FORUM Staff | photos by the associated press
The targets are moving at Foxtrot Range, a strategic repositioning as Ewa Beach yields ever more of itself to the advance of a relentless force — the crashing and scouring of Pacific surf and tide. In early 2023, crews began moving the pistol range about 40 meters inland, the first step in relocating four short-distance firing ranges at United States Marine Corps Base Hawaii’s Pu’uloa Range Training Facility (PRTF), where troops have honed their marksmanship for a century. The project at the 55-hectare site on the leeward side of the island of Oahu will shield the ranges from coastal erosion while limiting the risk of munitions contaminating the ocean.
“We have a responsibility to protect the natural resources we are entrusted to manage,” Maj. Jeffry Hart, director of the base’s environmental compliance and protection division, said in a news release. “As stewards of this land, we must preserve and protect resources while maintaining the operational effectiveness of PRTF to keep Marines, joint force members and law enforcement officers trained and ready.”
From the mid-Pacific to Southeast Asia and beyond, militaries are engaged in whole-of-government efforts to adapt and fortify installations against the existential threat of climate change and its arsenal of challenges — rising sea levels, thawing permafrost, and intensifying floods and storms. “These climate-change effects and associated risks create security challenges and impact defense strategies, plans, capabilities, missions, material, equipment, vehicles, weapon systems and even personnel,” Robert Evans Jr., an engineer with the U.S. Department of the Air Force (DAF), wrote in an August 2022 essay for DAF’s Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs. “Mission planning must include identification and assessment of climate-change effects on missions, incorporation of climate-change effects into plans and procedures, and anticipation and management of these climate change risks to build resiliency, especially for base infrastructure and support systems.”
In particular, Evans wrote, as nations pivot their attention “toward China and the threat in the Indo-Pacific, the United States and its allies and partners must evaluate the climate-change effects and risks as related to military basing choices.”
There are few places where such considerations are as acute as Indonesia, a nation of 13,500 islands and 280 million people that recently began the herculean task of building a new capital from the ground up. The current capital — the megacity of Jakarta on the island of Java, whose 11.2 million inhabitants live at an average elevation of 8 meters — is sinking up to 25 centimeters a year, the victim of unrestrained groundwater extraction and the Java Sea’s breaching of seawalls. Within two decades, one-third of Jakarta will be submerged, the United Nations estimates.
About 1,400 kilometers northeast of the island of Java, the new capital is rising in the jungle highlands of Borneo’s East Kalimantan province. When complete, Nusantara — or “archipelago” in Javanese — will be home to national defense and security infrastructure, including bases for an estimated 30,000 troops and the Indonesian Armed Forces headquarters, analysts say. “The primary consideration in developing military facilities and installations is the safety and security of the personnel and the population, and the effectiveness of the job implementation, function and the form of threats,” Khairul Fahmi, a military expert at Indonesia’s Institute of Security and Strategic Studies, told FORUM. “By that, resilience to natural disasters like storms, earthquakes, floods becomes essential in developing military facilities and installations.”
Indonesia’s location along the so-called Ring of Fire, a 40,000-kilometer-long belt of seismic instability that encompasses 75% of Earth’s volcanoes and produces 90% of its earthquakes, heightens the need for resilient infrastructure. “The need to upgrade current military installations in order to prepare for prospective weather issues, to relocate military sites that are vulnerable, and assess the building and procurement strategy, is the closest impact of the changing weather patterns,” Fahmi said.
By 2100, other major Indo-Pacific cities could be swamped by rising seas, according to a March 2023 article in the journal Nature Climate Change. Among them: Bangkok, Thailand; Chennai and Kolkata, India; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Manila, the Philippines; and Yangon, Myanmar. Costs will rise with the waters, with global damage potentially reaching U.S. $5.5 trillion this century, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reported. At the same time, worsening storms and floods mean that buildings and other infrastructure “designed to withstand once-in-a-100-year events are becoming more challenged as these extremes happen more often and with more intensity,” The Associated Press reported in March 2023, citing new research by U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists.
Such a scenario threatens to displace tens of millions of people, potentially sparking a widespread security crisis and further straining armed forces dealing with historic demand for humanitarian aid and disaster relief. That has militaries increasingly attuned to the “tremendous threat” of climate change, Abbie Tingstad, co-director of the Rand Corp.’s Climate Resilience Center, told FORUM. “I think some are particularly looking at impacts to mission. These can be the change and frequency of their existing types of missions, and perhaps some new missions coming on board,” said Tingstad, who has a doctorate in geography and is a senior physical scientist with the U.S.-based nonprofit research institution. “Another area in which militaries are taking heed is … human and infrastructure readiness and resilience.”
Sea levels around Japan have been trending up since the 1980s, with 2022 producing the second-highest average since 1906, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. In terms of military installations, Japanese and U.S. bases on the Okinawa islands “are among the most vulnerable, as scientific estimates reveal that the sea level around those locations will rise about 30 centimeters or more by the end of 2100, compared with the year 2000,” retired Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Rear Adm. Kazumine Akimoto, a senior research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation’s Ocean Policy Research Institute, told The Japan Times newspaper in March 2023.
Japan’s National Defense Strategy, updated in late 2022, notes that climate change “will inevitably further impact future [Ministry of Defense/Self-Defense Forces] operations, including various plans, facilities, defense equipment and security environment surrounding Japan. … To this end, by [fiscal year] 2027, Japan will promote measures to construct underground command headquarters, and relocating and consolidating facilities in major bases and camps to improve resiliency of respective facilities. In addition, Japan will promote reinforcement of facilities and infrastructure against disasters such as tsunamis, starting from bases and camps that are anticipated to be damaged significantly and are important for operations.”
Additionally, Japan’s military is boosting its use of solar and other renewable energy sources to lessen reliance on fossil fuel supply chains and electrical grids. “The idea is to adapt military facilities to withstand increasingly challenging climate conditions and strengthen their ability to rapidly recover from disruptions to public infrastructure,” The Japan Times reported.
The Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), meanwhile, launched the Heat Resilience and Performance Centre in early 2023 to address “the long-term challenges that rising ambient temperature pose to training and operational readiness.” A collaboration among the Singapore Armed Forces, the National University of Singapore and the defense research and development organization DSO National Laboratories, the center incorporates climate simulation, performance evaluation and recovery science technologies to reduce heat stress in troops, which can cause injuries, degrade performance and compromise decision-making. Researchers are studying heat-mitigating clothing and infrastructure, among other advances.
“While the focus of the R&D [research and development] is targeted towards a military context, key fundamental outcomes and approaches will be applicable outside the military to paramilitary and civilian context,” according to a MINDEF news release.
Partners are collaborating to buttress the region against climate impacts, particularly in the Pacific Islands, where coastal villagers already are relocating to higher ground as saltwater intrudes into their communities. Under its Indo-Pacific Enhanced Engagement program announced in 2019, Australia “seeks to deliver security-related infrastructure and capabilities with partner nations, contributing to building a region that is economically stable, strategically secure, capable and politically sovereign,” an Australian Defence Department spokesperson told FORUM. “This includes working with Pacific partners to promote resilience to climate change. All Australian-delivered infrastructure meets specific standards that enhance their resilience against natural disasters. … Australia supports a shared commitment to build Pacific resilience through collective action. Investment in enhanced security infrastructure across the Pacific supports partner nation pre- and post-disaster response mechanisms and collaboration to respond to climate challenges.”
Collective security also is the foundation of a Philippine-U.S. initiative to upgrade infrastructure at nine locations in the Philippines that will host rotating batches of U.S. troops, including four new sites announced in early 2023 under the longtime allies’ Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Washington is investing U.S. $100 million for the improvements, which officials said will support Manila’s disaster preparedness and response capacities, create local jobs, and enhance military interoperability. “These new EDCA locations will allow more rapid response for humanitarian and climate-related disasters in the Philippines, as well as respond to other shared challenges,” Carlito Galvez Jr., then officer in charge of the Philippine National Defense Department, said in a February 2023 statement.
Regional partnerships focused on climate adaptation and resilience are in stark contrast to the People’s Republic of China’s environmentally destructive campaign of constructing and militarizing artificial reefs in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Dredging military bases into existence amid rising seas may well prove an act of folly — a cautionary tale for future generations about the perils of hubris. “It would seem to be a rather precarious situation to conduct a land reclamation project in an area where you were already mostly underwater and, in the future, most likely going to be further underwater,” Tingstad said.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) considers climate change a “critical national security threat,” including posing a risk to military operations and installations. Rising sea levels “and more frequent and intense storms put individuals, families and whole communities at risk — while pushing the limits of our collective capacity to respond,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin noted at the 2021 Leaders Summit on Climate in Washington, D.C. The DOD has enlisted data analytics, predictive modeling and computer mapping to protect its 5,000 installations worldwide, one-third of which are in coastal areas susceptible to storm surge exacerbated by rising sea levels.
Designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and unveiled in 2020, the DOD Climate Assessment Tool (DCAT) uses data from hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, flooding and other extreme weather events, as well as analysis of changing sea levels, to assess installation vulnerability based on three factors: exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity. “The DCAT enables personnel at all levels of the department — from installation planners to leadership — to understand each location’s exposure to climate-related hazards using historical data and future climate projections,” according to a DOD news release.
In the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. has committed to sharing the DCAT with allies including Australia, Japan and South Korea, and “continues to collaborate with allies and partners in the Pacific to prepare for a combined response capability for climate-related emergencies,” Melissa Dalton, U.S. assistant defense secretary for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs, said during a U.S. congressional hearing in mid-2021, identifying priorities. The DOD “is inculcating a culture of climate-informed decision-making and incorporating climate change into threat assessments, budgets and operational decision-making … [and] taking care of our people, including members of the Armed Forces and the civilians who serve with them, by buttressing the resilience of our installations and the structures where people work and live.”
FORUM correspondents Gusty Da Costa, Jacob Doyle and Maria T. Reyes contributed to