The electrification of defense vehicles means more than financial savings or emissions reductions—it’s a national security issue. Increasing electrification via electric vehicles (EVs) bolsters military readiness by addressing various threats from heavy reliance on fossil fuels both at home and abroad. Notwithstanding, the Pentagon’s critical efforts to transition to EVs were nearly completely impeded by proposed amendments to the FY24 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Fortunately, the U.S. House passed the Act without the amendments, but even so, it is worthwhile to highlight the importance of the military’s transition to EVs.
As ASP has written about before, the use of fossil fuels puts a significant strain on defense assets in the field and can cause catastrophic damage around installations. For example, the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Hawaii has been permanently shut down after a massive jet fuel spill contaminated drinking water and put more than 90,000 military personnel and civilians in crisis in 2021. The incident underscored just one way that the dependence on fossil fuels not only impairs public health and the environment but also threatens to undermine the military’s ability to conduct operations.
The limited shelf life of fossil fuels also poses burdens on maintenance and economic security. Gasoline and diesel can be stored for up to 6 months or 1 year under the “perfect” condition (e.g., clean, dry, and sealed containers away from sunlight and heat sources). While fuel tanks should be maintained in good condition with prompt repairs, fuels should be drained prior to cleaning or inspection, which demands time and money and negatively affects fleet lethality. Also, limited fuel storage capacity requires the Department of Defense (DOD) to purchase fuels in real-time, exposing them to price volatility. Certainly, DoD has an internal measure to minimize the impact of the fluctuation by selling fuels to its internal customers at a constant price called the Standard Fuel Price. However, global fuel price still impacts the defense industry and the national economy as the DoD is the U.S. government’s largest bulk fuel purchaser and consumer that expends about $81 billion per year to protect global oil supplies.
Emissions from burning fossil fuels exacerbate climate change and extreme weather events, thereby disrupting military installations and operations. While the DoD maintains over 5,000 military installations and bases across the globe, more than 1,700 have already been or are projected to be affected by sea level rise or extreme weather events. Since 2014, extreme heat has made over 1,500 soldiers suffer from heat illnesses annually, and led to more than 20,500 duty days lost or limited—just in 2017. Given that the DoD is one of the main contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions, climate change mitigation goals cannot be achieved without the electrification of the U.S. military.
But perhaps most importantly, fossil fuel dependence presents an outsized risk on the battlefield. Fuel (re)supply exposes troops to convoy ambush, which leads to both financial losses and casualties. One study indicated that “the resupply of liquid fuel and water for troops in-theatre costs about 4 lives for every 100 convoys.” In a single year, fuel convoy attacks caused 132 casualties in Iraq and 38 in Afghanistan. Likewise, fossil fuel’s flammable and explosive nature also poses an increased risk of leaks and/or fires at fueling stations, further impacting readiness, operations, and personnel.
The electrification of defense vehicles mitigates many of the drawbacks of fossil fuels while simultaneously presenting new operational benefits. Compared to internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, EVs emit less noise and heat, which is ideal for military tactics by lowering the chances of being detected by enemies and thus, fewer casualties. Similarly, EVs have a simpler structure with fewer parts, which lessens maintenance requirements. Russia’s recent abandoning of combat vehicles in Ukraine has provided an apt example of the searing weakness of fossil fuel-oriented combat logistics. Maintaining a consistent fuel supply is an unnecessary complication, especially when EVs themselves can serve a dual purpose and function as backup power when grid electricity is disrupted.
Admittedly, there are still challenges remaining for widespread EV adoption. While hybrid electric tactical vehicles have been developed as the first step to reducing fuel consumption, neither all-electric nor hybrid vehicles are yet deployed in the field. EVs requires reliable charging infrastructure—a unique challenge on the battlefield that is still being researched. As all technological advances, these efforts will require significant, sustained investment. The proposed anti-EV amendments would have not only set those developments back, in the words of Richard Kidd, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment and Energy Resilience, it could have directly inhibited the technologies that make our forces safer and more lethal.
Climate Security in Focus is a blog series dedicated to exploring key elements of climate security that impact American interests both at home and abroad. The series aims to examine specific aspects of climate security issues in order to better understand climate policy challenges, facilitate conversation, and generate ideas.