Strategic bases vulnerable to climate change

By STEPHEN A. CHENEY AND NICK CUNNINGHAM | | Published: November 1, 2012

Climate change is scientific fact; it is real and its effects are felt around the world. Climate change poses significant long-term national security threats to the United States. Drought, severe storms, floods and rising sea levels are just some of the consequences of climate change.

These dangers may destabilize fragile governments, exacerbate existing tensions, and feed extremism. Left unaddressed, climate change will present challenges to America’s economy and military. These issues are discussed at length in the American Security Project’s new “Climate Security Report.”

One worrying cost of climate change is the threat to dozens of military installations both at home and abroad. As the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report notes, “In 2008, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) judged that more than 30 U.S. military installations were already facing elevated levels of risk from rising sea levels. DoD’s operational readiness hinges on continued access to land, air, and sea training and test space.”

According to the Department of Defense 2012 Base Structure Report, the U.S. military manages property in all 50 states, seven U.S. territories and 40 foreign countries, comprising almost 300,000 individual buildings around the globe. These buildings are valued at $590 billion. The Army alone has more than 14 million acres of property, 2,000 installations and 12,000 historical structures.

Climate change puts these installations at risk. For example, in 1992, Hurricane Andrew nearly wiped out Homestead Air Force Base, Fla., and Hurricane Katrina destroyed 95 percent of Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. These bases were rebuilt, but it took millions of dollars to do so.

Environmental threats to international U.S. military installments have more strategic implications. For example, the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean is a critical logistics hub for U.S. and British forces in the Middle East. It also houses Air Force Satellite Control Network equipment that is used to control the GPS constellation. The island is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change because it is only one meter above sea level. If the island is flooded or inundated completely, the U.S. will lose a strategically vital installation.

In order to prepare for these changes and to secure our military investments worldwide, the Department of Defense must conduct a comprehensive assessment of the vulnerabilities of military installations to climate change. Such an assessment could determine how climate change affects both the physical integrity of our military outposts and national security strategy.

The American Security Project ranked the five military installations that are most at risk due to climate change. They are:

1. Diego Garcia is vulnerable to coastal erosion and flooding.

2. Bahrain houses the U.S. 5th Fleet, and the fleet has fixed installations on and around the Persian Gulf island-state. As a low-lying island, U.S. bases are at risk to climate instability and coastal erosion.

3. Guam is home to one of the most strategically important U.S. bases in the Western Pacific Ocean. Because the island is exposed in the open ocean, it is susceptible to extreme storms, sea-level rise and erosion.

4. Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the largest Air Force base in the world. Since it is on the coast in the Gulf of Mexico, it faces storm surges, sea-level rise and saltwater infiltration, which causes problems with freshwater resources in the area.

5. Norfolk Naval Air Station, Va., is one of the largest naval complexes in the world. Because of its location on the southern tip of Virginia, it is at risk of sea-level rise and storm surge, but it may also face threats from hurricanes in the Atlantic.

American national security strategy depends on military installations positioned around the world. In order to reduce the risk of climate change to these bases, the U.S. should take prudent, farsighted measures to invest in low-cost adaptation options — sea walls, storm surge barriers, coastal setbacks, and others.

In the end, if the seas continue to rise and storms grow stronger, the challenge of adaptation will only become more costly. Ultimately, the security of American military installations is at risk to a changing climate.

Marine Brig. Gen. Stephen A. Cheney (retired) is the CEO and Nick Cunningham is a policy analyst at the American Security Project. This week they published the report “Military Basing and Climate Change.”