Over the summer period news headlines globally were dominated by the news of huge fires breaking out across the Brazilian rain forest. The scale of devastation was enormous, and the impact felt globally, with local emergency services finding themselves hard pushed to cope with the situation.
As part of the response the Brazilian armed forces were called on to send hundreds of military personnel to fight the fires. This is not the first time that a military force has been called on to help provide support during a major natural disaster, but it is a good reminder of the critical role played by armed forces in providing help and support to recover from environmental disasters, and more widely of their obligations to act as good stewards of the environment on which they train.
In the UK the MOD takes the challenge of climate change extremely seriously, recognising that unplanned changes to our environment could have potentially far reaching consequences for the armed forces. Changes to sea levels could cause humanitarian catastrophe as settlements are flooded, or drought could lead to people migration which in turn may trigger regional outbreaks of conflict or other instabilities.
To that end much of what the British Armed Forces do can be linked to the potential risks that come from climate change and being able to mitigate against its most serious effects. In broad terms this boils down into two strands of activity – firstly, the operational response to climate change, where the military is deployed to help respond to major disasters or other challenges. Secondly, the longer-term responsibility that comes from the MOD exercising appropriate responsibility for the stewardship of the defence estate to protect the environment for the long term.
Operationally the UK trains hard to cope with environmental disasters in several ways.
For the Royal Navy a key component of ship's deployment training at the Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) organisation involves being trained in how to carry out a ‘disaster relief exercise’. This involves the ship's company being tested in how to render support and assistance to a small town devastated by an environmental disaster.
This training is usually quickly put to good use, particularly for ships deploying out to the West Indies in hurricane season, where both Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels have a long and proud history of responding to emergencies, often at very short notice.
In the West Indies, where there are several UK Overseas Territories, the role of the UK naval presence during hurricane season is to provide a short notice response to any challenges that may be encountered. For example, for the last two years an RFA landing ship (RFA Mounts Bay) has been based in the region with a Lynx Wildcat for aerial reconnaissance, cargo lift and other missions as well as embarked troops of Royal Engineers and Logistics specialists trained in the art of disaster relief work.
This has been put to good use recently following Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, where within hours of the hurricane making landfall, the UK was able to dispatch the vessel to begin rendering lifesaving aid. Backed up by HMS Protector and liaison teams from the UK, people on board have been able to quickly provide support and assistance to this stricken nation.
In 2017 the UK provided a similar world leading response following Hurricane Irma when it deployed a combination of ships, aircraft and ground troops to help restore order and support rebuilding efforts. That this was possible to deliver in very short order is testament in part to the world class strategic lift capabilities that the UK continues to invest heavily in, such as for shipping, airlift and deployable headquarters, and supported by a training regime that prepares for this sort of scenario.
In the last 20 years the UK has found itself responding to all sorts of different crises globally that are linked to environmental disasters.
The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami saw RN warships dispatched to render assistance, while in 2013 HMS Illustrious provided assistance to the Philippines following a major earthquake (known as Op Patwin).
In 2015 the British Army and RAF played a key role in providing help and support to the people of Nepal following a major earthquake whilst in 2018 the RAF dispatched aid to Indonesia following another earthquake.
The UK military has also often played a key role in supporting the civil authorities at home, for instance providing assistance during particularly major outbreaks of flooding, where airlift, engineering equipment and personnel can make a significant difference to restoring order to the situation.
One of the reasons the UK response is so effective is in part due to the joined up nature of UK planning, with military officials and other government departments, (in particular the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development) having built extremely close and highly effective links over the years.
What this means is that when a crisis occurs, the UK machinery of government can quickly and effectively plan and deliver a truly joint operation bringing all the levers of government together as a result.
This is something that not every country can do effectively, which means that the well swept up UK response can, and does, genuinely save lives when it needs to be used.
More widely, beyond environmental disasters, the British Armed Forces play a key role in trying to protect wildlife and preserve environments. In the UK, The Defence Infrastructure Organisation takes its responsibilities to protect the environment extremely seriously. The MOD is one of the biggest landowners in the UK, with defence estate covering some 430,000 hectares of land (almost 2% of the total UK landmass).
The estate ranges from naval dockyards to airbases and military barracks accomodation, but also includes a vast amount of rural training land, often in remote areas with environmentally unique conditions. Many of the current firing ranges and training areas in use in the UK are home to rare and protected species of birds and wildlife. Also, because much of the land was converted to military use well before WW2, it has not seen the same level of use of pesticides and other chemicals to grow crops, making them locations which can be home to flourishing species not always found elsewhere on more modern farmland. For example, the MOD training estate is home to large populations of bees and wildflower populations.
This may sound like it has little to do with the business of ‘hard’ military power, but these sort of minor environmental issues can help with the wider response to climate change – for instance by providing safe areas for bees (which are critical for human survival but whose populations are rapidly falling) to thrive. As a result, there are increasing numbers of beehives going up across the MOD training estates.
In some training areas, such as firing ranges in Cornwall or Scotland, the remoteness of the areas, coupled with the lack of human access means that many rare or endangered bird species such as Peregrine Falcons have been recorded nesting and are safe from humans (including people who steal bird's eggs).
This is a small way in which the MOD can play a significant role in protecting the natural environment.
This responsibility is taken so seriously that the DIO even produce an annual magazine, called ‘Sanctuary' that is available online. It is well worth a read to better understand the huge amount of work done by DIO to protect both the environment and historical sites that are currently under the MOD’s control, and how this can benefit UK defence more widely.
Operationally, protecting the environment is increasingly a task that can be carried out by UK service personnel on deployment.
This is most visibly seen in East Africa, where the British Army is playing a leading role in trying to provide anti-poacher training to help protect the elephant and other wildlife populations from extinction.
As part of the wider British Government strategy to focus more resources in Africa to help speed development and improve quality of life, the British Armed Forces have been deployed into countries like Malawi to try to stop poachers.
This work, known as Op Corded involves sending small teams of infantry soldiers out to capacity build with local security forces, ranging from the Army through to park rangers. The work is about giving these forces the skills and capabilities to track and interdict poachers and protect critically endangered wildlife including rhinos and elephants.
This matters for UK security because it helps to generate a more stable economy for these nations. By protecting the environment and wildlife population, this helps generate jobs in the tourism industry which help in turn drive investment and opportunities for employment and growth. Over the longer term this helps create stability for the local population who have well-paid jobs that help deliver a better quality of life.
If the wildlife were to be lost this could lead to a major decline in tourism, which has an impact on the local economy. A lack of stable jobs or opportunities could create the circumstances for unrest or population migration, which in turn could destabilise other countries in the region.
This has already occurred further north, where there is a correlation between climate change and economic collapse in other countries leading to famine and mass population movements. In Somalia this has seen a rise in piracy as displaced people looking for income and a means to support their families take to the waters to try and earn enough to survive.
A few years ago, this led to a large-scale series of NATO and EU deployments off the Horn of Africa to try and stop pirates.
It is therefore easy to see that if left unchecked environmental challenges can escalate into significant military commitments for the West.
These small-scale interventions (usually consisting of no more than around 30 soldiers at a time) to run training teams in places like Malawi now play a significant role in helping to create the basis for regional stability in the hopes of preventing downstream escalation in due course.
They also provide excellent training for the British Army by giving a chance for often junior soldiers to take increased leadership and mentoring opportunities and working in challenging conditions to deliver results. It also helps with wider mentoring too, building long term links and good relationships at working level that could be of real importance in decades to come.
For the British Army this deployment is a good opportunity to prove the value of the lighter role infantry units that emerged after the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review led to a restructure of the Army. This sort of deployment helps prove the concept and show what sort of results can be delivered by infantry working in isolation to train others. It is not without its cost though – at least one Coldstream Guardsman has been killed by an elephant in May 2019 while on patrol.
These deployments form part of a wider return to Africa that is seeing the Army deploy more widely into the continent in a variety of training teams, exercises and operational deployments in not insignificant numbers. The Princess of Wales Royal Regiment have spent much of 2019 deployed in Somalia mentoring the Somali armed forces, while in South Sudan over 300 UK personnel are deployed providing medical support and assistance as part of a wider UN mission.
The UK commitment to supporting the environment and protecting wildlife can at times have unanticipated consequences.
During the Cold War the Royal Navy, supported by the RAF, specialised in the tracking of Soviet submarines which may have posed a threat to NATO vessels and convoys of merchant ships in the Atlantic. This role required the frequent use of sonar technology to find the submarine and ensure it was not lost.
Sonar technology works by using both active and passive technology to listen for specific noises. Active sonar relies on sending out sound waves on specific frequencies that can resonate and echo off a target when it is found – an effect that can be seen in many Hollywood submarines movies.
By using active sonar, it is possible to aggressively track a target and prevent it from getting away. During an operation to find and locate a submarine, a Royal Navy warship may use the active hull mounted sonar, supported by a helicopter dropping ‘sonar buoys’ which are essentially portable mini sonars that can be dropped to help triangulate the fix and help keep a track of the target submarine. In a wartime scenario once an accurate fix has been confirmed, the ship, helicopter or possibly an RAF Maritime Patrol Aircraft such as the Nimrod (during the Cold War), or the soon to be introduced P8, would drop lightweight torpedoes which would home in on the target and, hopefully, sink it.
While this makes good military sense, the unexpected side effect of all the sonar use has been its impact on whales and dolphins and other marine life.
The noise from sonar can be extremely loud, and because of the way noise is propagated underwater it can travel for a long way. For example, US Navy has sonar systems that have been recorded at 235 decibels (almost twice as loud as the loudest rock band) and the noise can travel for over 300 miles at a time.
For marine life this can cause injury or deafness and possibly, due to the way that they direction find using a form of sonar themselves, can cause disorientation that may result in beaching and death. Scientists from St Andrews University have recently found that when whales heard military sonar near them, they would actively avoid known feeding locations and change their behaviour – for example diving to great depths beneath the water.
In wartime this military activity can have an even more dangerous effect – for example in the Falklands War it is estimated that a number of the sonar contacts tracked by the Royal Navy in its hunt for Argentine submarines, and which had torpedoes or depth charges dropped on them, were probably whales.
With a growing body of research suggesting that active sonar use is causing real environmental damage to marine wildlife, there is now growing awareness within the military community about the potential risks it poses.
This has led to increased restrictions on the use of active sonar for training exercises – for example in the US there are now court-imposed restrictions on the use of active sonar in certain training areas.
This raises questions about the balancing act that needs to be struck between the armed forces and their relationship with the environment. What is the priority that needs to be addressed here – is it to look after marine life and act as a responsible custodian of the seas, even if this means reducing or removing training on sonar that may make a critical difference in wartime? Or, should the military instead focus on continuing to deliver training that it needs to carry out to meet operational success, even if this causes immense environmental damage to marine wildlife?
This is a difficult set of questions to answer as it comes to the heart of the debate about what the military should be doing to help improve its environmental credentials and tackle the challenges of climate change.
At DSEI 2019 (the main UK Defence and Security Equipment International exhibition), the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith went on the record about how the current generation of army tracked vehicles were likely to be the last that would use fossil fuels, and that future generations of vehicles would need to use sustainable energy.
Given the likely length of service lifespan that many of these vehicles currently being introduced into service are likely to have, this is perhaps not as immediate a change as some may think. But, what it does do is highlight that changes in legislation looking to cut down on carbon emissions, and the possible changes in the global security order that could make it risky to rely on fossil fuels as reserves run down and prices increase means that the Army would be prudent in thinking about how it changes the way it powers its vehicles in future.
From a practical perspective, these sorts of changes may pose a real issue for budgets, forcing MOD planners to decide whether to invest funds in new and unproven sustainable energy sources, possibly at high cost, to power their vehicles, or continue to run on fleets of increasingly elderly and polluting vehicles that are politically unpopular and increasingly expensive to operate.
Planners will need to decide what is more important to deliver – is it about meeting wider environmental pressures, and in doing so reduce the number of affordable vehicles for the Army, or is it about maintaining numbers as they are? The risk is that in doing the former, the Army may face further cuts to both headcount and vehicles as it tries to keep itself on the cutting edge of the environmental concerns. But, if it keeps the status quo, the risk is that it may become increasingly isolated and unable to operate alongside allies, and potential recruits may be less willing to join an employer who doesn’t invest in environmentally sound technology.
Whether the Armed Forces want to or not, they need to factor climate change and its myriad of implications in for a wide breadth of future planning and procurement.
From investing heavily in continued training for humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations through to looking at how operations should be conducted at a tactical level to minimise risk, and assessing how a tactical presence on the ground could have strategic impacts on long term development, climate change and the environment is going to play an increasingly important part in future MOD planning for defence.
The challenge will be to ensure that delivering this is affordable, or that where compromises are required, they are found in way which minimises the risk to UK personnel without doing increased damage to the environment as a result. This is going to be a real challenge, but it is one that cannot be ignored – like it or not, the future operating environment is going to be impacted by climate change and its numerous consequences.
Cover image: MoD/Crown Copyright
This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.
This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.
Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.