In his farewell address in 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower warned of a sprawling "military-industrial complex" that might act as an invisible hand pushing humanity closer to its own destruction. But what if the military-industrial complex could end up saving humanity from arguably its biggest threat: climate change?
On Feb. 26, the British Ministry of Defense (MOD) published a "Defense Technology Plan" that laid out the British military's long-term research needs. The document was designed to guide arms and defense manufacturers on where to direct their research and development budgets. It highlighted five "capability visions" which it hoped would "stimulate new technologies." One of those visions was "Reduce dependency on fossil fuels." (See pictures of technological advances in the military.)
That same aspiration is gaining traction in the defense departments of many Western nations. Frustrated by the vulnerability of long supply lines in recent conflicts and aware that in an end-game global war the countries holding the bulk of the world's oil and gas may not prove to be allies Western militaries are in search of new alternative fuel sources for their tanks, vehicles, planes and ships. (See pictures of oil.)
As Paul Stein, the MOD director of Science and Technology, told TIME at the launch of the British plan: "We and our allies need creative alternatives to fossil fuels. This document gives our partners in industry the confidence that we are serious about finding those solutions. The message is clear: we'll consider anything, as long as it works and gets us away from fossil fuels."
According to environmentalists, the military's commitment to green technology is significant not because carbon-neutral fighting forces would help reduce global greenhouse gas emissions; the British military, for example, only produces 1% of Britain's carbon dioxide output, and that's typical for militaries in developed economies. Instead, the gain could come from harnessing the bright and heavily funded researchers who work either directly for the military (the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers alone has 283 Ph.D.s on staff) or for its numerous suppliers. If the military-industrial complex can design a long-range missile that travels into space and is guided by light from the stars, it has a good chance of developing new technologies that could help governments meet emission targets without making draconian cuts to energy usage. At least that's the hope. (See pictures of how climate change has affected Europe.)
Deron Lovaas, a Policy Director at the U.S.-based environmental group the Natural Resources Defense Council, says military researchers have a history of spawning transformative technologies that trickle into society, including DARPAnet, the communication system of the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that eventually evolved into the Internet. "What's exciting here is potential spin-off effects," he says. "The military can invest so much more than the private sector can. They can invest billions into substitute fuels. And they can take bigger risks."
Although Britain has a strong arms and defense industry, environmentalists say a revolution in substitute fuels and renewables requires the backing of the U.S. military, whose procurement and R&D budgets dwarf those of other nations. (Last year, the U.S. Department of Defense spent $79 billion on internal R&D; the British armed services spent $4 billion.) And while the Department of Defense (DOD) has not formalized green technology into its strategic documents, it has sponsored numerous studies that call for it to wean itself off what it's dubbed "POL" petroleum, oils and lubricants in favor of alternative fuels. (Read the top 10 green stories of 2008.)
And that message has been passed on to industry and research institutions. A recent DOD acquisition directive requires the military to consider the "fuel burdens" of new technology, while a special office inside the DOD monitors alternative energy efforts at U.S.-based universities and institutions with an eye to awarding funding. DARPA was recently given $100 million for a research project into alternative fuels. (See TIME's special report on the environment.)
Green tech will gain a growing portion of the U.S. military's $104 billion procurement budget in the coming years, according to DOD spokesman Chris Isleib. "It's beyond a high priority for us," he says. "In the Iraq theater, such a high percentage of our convoys were fuel convoys. Our reliance on these [fuel] convoys was putting our soldiers' lives at risk. We realized that the need for alternative fuels was urgent. We needed to mobilize."
That kind of talk makes unlikely allies of environmentalists who are already anticipating innovations that may be spawned from the billions of dollars earmarked for green tech in Obama's stimulus package. After all, if there's one federal institution that industry pays more attention to than the White House, it's the Pentagon. Indeed, the impact of the British military's call in February was immediately recognizable: one day after the publication of the "Defense Technology Plan," the august think tank the Royal United Services Institute held a conference in London, sponsored by defense giant BAE Systems, called "Alternative Energy and Sustainability for the Military." Representatives from Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and various academic institutions were in attendance. "Look, we can be agnostic about the politics of climate change," MOD science director Stein said before the meeting. "But there are operational reasons why we need these new technologies. And we need the brightest people helping us solve the problem." On that last point, at least, a die-hard environmentalist or even Dwight D. Eisenhower couldn't have said it better.
With reporting by Mark Thompson / Washington