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And Air Force Makes Three… Comparing the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force Climate Plans

By John Conger

With the release of the U.S. Department of the Air Force Climate Action Plan on October 5, 2022, we now have climate plans developed by each of the military departments. The Army published its Army Climate Strategy in February 2022 and the Navy released Climate Action 2030 in May 2022. Below, I’ll highlight some of the key similarities and differences between the three approaches, which will help us develop a more complete forecast for where and how the Department of Defense (DoD) will address the security challenge posed by climate change.

Just as the three military departments have their own distinct cultures and personalities, these three plans are quite different, even as they all move toward a common set of goals.

Firstly, one thing the plans have in common is that they were not explicitly required by the DoD. In fact, work on the Army plan began early in 2021, led by career civilians, before the majority of political appointees arrived on the scene. The DoD-wide Climate Adaptation Plan showed up in October 2021, but it didn’t direct the Services to develop subordinate plans. Now that each of these plans are on the table, the DoD leadership will need to decide how active it will be in centrally steering and overseeing progress, or whether it is best to let each of the military departments manage its own path toward the common goals.

To a degree, internal competition had a constructive effect. When the Army released its plan in February 2022, it ramped up the pressure on the Navy and the Air Force, and so on. However, the lack of explicit direction and guidance led to plans that had different structures, different categories of goals, and different levels of specificity. All the same, the fact that the three services issued plans on their own reflects a broad recognition of climate change’s impacts on their mission. 

That leads to another key commonality—the primacy of mission. Each of these plans preemptively asserts the importance of the warfighting mission as the reason for developing these plans. The Air Force plan, for example, leads with a quote from Secretary Frank Kendall, stating , “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,” and then it proceeds to make its top climate goal to “Maintain Air and Space Dominance in the Face of Climate Risks.” Similarly, the Army plan states that the “Army’s core purpose remains unchanged: to deploy, fight, and win the nation’s wars…” and “Climate change will only make this mission more challenging.” The Navy points out that the “direct threat to mission” is the reason for the plan and asserts that “To remain the world’s dominant maritime force, the Department of the Navy must adapt to climate change.”

In so doing, the plans link today’s missions to current climate resilience requirements, and future missions to accelerating climate-driven instability and the drive to reduce emissions.

Broadly, each plan incorporates elements of resilience and of carbon emission reductions, with some goals in common and others distinct. Their common goals often echo high-level documents such as the DoD Climate Adaptation Plan or Executive Order 14057, Catalyzing Clean Energy Industries and Jobs through Federal Sustainability, which likely accounts for said commonality. For example, each plan includes a goal to achieve 100 percent carbon free electricity by 2030 and 100 percent electric non-tactical vehicle acquisitions by 2035, both of which are included in EO 14057. This is not surprising, and in order to make progress toward some of these Federal goals, they need to be echoed in lower-level plans. These three plans will also need to be accompanied by implementation guidance provided to those stakeholders, who will need to act in order to make progress toward the goals.

However, while there are common elements among the three plans, there are several differences. For example, looking across the military departments, they use different categories to group their objectives. Within these categories, the Army listed 29 specific objectives and the Air Force included 19. The Navy didn’t list objectives but it promises to issue follow-on implementation plans with specific metrics against which it will measure success. See the varying categories in the chart below:

ArmyNavy*Air Force

Acquisition & Logistics

Climate-Informed Decision-Making

Train and Equip for Climate Resilience

Resilient Built and Natural Infrastructure

Supply Chain Resilience and Innovation

Enhance Mitigation and Adaptation Through Collaboration

*Same categories as DoD Climate Adaptation Plan
Maintain Air and Space Dominance in the Face of Climate Change

Make Climate-Informed Decisions

Optimize Energy Use and Pursue

Alternative Energy Sources
Chart produced by the author for this publication

There are also unique features that were integrated or emphasized in particular plans more than others, either because they reflect the culture of the military service or a forward-leaning innovative priority included in the plan.

For example, the Army includes an ambitious plan to deploy microgrids at every one of its installations to ensure energy resilience in the face of increased storm impacts, and highlights a goal for fully electric tactical vehicles by 2050. 

The Air Force includes a large section on increasing the efficiency of its aircraft, and gets down to the level of detail where it speaks to more efficient “blended wing body” aircraft that it will prototype by 2027. The Air Force also includes an emphasis on near-term actions, assigning half of its goals 2024 timelines and directing the preponderance of them to be completed by 2027. 

The Navy emphasizes nature-based resilience at its installations and includes a goal to draw down five million metric tons of CO2e per year through nature-based solutions by 2027. 

Another interesting difference is a commitment in both the Army and Navy plans to achieve net-zero emissions across the entire enterprise by 2050, while the Air Force commits to make its installations net zero by 2046. This reflects the intrinsic challenge posed by aircraft emissions. 

Ultimately, each of these plans will lead to a more resilient and sustainable military. But the planning is only one step on a long journey. Now, each of the armed services, with support from the broader DoD, will need to turn these plans into action.

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