Army Enlists Environment Into Its Mission
Taking care of the land helps shape the combat arena.
Despite being equipped to lay waste to the countryside, the U.S. Army is cleaning up waste and practicing conservation as part of a broad effort of environmental measures. The service is actively pursuing environmental policies that range from preserving endangered species to reducing its carbon footprint by converting its fleet of tactical vehicles to electric power. These efforts are undertaken both at U.S. bases and installations and overseas during training and actual deployments.
Understanding environments is a principal task for every soldier, says Lt. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, USA, director of the Army staff. At the tactical level, the Army must have a deep understanding of the environment.
“The Army is a land force,” the general posits. “We live on the land, we operate on the land, we train on the land. It’s essential for everything we do.”
His own connection to the environment through the Army was honed during his years of service in the 10th Mountain Division. The division’s roots in World War II featured alpinists such as skiers and mountain climbers, and the doctrine they developed encompassed environmental concerns. Those soldiers operated under the concept that they faced two adversaries: the mountain and the enemy, but they would befriend the mountain to the soldiers’ advantage. “We have to live and operate in very harsh environments,” the general relates, “but knowing how the environment interacts with humans and how humans interact within those environments, we learn to make a friend of that environment, and how we can use it to our advantage.”
The Army addresses its environmental activism on two fronts. One is on the bases and installations where the Army is located. Many of these sites are where the Army trains for its core competencies and the missions it must perform in combat, the general points out. “If we don’t understand the interaction of humans and Army training with the environment and how to preserve that environment … we wouldn’t be caring for it properly, and that would work against our purpose,” he declares.
The Army’s Assistant Secretary of the Army Installations, Energy and Environment (ASA IE&E), Energy and Sustainability Directorate, focuses on environmental concerns at Army facilities. This includes efforts to improve energy and water efficiency.
Those installations will be powering up to an increasing degree off the grid, the general observes. Not only will internal protected energy sources reduce the carbon footprint, it also will lessen the potential harm from cyber attacks on external power sources. “We want to have clean energy, but we also want to have secure power within our installations,” he says.
Gen. Piatt explains that the Army has relationships with the neighbors around its installations to better protect the entire region. This avoids falling into the trap of having just one specialized area that is protected while the rest is not. Turning land into just a protected site would constrain training and maneuvers in that area, he points out.
The Army Corps of Engineers has played a major role in environmental work, Gen. Piatt observes. Studies done at West Point looked at sustaining a forest for decades, and the general offers that Corps experts can look at a field and envision what it will look like in 30 years. Ongoing Corps efforts include water preservation in Florida and river clearance while preserving wildlife, he says.
The Army Climate Resilience Handbook that came out a year ago offers a climate assessment tool that can be used to improve environmental support. Using this tool, the Corps can help installations map their terrain to unveil potential problems such as those brought about by drought. “You can actually see and predict things that you must do,” the general says.
Personnel at installations include highly qualified civilian specialists in areas such as natural resources, biology, forestry and cultural studies. “They are an essential group of folks,” Gen. Piatt states. When he worked at Fort Drum, he yielded to the expertise of the base archeologist and anthropologist, who was internationally known. These civilians complement military specialists trained in these disciplines, he adds.
The Army has land conservation programs under the aegis of the Army Compatible Use Buffer Program across 40 separate installations with more than 390,000 acres protected since September 2019, he reports. “That’s all natural habitat, open space, working lands and cooperative agreements with more than 50 partners ranging with large nationwide land trusts to smaller local conservation entities and towns,” he explains. “Once the community sees how well the military cares for that land, it promotes them and creates excitement and better understanding on how to better care for that area.”
The general notes that managing and conserving endangered species is another Army requirement. There are 226 federally listed species on 170 installations and facilities. More than 2 million acres of the Army lands have some level of training restriction to help endangered species. Several endangered bird species have done well in Army installations, he adds. Part of this effort includes not cutting grass or taking down trees during certain times of the year when these birds are migrating, he notes.
These efforts are not confined to bases on U.S. territory. Gen. Piatt relates that, when he served in Germany as the commander of the Joint Multinational Training Command at Grafenwoehr, he and his staff worked with local government leaders on conservation efforts. The area had many endangered species flourishing there, including a resurgence of the Adler, the German sea eagle, along with endangered bat and frog species. Army personnel created habitats for bats monitored by solar-power video cameras providing real-time imagery for remote study. “Grafenwoehr is the best training area in all Europe,” he declares. “It is absolutely the jewel of training in Europe; and to also be the jewel for environmentalism and protection at the same time, just the power of when we can work together and understand the importance of the environment and what it will do to the military mission.”
This is the Army’s other environmental front—off bases and installations. The Army takes steps to avoid harming other environments when operating elsewhere. Often its foreign training areas include culturally sensitive artifacts, so the Army does as little as possible to actual cultural sites when it is overseas, the general offers.
“If you cause damage to the environment at a culturally sensitive site, you’ve done more harm than good—and the manner of which you do that is then going to impact how well you accomplish that objective or not,” he says. For example, Fort Drum has burial sites for tribes that inhabited that area before the fort was established. The Army has marked off those burial grounds, so training units are taught to maneuver around them. “It doesn’t just constrain us,” the general says. “It educates us on how to care for the land and how our methods could contaminate the land further on past our time there.”
This approach might seem to be countered by historical record. Many battlefields of decades past have been rendered inaccessible to humans by unexploded munitions and other hazards left over from furious combat. Gen. Piatt cites these lessons from the past as formative to the way the Army currently operates. “One of the rules I would have in my many deployments is, ‘The manner of which we maneuver and employ helps also reduce the anxiety within any local population or nation you may be operating in.’ And we incorporated that into our training,” he says.
“These effects of munitions have an impact on the environment,” he continues. “Our training understands that yes, we have to understand what that impact is and to take measures to avoid doing damage—and if not being able to avoid damage, make sure we can actually improve the environment while we are there because that will improve the perception of U.S. forces wherever they are.”
The Army aims to understand how to build better to avoid environmental damage, Gen. Piatt continues. This is a long-standing effort that has included how to build better road networks, build better ports and shore up areas while enabling civilian commerce and movement.
Strategically, environmental concerns alter Army operations. Gen. Piatt notes that melting arctic ice changes the environment significantly, from thawing permafrost to opening up water passageways. Losing land mass or ice mass can increase access to adversaries either economically or militarily.
Climate change is directly influencing Army operations. Foremost are the humanitarian crises that it can cause globally. Drought, for example, can affect a nation’s ability to grow food. If the agricultural demand is not met, then that nation’s food chain and economy are disrupted to the detriment of the populace. Conversely, too much water creates flooding, which, if constant, causes mass population relocation. All these problems can cause security concerns that can lead to conflict.
In deployments, two key Army resources are power and water. Sustained drought in any region stresses both the people who inhabit it and Army forces that would operate there. The force must avoid imposing a larger burden on that region, which translates to operating with reduced and clean energy without taxing local water resources. The Army is looking at innovations that would produce enough water to sustain Army units in theater, and it is exploring turning trash into energy. This includes converting wood chips, readily available in many local areas, into power. Another thrust is to develop easily transportable small power units that could sustain deployed forces without having to tap a local electric grid.
“It really comes down to power,” Gen. Piatt offers. “How do we develop power that is small, clean and can give us the amount of energy we need to do the things that we need to do?” This may entail creating flexible modular power systems with intelligent architecture that enables interoperability of multinational power sources in coalition operations, he suggests. The Army already has worked on an integrated tactical microgrid with Italy and Canada.
Industry partners are working with the Army to develop and demonstrate cost-effective and commercially scalable processes for battery component manufacturing. Increased domestic production of high-capacity silicon materials can reduce battery cell production costs by 80 percent, the general notes. “Cleaner power, smaller power and cheaper power—that’s really what we’re working on,” he declares.
The Army is operating under a directive to achieve carbon-free emissions by 2030 under President Joe Biden’s Executive Order 14008 of January 27. Gen. Piatt describes it as a bold direction, but he believes that is where the Army will end up. The Army will turn toward electrifying its engines with non-carbon-emitting power sources, he predicts. In addition to reducing greenhouse gas generation, the Army also will reduce the need to ship crude-oil-based fuels to deployed forces. “I’m talking about Army tactical vehicles powered by clean energy sources,” he says. Not only would these vehicles be clean for the environment, they would be silent—lacking internal combustion engines—and provide better protection for soldiers whose position would not be given away by engine noise. “These two lines of effort are not in competition with each other; they are complementary,” he adds.
While the idea of Abrams tanks streaming across a battlefield to the sound of a gentle whirring remains a distant goal, the Army recently demonstrated a tactical vehicle electrification kit on a heavy expanded mobility truck—basically an 18-wheeler, the general says. This resulted in a 25 percent reduction in fuel consumption. “We’ll take small steps. We’ll do hybrid in similar armored vehicles first,” he stated.
“We’ve got great scientists that work in Army labs all over this country … we’re going to get there.” The electrification of vehicle fleets in domestic installations will be achieved relatively quickly because that technology is available now, he suggests.
The Army already has developed advanced vehicle power trains that use less power while also increasing electrical power generation. Nonetheless, Gen. Piatt describes the electrification of the operational and tactical fleet as “a hard piece of science.” The greatest difficulty will be in converting heavy vehicles. Engineers are working to develop next-generation combat vehicles using environmentally friendly solutions, as was done to an extent with the Stryker Infantry Combat Vehicle.
Other more exotic efforts are underway. These include biodegradable—“green”—munitions that would not leave waste or contamination on the battlefield after combat is over. Others include fresh water conservation technologies such as rainwater harvesting, wastewater reuse, acoustic leak detection equipment, water pressure monitoring and water valve monitoring. Another effort focuses on tools to unlock genetic access to undomesticated microbes and advance military adoption of synthetic biology.