are not faced with the challenges of frontline operations. For example, the Indiana National Guard partnered with Duke Energy to demonstrate how solar power, energy storage, and microgrid technology can support the Atterbury Training center, a key national defense facility.
The strategic need to project and sustain force quickly and decisively necessitates energy resilience, which is just as important as proper training and equipment. The reliance on extensive energy use to support expeditionary military operations makes uninterrupted energy supplies to and within theaters of operations a major concern and priority. Though the use of alternative energy sources and technologies would by no means obviate the need for logistics lines (as the military still needs food, water, ammunition, and other supplies), it could decrease the exposure of logistics convoys on the roads, thereby reducing the danger to personnel engaged in these operations.
The core imperative of the defense transformation is to ensure and enhance the ability to deliver unmatched and overwhelming power. The “super-soldiers of the future” will require a range of new capabilities in communication, networking, stamina, firepower, and range. Alternative energy technologies can enhance the warfighting capabilities of combatants in major ways, improve command and control speed and precision, allow commanders to conduct operations with unprecedented speed and cohesion, and potentially offer new ways of delivering power to targeted areas of the battlefield. Ultimately, such technologies could also lead to the emergence of nanotechnology-based military applications, self-contained and ultra-secure operations centers, and biological and chemical tools for biomass conversion, microwave weaponry, and fusion propulsion.
- Defense-generated demand fueling the alternative energy megatrend
The DoD is the largest single energy consumer in the United States. Coupled with increasing operational demands, finding new energy solutions is a constant priority for the department, which plays a leading role in the development and integration of alternative energy solutions. Renewables account for about 6% of total DoD electricity use and it is expected to spend approximately US$10 billion on renewable energy by 2030. The projected defense integration of alternative energy resources and technologies can enhance the energy security of the defense community.
The imperatives driven by the defense transformation, the spending power of the defense industry, and its ability to drive technological innovations could make it the single most important driver of alternative energy technologies in the United States.