Play the Long Game on Environmental Impact

6 January 2011 (Last Updated January 6th, 2011 18:30)

Addressing climate change has to be about a lot more than cutting emissions; it demands a serious review of the way in which militaries tackle the issue of product procurement and lifecycle management. Group Captain Maurice Dixon of the UK's Ministry of Defence talks to Phin Foster about how a changing environment will influence how vehicles are developed and the theatres of war where they are deployed.

Play the Long Game on Environmental Impact

Governmental pressure, unstable fuel prices and a growing consensus around the causes of climate change have been key drivers in forcing organisations across all industries to take a hard look at their environmental impact and invest serious thought as to how it can be reduced.

Militaries have not been exempt from this push. Being extremely energy-intensive – in 2009 the US Department of Defense (DoD) accounted for some 80% of total US Government energy consumption – there is now an agreement among Nato members on the need to address the issue on multiple fronts. The performance of existing fleets has come under sharp review, while the requirements for next-generation vehicles are evolving apace.

The US Navy's "Great Green Fleet", made up of ships, submarines and planes powered entirely by biofuels, is planned to be operational by 2016 as part of a major energy technology drive by the world's most advanced military power. However, it would be naïve to interpret such green commitments merely as an acknowledgment of an imperative to cut emissions; the US Army also believes hybrid-electric powered trucks and future combat systems will help cut fuel costs by three quarters by the end of the decade.

The Pew project study on national security, energy and climate estimated that the cost of a gallon of gas can inflate to $400 by the time it arrives in theatre. Furthermore, fuel convoys traditionally suffer from heavy casualties delivering into far-flung war zones. If alternatives can save money and lives, then even the most ardent of climate change sceptics will come onboard.

"The US Navy's 'Great Green Fleet', made up of ships, submarines and planes powered entirely by biofuels."

Think long-term

Reacting to the impact of climate change is by no means solely based upon mitigation. The 2008 UK National Security Strategy identified climate change as potentially the greatest threat to global stability, focusing upon international competition for traditional energy sources and its potential for population displacement.

This was further emphasised in the PM//DPM foreword of the 2010 National Security Strategy issued on 18 October 2010: "The security of our energy supplies increasingly depends on fossil fuels located in some of the most unstable parts of the planet. Nuclear proliferation is a growing danger. Our security is vulnerable to the effects of climate change and its impact on food and water supply. So the concept of national security in 2010 is very different to what it was ten or 20, let alone 50 or 100 years ago."

Part of the Ministry of Defence's (MoD) response has been to introduce its Sustainable Procurement Strategy. It obligates the UK military to embed a process whereby goods, services and utilities are acquired in a way that addresses environmental impact, achieves value for money on a "whole life basis", and generates benefits not only for the organisation itself but to society and the wider economy.

Group Captain Maurice Dixon is deputy head of sustainable development strategy for the UK MoD. In this context he is responsible for bringing a military focus to sustainability issues, assessing what solutions might be practical in an operational environment. It is a balancing act that lies at the heart of any successful procurement process and one he and his colleagues are keen to emphasise the military benefits of building sustainability into future capability requirements.

"A big part of my role is articulating what we are doing in a way that all stakeholders will understand," he explains. "Internally, people need to see that there is a solid military reason behind any decision we take, that it's not a question of altruism. The military imperative may sometimes limit our ability to choose the most sustainable option but never vice-versa.

"In many ways I have had to develop three separate vocabulary sets in order to get the same message across. My defence audience requires military speak; the environmental sector wants to hear about our work reducing environmental impact; and the defence industry wants to hear that it can still make a profit and where the opportunities lie. Each is an essential component of the whole, but priorities certainly vary."

Future integration

Collaboration between the MoD and industry is an essential component of getting the strategy right.

"A lot of our equipment lasts for decades, so it's about much more than construction and delivery" he explains. "Take a ship or aircraft, for instance and over a 40-year lifecycle perhaps just 2% of the carbon it produces will come from the manufacturing phase. We're therefore focusing on longer-term energy efficiency, the ability to integrate new applications and technologies further down the line, and how they might adapt to changing conditions.

"The US Army believes hybrid-electric powered trucks and future combat systems will help cut fuel costs."

"If we can get into intelligent, lasting relationships, continually incentivising partners to improve environmental performance, then that's a great symbiotic relationship. If you keep entering two or three-year contracts, industry won't see the return on investment it might expect."

It is a bigger picture approach in which some elements will take time to come to fruition. Dixon cites the recently contracted engine upgrade for Puma helicopters, which will improve energy efficiency by 25% while providing a 35% power boost to the aircraft, as a prime example of a sustainable win for all parties, but believes that as the culture becomes further embedded greater savings are possible. "I don't want us to think that now we've made this significant improvement that's the job done," he says. "We've focused on the engines, but could we reduce weight elsewhere or is there new blade technology that might help us find that extra 5% efficiency? One must take a step back and look at the whole thing."

Ideas in practice

Dixon acknowledges that the concept of ecodesign has not traditionally been as integrated within the defence industry's methods as it might have been and believes embracing such an approach opens the sector up to ideas from new sources; there is now a growing interest in this discipline in the industry. "It's about looking at more than energy efficiency in terms of design, operational output and through-life benefits," he explains.

This change in mindset has also seen the MoD take on partners with little or no military experience; particularly small and medium-sized enterprises. "We're interested in technology that deals with efficiency, safety and new energy sources," he explains. "That's where it gets quite exciting, working alongside a range of new partners we wouldn't have traditionally partnered with, as well as existing defence companies."

That is not to say the MoD's traditional suppliers have failed to take this message onboard. All the key suppiers have signed a sustainable procurement charter committing to work with the Department to embed sustainability in the supply chain.

This includes activities ranging from raising awareness of sustainability through to specific issues such as testing the performance and safety of new fuel types. "We need to know if new types of fuel are more corrosive over time, if they degenerate internal components within the engine, how they behave at extreme temperatures and if they meet operational performance requirements.

"It's about looking at more than energy efficiency – in terms of design but also in operation."

"Just because something is new does not necessarily make it better and, while less CO2 may be produced, we need to ensure that that's not at the expense of emitting other greenhouse gases or impacting on the environment somewhere else, or reducing operational effect and performance." Much of this work is done in-house through the Defence Fuels Group (DFG).

"A huge amount of work is being performed in this area, but any solution can never be at the expense of operational capability," Dixon says. "There's a close relationship between fuel and equipment – one can't simply announce the use of a new fuel source without necessitating a major restructuring of your fleet. We have to be very careful that we link our fuel energy road map with equipment development and safety certification."

The fact that, by their very nature, military vehicles are built to last makes this a long-term strategy. As climate change starts to strongly influence the operating environment it also asks more questions of overall vehicle design.

"If the platform is going to be around for more than five years then we need to think about the potential impact climate change will have upon its use as well as vice versa," says Dixon. "We must carry out a climate and environmental impact assessment and decide upon the sorts of geographies any vehicle might be deployed. The sea levels are rising and sea composition changing, so what will that mean for our submarines and ships in 2040 or 2050? Water shortages may lead to mass migration and hostility on borders: will we have to intervene? Flags are already being planted on the seabed in the Arctic: is our equipment ready for use in such a hostile environment? These are all questions we have to face up to."

Collaboration is happening

But the MoD does not have to face them alone. Dixon is heartened by the degree of collaboration being witnessed between militaries and believes shared conclusions are essential. "We've done a lot of work with the US Department of Defense, particularly the Marine Corp, looking at alternative energy sources," he says. "We've shared best practice with militaries ranging from Canada to Germany to France to New Zealand. No one military can afford to tackle this alone because, when we deploy, it is essential we are inter-operable.

"At the moment that is guaranteed due to a single fuel policy within Nato – any Nato vehicle can pitch up at a British base and be certain that it can take fuel onboard and vice versa. What we don't want to do is start diverging and going down different fuel / energy routes. Developing standards is an essential component of getting this right, maintaining operational capability while reducing our reliability on fossil fuels."

"Repainting the HMS Ark Royal resulted in a 9% improvement in fuel efficiency."

Standardisation is an area Dixon turns to time and again. While environmental solutions can have a reputation for being more expensive than traditional technologies, he believes a shift in mindset is quickly eradicating the discrepancy. "Over the last decade or so we've sent out the message that we're not really into buying bespoke," the group captain explains. "Innovation in this area is moving so quickly that we don't want to be tied to a particular solution should something else come along.

"We now see sustainable vehicles, hybrids and so on, coming on-stream that are comparable, if not better value for money, through life, to traditional products."

As the culture becomes further embedded within the organisation, early signs of fruition start to appear. Quick wins are an essential component of generating internal and external buy-in and consolidating momentum into the longer-term. The Royal Navy is already reaping the rewards of fitting transom flaps to the stern of its ships, a policy for all current and future ships, gaining an average 10% fuel efficiency. We have also benefitted from collaboration with Formula 1 racing teams to improve the protection of our troops in battlefield vehicles.

"It is something everyone can understand," says Dixon. "You show people results and, regardless of their opinion of the issue of climate change, they want to be involved. We have big plans and ambitious targets, but they cannot be attained unless you bring your people and your suppliers with you."

This article was first published in our sister publication Defence and Security Systems International.