Opinion | National Security

A dangerously distracted Pentagon

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

The first plan produced by President Biden's Pentagon isn't a blueprint for how to respond to an emboldened China. Nor does it address how to prevent Afghanistan from reverting to a breeding ground for terrorists. 

No, the first plan produced by this administration's Defense Department is a "Climate Adaptation Plan," which purports to "take bold steps to accelerate adaptation to reduce the adverse impacts of climate change." 

Signed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and released on Oct. 7, the 32-page plan identifies myriad tasks the Pentagon will undertake to "enhance resilience to the effects of climate change" and "reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

Declaring climate change to be a "critical national security issue," the plan calls for climate change considerations and impacts to be "included in all relevant and applicable DOD decisions." 

In pursuit of these goals, the Pentagon will gather detailed information from supporting contractors and industries about their current levels of greenhouse gas emissions and their plans to reduce them. The department plans to use its purchasing power "to drive transparency within and across its supply chain; expecting major suppliers to fully disclose GHG (greenhouse emissions) and broader ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) performance."

Left unsaid are exactly what "social and governance" statistics the Pentagon will demand. The costs to wean defense industries from processes that produce carbon emissions will presumably be borne by the Pentagon, whose tight budget is already being held to below the rate of inflation by the Biden administration.

The plan also identifies the need to develop a "climate literate and capable workforce." As part of that effort, it intends to integrate "climate change literacy into all its training and education efforts, from skill-specific military education to graduate training in the war colleges." No matter that, due to a high operational tempo and time constraints, service members already struggle to learn basic warrior tasks such as ship navigation or driver's training for armored vehicles. Climate change will likely raise to the top of an already long list of topics requiring training.

Nor are Pentagon climate adaptation efforts confined to America. The plan calls for efforts to "build partner nation capacity to respond to climate change related hazards." As the U.S. works to assemble strong coalitions to counter Chinese and Russian hegemony, our allies can look forward to U.S. military officials mansplaining how they, too, can become "climate-literate." 

This does not appear well-calculated to win military friends and influence allies, much less win wars. One might think the Pentagon has more pressing matters to attend to... like the Navy, which is struggling, without a defined path forward, to amass the numbers and types of ships needed to prevail in future conflicts. Or developing a clear strategy for deterring Chinese aggression.

The decision to prioritize working up a climate adaptation plan is puzzling but unfortunately not surprising. In Biden's March 2021 Interim National Security Guidance, the topic of climate change was featured no fewer than 14 times, while the U.S. Navy or Army - subjects you might expect to see mentioned in a U.S. security strategy - received no mention whatsoever.

The Defense Department certainly does need to adapt to a changing climate. Multiple military installations are located on or near the ocean and must be hardened and made resilient. But when it comes to prioritizing efforts within the Pentagon, developing the capacity to deter military threats that pose near-term existential risks to the country must come first. China is reportedly doubling or possibly even tripling the size of its nuclear arsenal. North Korea continues to improve its ballistic missiles. Planning to respond to those threats should take priority.

People take note of what the Pentagon prioritizes. Other countries (friends and adversaries) put in a great deal of time divining U.S. intentions. When the first plan a new Pentagon sends out deals with climate adaptation, it sends a message, and in this case, it is not one of resolve and seriousness.

Our adversaries are serious. Our leaders must adopt a similar approach. 

Thomas Spoehr, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, is director of The Heritage Foundation's Center for National Defense.

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