Military Leaders Face Off Against a Rising Enemy: The Weather

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Airmen from the 91st Missile Maintenance Squadron drain flood-water from a launch facility near Bowbells, N.D., March 29, 2017. The electromechanical team technicians measured rising water levels and relocated water, snow and mud away from critical 91st MW assets. (U.S Air Force photo/Senior Airman J.T. Armstrong)
Airmen from the 91st Missile Maintenance Squadron drain flood-water from a launch facility near Bowbells, N.D., March 29, 2017. The electromechanical team technicians measured rising water levels and relocated water, snow and mud away from critical 91st MW assets. (U.S Air Force photo/Senior Airman J.T. Armstrong)

As the White House reportedly considers creating a committee to review the scientific evidence for climate change, the military services not only face the task of rebuilding bases destroyed by storms, they are planning replacement installations hardened to the weather and training forces with an eye toward global instability caused by rising temperatures.

In a series of congressional hearings this month, Navy and Air Force leaders told lawmakers that rising sea levels, fires and storms affect military personnel at home as well as at work, where they must train for scenarios such as humanitarian crises and civil war brought on by flooding and drought.

Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer said rising waters are a "threat at all times" to the sea services, while Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said their service must have resilient installations and prepare for climate-related global unrest.

The world is seeing weather-related humanitarian crises and weather-related conflicts that the U.S. must be prepared to handle, Goldfein said.

"If you take a look at Syria, as an example," he said, "most don't remember what caused the Syria conflict to start. It started because of a 10-year drought."

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The statements follow the release of a memo written in February by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, who said the combat readiness of II Marine Expeditionary Force, based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, has taken a hit from a number of economic factors, including damage from Hurricane Florence, which struck the base Aug. 31. He warned that the unit’s readiness "will continue to degrade given current conditions."

The month before, the Defense Department released a report that said climate change threatens more than two-thirds of 79 installations reviewed by the Pentagon. The report found that 53 bases routinely flood, seven more have the potential to flood, 43 bases are experiencing drought -- with another six facing desertification, and 43 have the potential to be affected by wildfires.

"A changing climate can impact DoD's operations through changes in the manner in which DoD maintains readiness and provides support [and] changes to what DoD may be asked to support," the report noted.

The push by the Pentagon for funding to rebuild military bases destroyed by weather, including Camp Lejeune; Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, hit by Hurricane Michael last October; and Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, which faced massive flooding last month, comes as President Donald Trump reportedly has planned to form an ad hoc committee to review climate change science.

The Washington Post reported in February that this National Security Council initiative would include scientists who question the extent to which humans contribute to the changing climate, as well as the severity of climate impacts.

As of Thursday, the White House had not released any information about the group or whether one actually has formed. As an informal committee and not a task force or commission, the committee would not be subject to public disclosure laws.

Speaking before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on climate change on April 9, former Secretary of State John Kerry said the goal of what he called a "council of doubters and deniers" is to "pretend there are two side to an issue that's been settled."

"The designation of climate change as a security issue wasn't settled by President Obama," Kerry said. "It was settled 28 years before that by a Republican president. ... In 1991, the Bush administration assessed in its national security strategy that threats like climate change 'respect no international boundaries, were already contributing to political conflict.'"

In March, 58 retired military leaders and former Pentagon officials wrote Trump expressing concern about the potential committee and urging him to trust defense and science agencies that have found climate change a national security threat.

"We support the bipartisan finding of the U.S. Congress, which you signed into law on December 2017, stating that 'climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States,'" wrote the group, which included, among others, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, former Navy Secretary Gordon Sullivan, former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft and retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Military leaders, these national security experts said, are worried about strife over natural resources, including water, humanitarian crises, climate-driven unemployment, displacement and migration, and increased tensions in the Arctic as the waterways open.

"The first step in combating the national security impacts of climate change [is] to recognize that we are already dealing with them," retired Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn, former assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and the environment, told a House subcommittee. "We cannot now, nor as future challenges bear down on us, treat any of this as a surprise."

The services are grappling with the cost of repairing damage to bases, an estimated $3.6 billion for Camp Lejeune and $5 billion for Tyndall and Offutt. Neller said the Corps needs $600 million to start repairs at Lejeune, while Wilson said she needs $1 billion for Tyndall this fiscal year -- money that otherwise would have gone for other construction and modernization projects.

The DoD fiscal 2020 budget request includes $2 billion for storm damage.

Wilson told members of Congress that the Air Force will rebuild based on an infrastructure investment strategy that addresses weather concerns.

"The resilience of our bases is very important because we fight from our bases," Wilson said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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