Climate Change Didn’t Pause for COVID-19: Implications for Military Readiness

By Joan VanDervort

As COVID-19 continues to hammer the nation, approximately 61,900 Department of Defense (DoD) personnel (45,600 of which are made up of National Guard) have been called on to support the national response.   

 “With COVID-19, it’s like we have 54 different hurricanes hitting every state, every territory, and the District of Columbia — some are Category 5, some are Category 3, and some are Category 1,” Gen. Joseph Lengyel, Chief of the National Guard Bureau, said in a recent statement.[1]

But its more than that – not only is DoD supporting the response to the “54 different hurricanes,” but they are fighting the pandemic internally as it begins to degrade readiness from impacts on the pipeline for new recruits to delays in deployments, pauses in training, and cancelation of major exercises.

And so the perfect storm begins to brew as COVID 19 collides with the existing readiness impacts on the Department of Defense (DoD) from the bruising impact of severe weather events, sea level rise, flooding, and wildfires fueled by climate change. The cost from climate change impacts throughout DoD just within the last 5 years has been staggering…now in the billions of dollars; forcing temporary relocation of military personnel and causing delayed deployments and training impacts. With a presence in 156 countries and a global real estate value of $1.2 trillion dollars, DoD reported in 2019 that 79 of its most critical military facilities were vulnerable to climate change factors from recurrent flooding, wildfires and drought.  Recovery in rebuilding and repairing does not happen overnight and training impacts cannot always be easily made up.

The entrance of COVID 19 onto the stage has compounded and accelerated the existing impacts on readiness from climate change.  In and of itself, COVID-19 has brought challenges to deployments and training throughout DoD.  The Marines have been especially hard hit from the cascading disasters brought about by this collision that is accelerating existing and future readiness vulnerabilities.  Already forced to make difficult funding decisions between “near-term readiness and long-term modernization efforts” [2] of their installations, which serve as their warfighting platforms for combat readiness, Hurricane Florence plummeted Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in 2018, which houses a third of the Corps’ combat operating power, which caused $3.6 billion in damages from massive flooding and beach erosion damaging 913 military structures to include training facilities and significantly impacting training and deployments. “When you are not able to train as hard and as long…to maintain a substantial training level …that’s a risk” said General Robert Neller, former Commandant of the Marine Corps in his testimony before Congress in December 2018.[3]  Only $400 million was received from Congress in 2019 and the Marines are still trying to recover while staring into the face of a severe 2020 hurricane season by the predicted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration similar to that which gave rise to Superstorm Sandy.

 At the same time, the Marines, along with their sister Services, have experiencing  readiness challenges from COVID-19 as the pandemic impacts the new recruit pipeline and large scale exercises in Europe, the Artic, and the Pacific while the Chinese are using this as an opportunity for more aggressive behavior in the South China Sea. 

The Services though, have responded rapidly and decisively to mitigate the impacts to readiness from COVID-19, adapting to this new threat by developing new training strategies and adapting to a new normal to ensure that the core mission to deter aggression and ensure the capability of the Force to respond and project power. It is a part of the military culture – to survive and operate and that is exactly what the Services are doing.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper recently said “The sooner we can adapt our practices, the sooner we can learn from this virus and make changes, the better we will be — and the more likely we are to maintain a high degree of readiness for the force.” [4]

And that is exactly the strategy that DoD needs to be taking to mitigate climate change impacts to readiness:  take climate change  it off the back burner and adopt aggressive and decisive actions to adapt to climate change that include contingency planning, risk assessments, resiliency strategies, and war gaming.  Just like COVID-19, climate change has the ability to degrade readiness over time giving our adversaries greater opportunities unless DoD adapts quickly and decisively to this long standing threat.  Not to take quick and decisive measures leaves our readiness and national security at risk

[1] Message to the Force – COVID-19 Update #2  Maj. Gen. David Mikolaities, 157th Air Refueling Wing / Published March 24, 2020

[2] US House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Readiness. 2020.  Statement of the Navy and Marine Corps Budget Request and Readiness Posture.

[3] US Marine Corps Installations Command. 2018. “Marine Corps Seeks $3.6 Billion for Hurricane Florence Recovery.” Marines December 18.

[4] Mahshie, Abraham. 2020. “Defense Secretary to Follow Fauci’s Advice to Keep Troops Safe.” Washington Examiner. May 4.

* This post is part of the Council on Strategic Risks’ “Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent” Blog Series, designed to increase the tempo and scale of relevant and useful analysis during a time of crisis


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