US Military Destabilised by Climate Change in the Middle East

Weather disturbances hampered American troops, especially in the Gulf States. In addition to the weakened health of the personnel, the equipment is proving to be unsuitable for the intense sandstorms and violent storms. Despite its logistical resources, the US army is caught unprepared to face this unprecedented threat.

US Marine Corps assault vehicles caught in a sandstorm during Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003)
U.S. National Archives

On 6 June 2021, Sweihan, a town east of Abu Dhabi in the UAE, hit 51.7 °C. This is the hottest June temperature ever recorded in the UAE. Five other countries in the region topped 50 °C that weekend, making it the harshest June heat wave in the Gulf region in history. The heat wave which hit the region in July 2020 blessed Baghdad with its highest ever recorded temperature—51.8 °C—while Karbala hit 52.4.

Decreased endurance

For the US military, with perhaps 60,000 personnel operating across the MENA region at any one time—and more than 2.7 military personnel deployed since 2001—such Extreme Heat tops their list of immediate known-known, first-order climate threats to their warfighting capabilities. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group (CSG) is currently operating in the North Arabian Sea battle space.1 Temperatures in the catapult space on carriers in such conditions can reportedly reach up to 65.5 °C, and each day some sailors need treatment for heat-related injuries. With around 7,000 personnel conducting round-the-clock flight operations and reconnaissance, and always prepared for violence, it has been crucial that the CSG have processes in place to reduce heat stress, heat stroke or heat exhaustion among sailors: these include Thermal Injury Prevention Programs or so-called Black Flag Days of reduced exertion.

During the Battle for Najaf in Iraq during August 2004, US Marines fought hand-to-hand in tunnels and on the tops of the mausoleums in the Wadi al Salaam cemetery in 50 °C heat. When they crammed into their Bradley fighting vehicles for protection, temperatures inside the Bradley could reach over 65 °C, leading to numerous cases of dehydration, loss of consciousness, life-threatening heat exhaustion and heat stroke deaths. So-called thermal-work strain among personnel performing dismounted missions under such conditions can result in reduced endurance performance due to a combination of extreme temperatures, physical exercise, and carried equipment. During the summer of 2003, 50 per 1000 deployed personnel in Iraq suffered heat injuries and dysfunction; among British soldiers, 15% of all hospitalizations were heat injuries—with over 800 heat-implicated casualties.

Tactical changes

Such temperatures, continuing over sustained periods, also contribute to malfunctions in the hardware required to complete the mission. The air conditioning, the fire-control systems, and electronics of the Bradleys were often unreliable in such extreme temperatures. CSGs deployed for months at a time in the Gulf have long reported intensified corrosion of equipment and engineering problems on their ships; increased salinity also contributes to turbine failure. The general reliability of the 5th generation F-35s under extreme heat conditions has long been of concern, making it harder to take off, carry the right payload, sustain combat readiness, stabilize its jet fuel, prevent electronics failures, and keep pilots cool in their cockpits. For air strike planners in Combined Air Operations Centres (CAOC), sustained heat dome effects increase the number of weight restriction days, requiring alternative tactics, decreasing strike capacity, and reducing combat radius.

A related known unknown is the combined risks of extreme heat, humidity and sea surface temperatures which produce extreme Wet Bulb temperatures (TW) and corresponding decrease in individual performance or death, especially for those working outdoors. Steep upward trends in extreme TW frequency and magnitude above 30 °C are now evident across the region; a TW of 35 °C or more exceeds the human survivability limit. Such episodic heat-humidity effects along the shallow waters of the Gulf littoral have already occurred each year since 1979 and are projected to regularly exceed 35 °C by 2075; the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea may experience similar peak TW advances. During the summer months at Incirlik Air Base, with its estimated 5,000 personnel, nuclear weapons, and through-transit role for Iraqi and Afghanistan deployments, there are periodic daily TW updates—expressed using a five-category military standard termed Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT)—since the base is especially vulnerable to extreme WBGT conditions producing fatigue and dehydration. Procedures for acclimatizing personnel to high-heat-stress already introduced by the US military may make little difference as the survivability limit is regularly approached.

Vulnerability of electromagnetic warfare

High TW values, and extreme rainstorms, may also degrade the attack capabilities, combat manoeuvrability and resilience across the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS)—for what the US Navy termed Fleet Electromagnetic Manoeuvre Warfare—which has become so vital to US dominance in the MENA battle space. Essential voice and data communications, including imagery intelligence, accessing the Cloud, jamming enemy communications, relaying targeting data on time-sensitive targets, ground and space-based sensor tracking, controlling swarms of drones, autonomous command and control systems, or maintaining the precision accuracy expected from future hypersonic weapons may all be differentially affected as extreme Wet Bulb temperatures and extreme rainstorms occur across the region.

Other immediate climate crisis hazards which the MENA battle space presents arise from the increasing frequency and severity of extreme sand and dust storms (SDS). The MENA region is the dustiest in the world, with the frequency and intensity of SDS worsening dramatically. Its effects on warfighting were obvious when US Marines moved toward Baghdad in March 2003: a huge three-day dust storm hit the attackers, decreasing visibility to 10 meters, and penetrating the mechanical parts of their weapons systems. Helicopters were grounded, although the Air Force was able to deliver precision-guided bombs from above the dust cloud onto the stationary Republican Guard. SDS produce short-term mechanical effects—significant jamming or malfunction problems in M16 rifles and M4 carbines used in Iraq and Afghanistan, although recent adaptation and mitigation fixes and redesign seem to have reduced this problem. Aircraft engine exposure to dust, both on land and on carriers in the Gulf, have both short—and long-term implications for sustainment, combat readiness, and airport operations, while reduced visibility shifts flight route planning, and reduces the ability to locate and attack moving Armor or ground forces. In addition, acute emergency asthma trauma and long-term lung damage for deployed soldiers are significant health risks.

The devastating effects of flooding

Flash flooding (extreme precipitation events) and damaging thunderstorms are another immediate climate hazard, producing significantly increasing risk for the combat readiness of formal and informal US’s locations. In July 2019, the south-eastern Arabian Peninsula and Iran experienced their worst flooding in 70 years, with many civilians killed and hundreds injured; two months later the Port of Duqm and Masirah Air Base in Oman—used by the US Navy and Air Force—experienced flooding from 116 mm of rain and storm surges from Tropical Cyclone Hikaa. Incirlik Air Base, outside Adana, was struck in December 2019 by flash floods leaving its water treatment plant under 5 ft. of water. Khazor, an Israeli Air Force Base which is home for F-16 fighter planes and cooperates in joint exercises with US fighters from Al Udeid and Al Dhafra bases in UAE, had eight planes flooded out in January 2020.

The Pentagon and NATO acknowledge that the climate crisis is “impacting missions, plans and capabilities,” producing Climate Action Failures in combat capabilities: extreme weather is first on the risk list, striking harder and more rapidly than anticipated. As you would expect from the military, considerable effort and resources have gone into re-optimizing the climate risk-performance paradigm: greatly enhanced R&D on material resilience and creative design; new heat acclimatization practices; enhanced bioenvironmental engineering; alternative mission scenarios and wargaming; and moving vulnerability and strike capability “over the horizon.” Since Operation Desert Storm, significant resources have been targeted at “owning the weather” through new modelling, an enhanced Air Force Weather Agency, and supercomputing that can put weather updates into the hands of soldiers and specialized combat weather teams (CWTs) on the ground, allowing this “reach back” technology to feed data directly into the MENA operational weather squadron at Shaw AFB in South Carolina. The world’s largest climatic test facility—the McKinley Climatic Laboratory (MCL) at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, allows the testing of aircraft and military equipment across the full range of climatic conditions to uncover where and how failures occur, thus improving operational capability in this climate risk environment.

“The catastrophic security implications of climate change”

The G7, and upcoming NATO Summit on 14 June, have both made their first agenda item a discussion of the nasty “Grey Rhino” in the room—the highly probable, high impact, yet neglected nexus between the climate crisis and international security. On 7 June, the Expert Group of the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS) released its second annual World Climate and Security Report, warning of “the catastrophic security implications of climate change” which require the immediate climate proofing of international security at all levels, and an intensified focus on the role of militaries in responding to emerging climate security risks.

The focus of these discussions must go far beyond immediate concerns with climate risk to warfighting capabilities, looking more broadly at mitigating climate crisis security consequences and its multiplier effects through efforts to decrease the military carbon footprint—reshaping the US military from being the world’s single biggest oil consumer into a “green military”; prepare for the increasing geopolitical, social, conflict and mobility effects of the climate crisis on fragile societies; and decrease operational vulnerabilities in energy, infrastructure and supply change logistics which are quickly becoming evident. Sea level rise threats over the next 20 years to US Navy ports and Air Force bases, such as those in Kuwait and Bahrain, now require concerted attention as priority installations to assure their mission-critical resilience.

Yet there are tipping points, cascading effects, and unknown “black swans” ahead in the near-term MENA future that “sharpening our technological edge” and “mil-to-mil cooperation” will not address. Current attempts at better climate modelling, adaptive hardware upgrades, shifting defence procurement, preventive training, or mitigation practices to enhance combat performance and equipment resilience still have us fighting the last climate event, preparing for the future of warfare that has been left behind or never was. W. B. Yeats warned us in 1919 that there is a rough beast, whose hour has come round at last, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. The Anthropocene has arrived and requires us to unthink the MENA as a battle space, beyond Thermal Injury Prevention Programs, climate proofing, or better EMS protection, and begin to understand the second-order risks facing the people of the region for food, water, and health security, an end to intervention, good governance, and human rights.

1In 2001 the US Army defined “battle space” as “the environment, factors, and conditions commanders must understand to successfully apply combat power, protect the force, or complete the mission.” This integrative concept assembles material, behaviour, cognitive and geographic components of combat and warfighting into a conceptual whole through which commanders can choose and focus multiple effects-based actions to dominate the conflict spectrum in support of the mission.