Climate Change, Terrorism Top List of Challenges Facing US Military

Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Hampton at the North Pole.
The crew of the Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Hampton (SSN 767) posted a sign reading "North Pole" made by the crew after surfacing in the polar ice cap region. (U.S. Navy/JOC Kevin Elliott)

The Defense Department Inspector General's annual list of challenges for the military in the coming year features a newcomer: the long-term threat to installations and operations from climate change.

Under the heading "Strengthening Resiliency to Non‑Traditional Threats," the 101-page report focuses on the impact to the Defense Department of "pandemics [and] extreme weather events, and the national security implications of a changing environment."

"Rising sea levels, extreme weather such as flooding, wildfires, or hurricanes, and a melting Arctic will require the DoD to consider the security, readiness, and financial implications of these non‑traditional threats," according to the report, issued Nov. 19.

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In addition, "droughts, water scarcity, and other natural resource limitations" brought on by climate change "offer opportunities for adversaries, competitors, and violent extremist organizations to exert their influence in pursuit of their goals."

The full list of the top ten DoD management challenges for fiscal 2021 is as follows:

  1. Maintaining the Advantage While Balancing Great Power Competition and Countering Global Terrorism
  2. Building and Sustaining the DoD's Technological Dominance
  3. Strengthening Resiliency to Nontraditional Threats
  4. Assuring Space Dominance, Nuclear Deterrence, and Ballistic Missile Defense
  5. Enhancing Cyberspace Operations and Capabilities and Securing the DoD's Information Systems, Network, and Data
  6. Transforming Data Into a Strategic Asset
  7. Ensuring Health and Safety of Military Personnel, Retirees, and Their Families
  8. Strengthening and Securing the DoD Supply Chain and Defense Industrial Base
  9. Improving Financial Management and Budgeting
  10. Promoting Ethical Conduct and Decision Making

"These challenges are not listed in order of importance or by magnitude," but "all are critically important challenges facing the DoD," Sean O'Donnell, the acting IG, said in a preface to the report.

The list is a departure from last year's, which featured only six items and did not list challenges specific to the climate or environment.

The new report does not address the ongoing political debate over whether climate change is real, stressing instead the undeniable effects of extreme weather and rising sea levels that pose critical decisions for the Pentagon, including whether to abandon parts of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

"The Academy is expecting the sea level to rise between 0.6 and 3.6 feet by 2050, which would put much of the campus at risk of flooding," the report said. "The Academy will be faced with the tough decision of either mitigating the risk by investing a significant amount of money to install pumps and barriers or by abandoning parts of the campus altogether."

The report also pointed to the rising costs of combating the effects of extreme weather and climate change.

"For example, the rock seawall protecting Alaska's Cape Lisburne Long Range Radar Station's northwest coastline has deteriorated over the past decade due to tidal and storm‑driven wave action," the report said. "As a result, the gravel airstrip protected by the seawall became unusable, forcing the Air Force to spend $46.8 million in 2018 to replace the 5,450‑foot wall and protect the runway,"

Also cited were the $3 billion worth of damage Hurricane Florence caused to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in 2018, and the $1 billion in flooding damage to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska in 2019.

The IG's emphasis on DoD's need to deal with climate change aligns with the approach President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to take in breaking with current Trump administration policies on climate change.

On Tuesday, Biden introduced former John Kerry, former secretary of state, as his presidential climate envoy with a seat on the National Security Council.

Kerry said that Biden would take bold steps in close coordination with other nations to combat climate change and "leave a healing planet to future generations."

Terrorism Remains a Challenge

The report also sounds a cautionary note on carrying out the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), which called for the U.S. to shift from the post-9/11 counter-terror wars to preparing for while deterring great power conflict with Russia and China.

"Maintaining the U.S. military's advantage while balancing great power competition and countering global terrorism requires the DoD to focus on enhancing interagency collaboration and rebuilding military capabilities that may have atrophied the past 20 years," the IG said. "The challenge for the DoD is to rebuild capabilities to effectively compete with near‑peer rivals and other adversaries, while continuing to combat terrorists and insurgents."

The report voiced concerns that the ongoing terrorist threat would be downplayed as DoD puts most of its attention on containing China and Russia.

"As the DoD shifts its attention and resources to great power competition, it will need to retain the agility and capability to combat persistent and evolving threats from violent extremist organizations," the document states, adding that ISIS is regrouping following the 2019 death of leader Abu Bakr al‑Baghdadi, and Iran remains a state supporter of terrorism around the world.

The push to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan also poses a problem, the report suggested.

"In Afghanistan, two decades of U.S. military operations have weakened al‑Qaeda and ISIS affiliates operating in the country, but there remains a potential for their resurgence following the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops," the report said. "Meanwhile, violent extremist organizations continue to expand their influence in Africa and Asia."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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