We often don’t associate climate change with threats to America’s military, yet Hurricane Michael showed us how very real that threat is. While the storm wrecked thousands of homes and lives in the Florida Panhandle, it also caused hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of damage to vital national security assets at Tyndall Air Force Base outside of Panama City. The assessment is ongoing, but the Air Force reports that, “The flight line is devastated. Every building has severe damage. Many buildings are a complete loss.”
As a former Air Force commander, I am deeply alarmed about this growing threat to our military installations, to some of our costliest and most important military assets, and to the men and women who serve us in uniform.
Among the damage at Tyndall: an uncertain future for the 17 F-22s Raptor jets that were left on base to weather the storm. These state-of-the-art stealth jets cost $143 million apiece — but are essentially priceless since the production line was shut down. Regrettably, alarms have been sounded on these kinds of exposures for years.
The American Security Project (ASP), on whose board of directors I serve, has long analyzed the threat of climate change to our military infrastructure. Since its founding in 2006, ASP has argued that the physical changes to the environment such as, flooding, drought, and extreme weather events may disrupt U.S. military capabilities and facilities. And with increasing climate change, storms will intensify, meaning those threats only increase.
The national security community has begun to recognize this growing threat. According to the National Intelligence Council, “Rising sea levels, flooding, droughts, higher temperatures, and more frequent extreme weather events will increasingly threaten military capabilities and facilities on both US and foreign territory, including military bases and training ranges.” ASP produced an interactive map, which outlines the threats to those bases from sea level rise to extreme drought and dangerous hurricanes.
Take for example, Eglin Air Force Base, just 80 miles from Tyndall and home to Special Forces for Southern Command. Sections of the base are projected to flood so often by 2070 that the land will essentially become part of the tidal zone.
Climate effects don’t stop at the coastline, either. In 2016, a 10,000-acre wildfire in California closed the south side of Vandenberg Air Force Base, stalling the launch of an Atlas V rocket. Similarly, Luke Air Force Base, the training ground for F-35 and F-16 fighter pilots in Arizona, has seen increasingly extreme temperatures.
At my command’s headquarters at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, I personally witnessed the immense heat of the Arizona desert, reaching 118 degrees one day. There are some concerns that critical fighter planes like the F-35 might not be able to tolerate fuel over a certain temperature threshold. Luke AFB even had to paint refueling trucks white in order to deflect heat — not exactly optimal for operations in a foreign desert like Iraq.
The damage to bases such as Tyndall may be catastrophic for the base itself, but it’s only the beginning. Storms will continue to become more extreme and impact the ability of our armed forces to fight and win our nation’s wars. Assessing and addressing the threat of climate change is critical for the future viability of our force.
What can be done? For one, President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 committee chair says panel will issue a 'good number' of additional subpoenas Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Pentagon officials prepare for grilling Biden nominates head of Africa CDC to lead global AIDS response MORE should support military readiness as it relates to the growing impacts of climate change. Unfortunately, the most recent National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy explicitly left out the threats of climate change, making it more difficult for military planners to address the threat.
Congress, which has taken limited action on climate change, has at least requested a report from the Department of Defense on the most vulnerable bases and stations. Much more must be done. As the recent UN IPCCC report highlighted, the time to act is now. If Trump and Congress hope to preserve the United States’ military superiority — and to protect them from vulnerabilities — they must address the threat of climate change today.
Lieutenant General Norman Seip, USAF (Ret) served in the Air Force for 35 years. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the American Security Project, which published an analysis of how climate change impacts military infrastructure.