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June 21, 2022updated 22 Jun 2022 12:06pm

Climate change creates challenges for military vehicle design

The design of military equipment needs to evolve in line with environmental threats and the latest strategic thinking on climate change.

By Susanne Hauner

With heatwaves in North America and record-breaking floods in Europe and Asia, 2021 was regarded by many scientists, politicians and environmentalists as a pivotal year in the battle against climate change. The defence industry is also paying closer attention to the implications of a world where extreme weather events are increasingly common. Here, Roger Brereton of Pailton Engineering looks at two key areas where military vehicle design is likely to respond to the challenge of climate change.

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Recent years have witnessed a growth in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. According to the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), scientists now have increasing confidence that there is a link between human activity and extreme weather events.

At the same time, there is a growing recognition of the impact extreme weather is having. A study by Christian Aid, a charity fighting global poverty, identified ten extreme weather events that cost more than $1.5bn in damage in 2021. The biggest impacts were felt by Hurricane Ida in the US in August and by flooding in Europe in July.  

Military thinking on climate change has evolved as awareness of the threat has grown. Traditionally, security analysts focused only on relationships among states. Nowadays, the United Nations Security Council recognises climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ and most Western states accept this approach.

The design of military equipment will need to evolve in line with the latest strategic thinking on climate change. The military will face pressure to lower its carbon footprint and move toward hybrid vehicles and alternative fuels where possible, but it will also need to procure equipment, including military vehicles, that are adapted for a world where climactic conditions have changed.

Here are two key areas where military vehicle design will change in response to climate change.

Designing equipment for climate resilience

The idea that extreme weather conditions can impact the performance of military equipment is nothing new. The conflict in Afghanistan highlighted several examples of military hardware struggling to cope with the intense heat, from helicopters to military vehicles. For example, the UK’s Force Protection Ocelot, also known as the Foxhound, was reported as having struggled with the high temperatures in the country.

There is now growing recognition that, as a result of climate change, armed forces will have to plan for a world where harsher climates and extreme temperatures are increasingly common. A recent report by the RAND Corporation, commissioned by the UK Ministry of Defence, noted the need for climate-resilient equipment in response to the growing threat of climate change.

The report noted that personnel and equipment will have to operate in ‘climate-degraded conditions’ more frequently and argued that ‘climate-related changes in different operating environments are likely to increase the need for equipment to have resilience or be designed to enable efficient adaptation to environmental extremes’. Among the report’s recommendations was the proposal that defence acquisition bodies mandate the inclusion of climate-resistant design features in the future.

Climate-resilient vehicle design is being advocated not simply in response to a more challenging environment, but also to take advantage of new strategic opportunities. For example, rising temperatures are making the Arctic region more accessible and have led to its emergence as a new area of strategic focus.

Vehicles equipped to deal with this extreme environment, such as the Oshkosh Cold Weather All-Terrain Vehicle (CATV), will see increasing demand. The components that are developed for these vehicles must also undergo more extensive testing to ensure they can endure increased demands.

A growing need for military involvement in disaster relief

The growing frequency of extreme weather events will also likely see services deployed in response to environmental disasters, both domestically and overseas. While extreme weather might have historically been seen as outside the remit of military actors, policymakers are now conceptualising extreme weather events as threats to security and military assistance is increasingly required as part of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

For example, in response to Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, one of the most powerful tropical cyclones ever recorded, the UK deployed two Royal Navy ships, 11 military aircraft and a total of 18 different vehicles as part of a DFID-led response. However, it is not only in tropical regions that the need to respond to extreme weather is growing.

In July 2021, flooding in Europe led to 243 deaths and left more than 200,000 properties without power. The consensus among the majority of scientists is that events like these are linked to climate change, so military planners are gearing up for a world where services will need to respond to more frequent floods. For example, in the RAND study cited above, flooding is referred to as one of the major threats facing the UK in the next few years.

“Given the kind of climate-related disasters that Western countries will have to respond to, vehicles that can offer the flexibility to perform multiple roles will be especially valuable.”

In the US, the procurement of military vehicles to assist with disaster relief is already more advanced. Under the Pentagon’s 1033 Program, local law enforcement agencies are procuring surplus military vehicles to respond to disaster-related emergencies such as storms, blizzards and floods. Although the programme dates back to 1996, Congress has recently instructed the Pentagon to give the highest priority to applications and requests related to emergency preparedness, for example high-water rescue vehicles.

Given the kind of climate-related disasters that Western countries will have to respond to, vehicles that can offer the flexibility to perform multiple roles will be especially valuable. Whereas currently we are seeing military vehicles re-purposed to deal with domestic extreme weather events, future military vehicles will likely be designed from the outset to serve this multi-purpose role.  

The threat of climate change is high on the agenda of military planners and has implications at the strategic, tactical and operational level. While the important goal of decarbonisation will take precedence, defence departments also need to ensure the next generation of vehicles are adapted to an environment where extreme temperatures and climate-related disasters are more common.

Military vehicle design is likely to reflect this imperative, with vehicles that are engineered for inhospitable climactic conditions and designed for disaster relief as well as more traditional military tasks.

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