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Renewable Forces

Indo-Pacific militaries pivot to sustainable energy to enhance resilience, capabilities

On the evening of November 21, 1918 — 10 days after the signing of the armistice that ended World War I — British War Cabinet member George Curzon presided at a dinner honoring the Inter-Allied Petroleum Conference. Toasting the delegates gathered in London, Curzon declared that the Allies had “floated to victory on a wave of oil” due to their immense fleets of trucks. French delegate Henry Berenger noted that Germany expected to win because of its significant coal deposits, but the Allies prevailed with oil. It was, he said, a victory of automobiles over railroads.

More than a century after that global conflict ushered in an age of oil-thirsty geopolitics, militaries and defense agencies across the Indo-Pacific are at the leading edge of a surge in scientific and engineering advances that promise to herald a new era. From geothermal-powered bases and zero-emission electric vehicles to jet fuel produced from biomass such as algae, crops and household waste, armed forces are accelerating their transition to renewable energy. The evolution aims to enhance operations in peacetime and war, while reducing harmful greenhouse gases. A blend of factors is driving innovation: civilian and military mandates to mitigate climate impacts and build resilience; diminishing fossil fuel reserves; strains on oil and gas supplies caused by crises such as the war in Ukraine; and evolving clean technology to better prepare and protect troops.

A French Army convoy carries troops and cargo at Nixeville, France, during
the Battle of Verdun in 1916. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

“The global energy system is undergoing a rapid and enduring shift with inescapable implications for militaries,” Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Wing Cmdr. Ulas Yildirim, then a visiting fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), wrote in a June 2022 report for the think tank. “Australia’s dependence on imports for liquid-fuel security places the ADF [Australian Defence Force] at risk. The risk isn’t whether the ADF can get to an area of operations and perform poorly but whether it can get there at all. … In this context, the ADF’s transition to renewable sources isn’t a zero-sum choice that results in operational capability being undermined or degraded. A rapid transition to renewables will make the ADF more effective in doing what the Australian Government directs and demands in the more divided and dangerous world and region we’re already experiencing.”

Enhanced operational performance also is at the heart of the United States Department of the Air Force’s Climate Action Plan, released in October 2022. “Our overall goal,” the agency stated, “is to deliver more combat power to the warfighter using less fuel.”


At its tanker-transport hangar at Changi Air Base, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is doing more than reducing fuel consumption — it’s also generating enough renewable energy to power other parts of the base. The facility’s solar panels, natural ventilation, grass-covered roof and eco-friendly building materials conserve electricity, while rainwater is collected for irrigation and other nonpotable use. “Solar energy remains the most promising renewable energy source for Singapore, and we have commenced the installation of solar panels on suitable rooftops in military camps and bases, generating approximately 20 MWp [megawatt-peak] of electricity,” Brig. Gen. Frederick Choo, chief sustainability officer of the SAF and Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), told FORUM. 

“By 2025, all remaining military camps will have solar panels installed on suitable rooftops, capable of generating about 50 MWp of electricity in total,” Choo said, which is enough to power more than 12,500 households annually. “To maximize solar adoption, we are also working with national agencies to explore floating solar photovoltaics over reservoirs sited within MINDEF land.” 

Singapore generates about 96% of its electricity from natural gas imports, which arrive via pipelines from Indonesia and Malaysia and in liquefied form from as far away as Africa, Australia and North America. With a land mass of 720 square kilometers, the city-state of 5.6 million people is constrained in how much renewable energy it can produce from sources such as solar, according to the government’s Energy Market Authority. In late 2021, officials announced plans to import about one-third of Singapore’s electricity from renewable, low-carbon sources such as wind and hydropower plants by 2035.

The SAF and MINDEF renewable energy initiatives align with the Singapore Green Plan 2030, “a whole-of-nation movement launched in February 2021 to chart concrete targets over the next 10 years to advance Singapore’s national agenda on sustainable development,” Choo said. The military seeks to be at the forefront of those efforts, with plans to replace its administrative vehicle fleet with electric vehicles (EVs) by 2030. It also is collaborating with the Defence Science and Technology Agency and the National Environment Agency to generate energy with biogas produced from food waste, while the Royal Singapore Air Force is set to start trials using green aviation fuel in some of its F-16 fighter jets.

“Adapting to use green technologies could also reap operational advantages,” Singaporean Defence Minister Dr. Ng Eng Hen told Parliament in March 2020 at the Changi hangar’s unveiling, citing the Royal Singapore Navy’s research into energy-efficient hybrid propulsion systems to boost endurance.

A solar project at Misawa Air Base in Japan, funded by the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency Energy, is expected to cut energy consumption by 20% across nearly 700 buildings and reduce the base’s annual electrical load by up to 60%. MISAWA AIR BASE


Singapore’s sustainability strides are evidence of a quickening trend across the region. “Some Asian countries’ militaries are gearing up for a new energy paradigm amid a perfect storm of security concerns, climate change and the emergence of renewable resource options that are driving operational changes,” Defense News magazine reported in August 2021. For industrial heavyweights such as Japan and South Korea, which depend on fossil fuel imports, the “need for energy security is more pressing for their militaries, given the complex national security tasks that include deterring Chinese aggression, preparing for the unpredictable nature of a nuclear-armed North Korea and overcoming humanitarian disasters. As alternative energy sources become increasingly viable, these countries and their militaries are renewing efforts to pivot to these.”

A month earlier, Japan’s defense white paper cited climate effects such as more frequent deployments to natural disasters, and growing burdens on military bases and equipment. It marked the first reference to climate change in the yearly report on the nation’s security preparedness and challenges, which Japan released shortly after establishing a Defense Ministry task force to support Tokyo’s goal of a decarbonized society by 2050.

At a climate summit convened by U.S. President Joe Biden in April 2021, then-Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said at least 50% of his ministry’s facilities would begin generating electricity with renewable sources such as solar that fiscal year. The ministry also developed a prototype ground vehicle with a hybrid electric-diesel engine and collaborated with the U.S. to boost the electrical capacity of Japan Self-Defense Forces vehicles. “In my view, activities for national defense and environmental considerations can go hand in hand,” Kishi said.

The Indian Army wants to shrink its carbon footprint by replacing 25% of light vehicles, 38% of buses and 48% of motorcycles with EVs in some peacetime units, the Hindustan Times newspaper reported in October 2022. The Army is setting up EV charging sites in commercial and residential parking lots and developing solar-powered charge points. India ranks as the world’s third-largest energy consumer, with coal accounting for more than 70% of its power sector, and New Delhi has set “ambitious renewable energy targets,” according to the U.S. International Trade Administration.

A Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) KC-30A tanker refuels a Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-2A fighter jet over Japan in April 2022. The RAAF is developing portable kits to produce aviation fuel from biomass and other sustainable sources.


Green technology also offers tactical benefits. “The ADF is already leveraging this advantage in modest ways,” Yildirim, who has a doctorate in engineering, reported for ASPI. “Electric motorcycles have been trialed as an adjunct to armored reconnaissance capabilities. Quiet vehicles offer huge advantages on the battlefield.”

Similarly, EVs and hybrids limit logistical vulnerability, particularly in austere terrains, according to Paul Farnan, principal deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Army for installations, energy and environment. “If we can reduce the amount of fuel our vehicles use by 30%, 40%, 50%, that’s half of the fuel convoys we now have to protect,” Farnan said at the October 2022 launch of the Army’s climate implementation plan, which calls for a zero-emission fleet of light-duty, nontactical vehicles and for development of hybrid-drive tactical wheeled and combat vehicles, both by 2027. “That’s half the casualties we’re going to risk. That’s half the amount of combat forces we’re pulling away from the fight.”

Those vehicles can also run electrical systems such as communications and radar without the engine running, “reducing your acoustic signature and your thermal signature, two things that weapons can hone in on,” Farnan said during the event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S.-based think tank. “So, just by doing this, we’re not only reducing the amount of fuel these vehicles need and the amount of fuel we have to move to the battlefield; we are providing better protection for our Soldiers.”

Air forces in Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. also are developing portable equipment to produce aviation fuel from biomass and other sustainable sources, noted Yildirim, who authorized the ADF’s first biomass-fueled flight in 2012 while serving as chief engineer of the RAAF’s Joint Fuels and Lubricant Agency. Such kits, he wrote, “hold the promise of production at the point of use instead of reliance on complicated distribution systems in often difficult locations.”

An engineer installs a lithium battery system in an autonomous ground vehicle at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s research lab in Maryland. T’JAE ELLIS/U.S. ARMY


Global annual investment in clean energy is set to surpass U.S. $2 trillion by 2030, a more than 50% jump over 2022, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the ensuing war sparked the “first global energy crisis — a shock of unprecedented breadth and complexity,” likely hastening the move from oil and coal to wind, solar and other renewables, the IEA reported in late 2022.

As major energy consumers, the world’s armed forces will be shaped by — and can help shape — this transformation. The Australian military, for example, spent more on fuel than on any other commodity in 2016-17, about U.S. $300 million, Yildirim noted. The fuel that runs the ADF largely comes from “globally sourced crude oil flowing through a handful of East and Southeast Asian refineries,” he wrote. “Supply arrangements for these critical commodities are likely to become more fraught, however.”

The prospect of a crisis or conflict limiting fuel supplies is an acute security concern, particularly for a country such as Australia, which is a net importer of crude and refined oil and relies on petroleum for about one-third of its energy consumption. Yildirim’s recommendations to alleviate such a scenario include transitioning the ADF’s noncombat vehicles to EVs, adopting solar and other renewables in upgrading military installations, and widening the use of simulation technology for training and exercises to cut energy consumption.

He also called for tapping into the expertise of commercial sector entities such as airlines and shipping companies, as well as civilian research institutes and partner militaries to avoid duplication and boost interoperability. “Futureproofing the ADF requires the growth of an alternative fuels sector in Australia to meet broader needs that include but aren’t defined by the ADF alone,” he wrote. “That can only be achieved through partnerships because no individual operator or enterprise has a monopoly on the energy sector.”

The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, NASA and Boeing developed the X-48B, a prototype ultra-efficient, blended-wing aircraft. NASA


As such public-private partnerships take root across the Indo-Pacific, a whole-of-society approach to renewable energy already is yielding results for the U.S. Defense Department, the government’s largest energy user and one of the world’s biggest electricity purchasers. The U.S. military almost doubled its renewable energy production from 2011-15, far outpacing the nation as a whole, according to James Grant, manager of the U.S.-based International Tax and Investment Center’s Energy, Growth and Security program. “In a new era in which renewable energy sources could be the difference between an agile, secure fighting force and a sluggish one at risk of market shocks and aged infrastructure, there is little room for the United States to be complacent,” Grant wrote in an April 2021 article for The National Interest magazine, noting the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) increased targets for renewable technology. “Just like when the U.S. military focused on the nuclear triad to deter adversaries during the Cold War, its aim in the 21st century should be to increase its edge as an energy-independent fighting force.”

The U.S. military is pursuing this goal on multiple fronts, with added impetus from President Biden’s December 2021 executive order that federal agencies achieve 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2030, at least half of which must be locally supplied clean energy, among other targets. The Defense Department and its branches followed the directive by implementing comprehensive climate mitigation and resilience plans. Among the initiatives:

The U.S. Army, working with manufacturer General Dynamics Land Systems, unveiled a prototype of its next-generation Abrams battle tank in late 2022. The AbramsX incorporates hybrid-electric propulsion that will cut fuel consumption and allow its crew to operate sensors and other systems without telltale engine noise and heat. “This improves the vehicle’s lethality and survivability and massively expands its operational envelope,” The National Interest reported. Similarly, all five industry participants in the Army’s Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle program to replace the M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle have proposed a hybrid-electric design.

In addition to expanding its use of sustainable aviation fuels and exploring the electrification of small mobility aircraft and rotorcraft, the U.S. Air Force is collaborating with NASA, defense firms and other partners to develop blended-wing aircraft with less drag and greater fuel efficiency. With aviation fuel accounting for about 80% of the branch’s energy consumption, such advances remain imperative to the U.S. maintaining its technological dominance over the PRC and others, according to John Sneden, head of the Air Force’s Propulsion Directorate. “I will tell you that anytime you have an advantage, it’s important to check your six,” Sneden said during the Air and Space Forces Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference in Maryland in September 2022. “How fast is your adversary coming up behind you? What’s going on? We can’t keep living off the advantage. We have to always be innovating, always be moving forward.”

The U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy also are building on a foundation of progress in sustainable energy, from the commissioning of the world’s first nuclear-powered submarines and ships almost 70 years ago to the on-base production of geothermal power in the mid-1980s and the deployment of the Great Green Fleet of aircraft and ships powered, in part, by biofuels in the past decade. In 2022, Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany in Georgia became the first Defense Department installation to achieve net-zero energy, meaning it generates more electricity from renewable sources such as a biomass steam turbine and landfill gas generators than it consumes annually from its utility provider.

The initiatives will pay dividends in the civilian arena, too. “The U.S. military has been one of the greatest tech innovators on the planet. It won’t be different in the energy field,” Grant wrote in The National Interest. “In addition to improved security through increased renewables, the public stands to gain from the many downstream applications of advanced energy technology.”

For Indo-Pacific militaries and defense organizations, the core duty remains constant amid this transformative wave of renewable energy gains. “Make no mistake — the department’s mission remains to fly, fight, and win, anytime and anywhere,” U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said in a statement unveiling the agency’s climate plan. “We are focused on modernization and improving our operational posture relative to our pacing challenge: China. We remain ready to respond and achieve air and space dominance when and where the nation needs us.

“Our mission remains unchanged, but we recognize that the world is facing ongoing and accelerating climate change and we must be prepared to respond, fight, and win in this constantly changing world.”  

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