The U.S. Navy is under higher and growing pressure from climate and ocean change. This situation is emphasized in The Impact of Sea-Level Rise and Climate Change on Department of Defense Installations on Atolls in the Pacific Ocean (Curt D. Storlazzi, Stephen B. Gingerich et al., February 2018, full pdf report), funded among others by the Department of Defense Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP). This research shows that numerous Pacific atolls and islands are impacted by repeated floods and slat water infiltration, and could be submersed during the next decades because of the rising ocean, and as a result the U.S. Navy could be directly impacted because some of these islands are used as bases between America and the Asia-Pacific region. In other words, climate change-led rising ocean is putting at extreme risks the fulcrum needed by the U.S. Navy to project itself in the Asia-Pacific region (Charles Edel, “Small dots, Large strategic areas: US Interests in the South Pacific”, Real Clear Defense, 03 April 2018).
Meanwhile, climate change is also affecting the U.S. Navy on continental America, because of the ever-faster rise of the ocean, which interacts with the littoral where the U.S. Navy bases are installed (Jim Morrison, “Flooding Hot Spots: Why Seas are Rising Faster on the Eastern Sea Coast”, Yale Environment e360, April 24, 2018). Beside a rising ocean, climate change also means a present and future multiplication and reinforcement of extreme weather events. Those events are having a disrupting potential on the sea lanes navigated by the six US fleets (Bob Berwyn, “Hurricane Season 2018: Experts Warn of Super Storms, Call For New Category 6”, Inside Climate News, June 2, 2012). In other words, one should wonder if climate change, and the new emerging geophysical conditions that are currently emerging, are not jeopardizing the very infrastructures and missions of the U.S. Navy, thus imposing a perfectly unexpected but growing constraint on its global reach.
In a first part, we shall look at how climate change is literally “besieging” the U.S. Navy. In a second part, we shall look at the way this planetary challenge is imposing an ever-growing amount of “friction” on the infrastructures and missions of the U.S. Navy. Then, we shall wonder about the strategic consequences of the interactions between a changing climate and ocean and the U.S. Navy. Could we see these dynamics as a signal of a planetary assault on U.S. sea power over the coming years?
The US Navy and the climate-ocean Hyper siege
The rising ocean has started besieging the U.S. Navy. The rate of the sea-rise is rapidly accelerating, especially on the U.S. eastern coast: for example, in Florida, since 2006 the rise’s rate went from 3 to 9 millimetres a year (Erika Bolstad, “High ground is becoming hot property as sea level rises”, Scientific American, 1 May 2017). This accelerating rate is accompanied by a multiplication of high tide floods events (Jim Morrison, “Flooding Hot Spots: Why Seas are Rising Faster on the Eastern Sea Coast”, Yale Environment e360, April 24, 2018). For example, the Norfolk station, headquarter of the Atlantic fleet, and part of the gigantic Hampton roads complex, home to the nuclear aircraft carriers fleet, is flooded ten times a year nowadays (Laura Parker, “Who’s Still Fighting Climate Change? The U.S. Military”, National Geographic, February 7, 2017).
This situation is already exerting a growing pressure on the military readiness of the station and of all those installed around the Chesapeake Bay, because of the cascade of disruptions and costs triggered by the floods, including cleaning up and repairs. According to an estimate by the Union of Concerned Scientist, the sea level in this area has already risen by a staggering 14.5 inch (35,5 cm) since 1914. Given this trend, the region will be flooded more than 280 times a year in 2100 (The US Military on the Front Lines of Rising Seas, 2016, Rising seas will increasingly flood many of our coastal military bases, Union of Concerned Scientists, 2016). It appears extremely dubious that the Norfolk station and the Hamptons Road complex could remain functional in their current form, while being assaulted by hundreds of flooding events every year.
As showed by the 2018 Department of Defense “Climate-Related Risk to DoD Infrastructure Initial Vulnerability Assessment Survey (SLVAS) Report”, the climate change-led ocean rise that besieges the Norfolk station is shared, with variable degrees of intensity, by the other U.S. naval bases of the East and West Coast (including Hawaii), while many of the U.S. bases located abroad will most often meet the same fate. In other terms, the U.S. Navy, as a mammoth and global organization, is under climate-ocean change siege.
Indeed, the very global scale of the U.S. Navy’s deployment reinforces the climate-ocean siege situation. The U.S. Navy is composed of 6 operating fleets, each of them assigned to an area of responsibility (AOR) covering a part of the Atlantic, of the Indian Ocean or of the Pacific ocean and thus, as a whole, able to reach each and every littoral on Earth (US Navy). This extensive capability of force projection confers de facto a global reach to the American sea power. However, these fleets are dependent on the multiple ports of anchorages, bases and other facilities on the American mainland, as well as in other countries such as, among others, Japan, Italy, Spain, Greece, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Djibouti, El Salvador, Egypt, Cuba, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, and the Philippines (US Navy Bases, Wikipedia, and Commander Navy Installations Command Map).
The littoral of these countries are also affected by the rising ocean and by the multiplication of climate change-related extreme weather events, as is tragically shown, for example, by the growing series of giant hurricanes battering the Philippines (Andrea Thompson, “Land Falling Typhoons have Become More Intense”, Climate Central, September 5, 2016). In Japan, the Yokosuka naval base in Tokyo is severely assaulted by storm surges and ever-more powerful tempests, which accompany the warming and rising ocean (Forrest L. Reinhardt and Michael W. Toffel, “Managing Climate change: Lessons From the US Navy”, Harvard Business review, July-August 2017 issue). In Alaska, the thawing permafrost necessitates the relocation and rebuilding of existing bases (Reinhardt and Toffel ibid). Similarly, the home of the Pacific fleet in Hawaii must face a growing number of mudslides and flash floods (Reinhardt and Toffel, ibid).
The same can be said of the bases located in the Pacific such as Guam and the Marshall Islands, which are under growing pressure from the rising ocean, to the point that some of their composing atolls could be submersed within 12 years (Curt D. Storlazzi, et al., Ibid.). In the meantime, there is a high and growing risk of a multiplication of floods on these islands, already battered by the ocean. Consequently, the salt water of the sea is infiltrating the water sources of the atolls. This situation could soon trigger a potable water crisis for the islands and the Navy bases (John Conger, “Study: Atolls Hosting Critical Military Sites May Be Uninhabitable in 12 Years”, The Centre for Climate and Security, April 27, 2018). As shown by these examples, the planetary change currently occurring is imposing a global pressure on the network of Navy bases. In other words, the very worldwide fulcrum of the U.S. sea power meets what we call here “planetary friction”.
“Planetary friction” and U.S. sea power
Beyond the immediately catastrophic impact of the extreme weather events and their human, social and economic toll, these events and the rising of the ocean are signals of a new planetary and geopolitical reality (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Climate Blowback and US National Security”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, March 31, 2014). As a matter of fact, the rise of the ocean is due to the convergence of the warming and dilatation of the surface waters, and of the ever-increasing warming and melting of the terrestrial ice caps of Greenland, Antarctica and of the continental mountain ranges.
This convergence of the warming ocean and melting ice sheets leads to a global process of accelerated and heightening rise of the ocean at a planetary scale, while the warming atmosphere-ocean interface is becoming the emergence system of a growing number of extreme weather events (Chris Mooney, “Greenland and Antarctica isn’t just raising seas- it’s changing the Earth’s rotation”, The Washington Post, April 8, 2016). In other terms, the warming and rising of the ocean will be more and more important and powerful. According to the most conservative studies, the ocean will rise by almost one meter between today and 2100 (IPCC Report, 2018). However, numerous studies point out the risk of a much higher rise: between 2 and 5 meters (Robert de Conto and Robert Pollard, “Contribution of Antarctica to past and future sea level rise“, Nature, 31 March 2016, Eric Holtaus, “James Hansen Bombshell’s climate warning is now part of the Scientific canon”, Slate.com, March 22, 2016 and Chris Mooney, “One of the most Worrysome Prediction About Climate Change Maybe Coming True”, The Washington Post, April 23, 2018). That would be a civilization-changing event.
The massive strategic problem linked to this new epoch is that the planetary present and future are now dominated by complex dynamics of global change, also qualified as being the signals of the new and current geological epoch named the “Anthropocene”, i.e the geological epoch defined by the consequences of human development, which creates its own stratigraphic signal (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Planetary Crisis Rules, Part. 1 and Part. 2”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, January 25, 2016 and February 15, 2016). In this regard, the planetary crisis has become a major generator of friction, i.e., according to Clausewitz, a system of pressure and constraint. This “planetary friction” exerts itself upon the American sea power, i.e. upon the way the U.S. extends its military power onto the sea, and through the sea, towards other nations, because the U.S. sea power is the Naval form of the U.S. (geo)political will (David Gompert, US Sea Power and American Interests in the western Pacific, 2013).
As such, the U.S. sea power is a major and essential component of the U.S. global power. The U.S. Navy is crucial to project forces and to, potentially or actually, exert coercion on a global scale, on the sea, as well as from the sea to littoral and hinterlands, through the use of planes, drones, missiles and cyber capabilities. Its global network of bases ensures a global refuelling capability. Being composed of complex and technologically updated platforms, the U.S. Navy is also a core part of the U.S. land, air, space, nuclear and cyber power, notably through the complex networks of interactions with satellite constellations, and its 11 nuclear aircraft carriers groups (e.g. Chief of Naval Operations, Future Navy, May 2017; Technology for the United States Navy and Marine Corps, 2000-2035 Becoming a 21st-Century Force: Volume 6: Platforms (1997), Chapter: 2 Surface Platform Technology). The U.S. navy is also a major actor for troops transportations.
Taken together, those different capabilities are essential components of the global U.S. military power, which thus appears as profoundly dependent on its maritime dimension. However, nowadays, it has started meeting the growing resistance of the “living and reactive force” (Clausewitz, On War, 1832), in our case the warming ocean. As Edward Luttwak (Strategy, the Logic of War and Peace, 2002), following Carl von Clausewitz (On War, 1832), points out about friction, there is strategy when will is applied against a resisting and reacting object, for example during a war, or, in our case, when ocean change imposes resistance and constraint to the political will embedded into and dependent upon naval infrastructures and fleets.
A signal of the things to come: friction in an age of planetary crisis?
As a result, the different U.S. Navy operations are meeting a growing level of friction, and thus of potential disruption. For example, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force are collaborating in order to manage the Air Force station of the Kwajalein Island, part of the Marshall Islands. The mission of this base is to monitor the “space fence”, i.e. the planetary wide debris belt around the Earth, in order to optimize the trajectory of U.S. civil and military space missions. The multiplication of flood events and of salt-water infiltration, as well as the coming submersion of the Island are exerting a complex “friction” upon the base, and thus upon the space mission, which will no longer be viable when the Island will be submersed (Conger, ibid). This example shows how the interactions between the U.S. Navy and the ocean, i.e. the medium that defines and determines the Navy very existence, are becoming factors of growing and immense friction with cascading effects: in this case, the pressure exerted by the rising ocean upon sea power is transferred to an infrastructure of space power (Timothy Mc Geehan, “A War Plan Orange for Climate Change”, Proceedings Magazine, U.S. Naval Institute, October 2017).
It means that the very environmental medium of the U.S. sea power is becoming a planetary-wide system of constraints on this very power, while the constraints will only become stronger. This implies that, in a very unexpected, strange and disturbing way, the Anthropocene epoch is thus emerging as a new kind of strategically disruptive force that, in the U.S. Navy case, exerts itself on the very capabilities upon which the US military might is built.
Knowing the importance of the U.S. sea power for the global U.S. force projection capabilities, this raises the question of the future of the U.S. sea power in a time of rapidly worsening planetary crisis. As a result, the U.S. Navy now navigates an ocean of strategic uncertainty, as well as other historic and new maritime powers, such as Russia and China.
About the author: Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Geopolitics Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defence sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.
Featured Image: Defense Department facilities are visible in this satellite photo of Roi-Namur Island. Credit: DigitalGlobe. Public Domain, from USGS “Pacific Missile Tracking Site Could Be Unusable in 20 Years Due to Climate Change“.