Lean, green killing machines

The race is on between China and the US to equip their forces with eco technologies – and China is w

As the Taliban gunman hides from an approaching Apache attack helicopter, he may not care that the American aircraft is painted with chrome-free primer to reduce its environmental impact. Nor may he be impressed that the next generation of pilotless surveillance drones will be part-powered by solar energy.

The US military is rushing to embrace sustainability. Its primary motive is not ethical. It is trying to keep pace with China in a strategic race to harness clean energy. Any future conflict between superpowers will almost certainly feature eco-weapons and green tactics. The oil-burning Americans are starting to realise how badly they are lagging behind.

This emerging race presents eco-minded campaigners and technologists with a dilemma - should they welcome the huge budgets being committed? Should they, perhaps, even take the military dollar, or should they campaign against the uses to which it is being put?

China is already leaping ahead. The Beijing government is doubling its spending on green tech every year. Its budget is vast - at around $288m a day, according to a US Senate hearing in February. American commentators are beginning to warn how China sees this as a route to global primacy. Robert F Kennedy Jr, the environmental lawyer (and nephew of John F Kennedy), warns on his blog: "The Chinese are treating the energy technology competition as if it were an arms race . . . China will soon make us as dependent on Chinese green technology for the next century as we have been on Saudi oil." He concludes: "The arms race of the 21st century is already in progress."

Major General Zeng Fanxiang, deputy head of the Arms-Building Study Centre of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA), declared in December: "Regarding weapons, we need to develop solar power, hydrogen, nuclear and other new energy resources." In a report posted on the Chinese ministry of national defence's website, he also predicted that climate change could alter the way battles are fought and called on the military to become more fuel-efficient.

Sun and sea

In response, the Pentagon is investing in solar technology and funding a major ocean-energy project. US military leaders hope that this surge will achieve energy security at home and abroad. It may also help the civilian sector to catch up with Chinese technology, which is devastating a domestic manufacturing sector that was gearing up to create thousands of jobs for the ailing US economy. In Britain, the promise of new green industries may be stifled at birth by Chinese dynamism.

Across the US, military bases are installing black-and-blue solar panels and other solar technology. Last year, Hill air force base switched on the largest solar panel array in the state of Utah. Green tech is also being harnessed to develop solar-powered battlefield radios, as well as tents with solar panels woven into their fabric to power military equipment.

Solar power and wind energy are, however, dependent on the weather and thus intermittent. No modern military wants to wait for a good breeze. So the US forces are being more ambitious. At a naval base on the Indian Ocean atoll of Diego Garcia, scientists are developing a system called Otec (ocean thermal energy conversion) - a way to produce power using warm and cold seawater.

Warm water is sucked from the surface and cold water from far beneath. The two streams are used to heat and cool a closed system containing a refrigerant-like ammonia that boils at room temperature. The cold water condenses it into a thick liquid, which is piped to the turbine; warm water then vaporises it into an expanding gas that turns the turbine's blades. Once this process is complete, cold water condenses the ammonia again.During the 1970s energy crisis, the Carter administration funded research into Otec, but Reagan abolished it. Trials have now started again.

President Obama understands its military potential. He has also promised to end US "foreign oil dependency", claiming that it can be used as a weapon that allows "unstable, undemocratic governments" overseas to wield "undue influence over America's national security". His case has been bolstered by Somali pirates. In late 2008, the hijack of the Sirius Star, a VLCC (very large crude carrier) holding two million barrels of oil, exposed America's vulnerability. If a 60-warship multinational force can't beat a group of brigands, imagine how easily China or a nuclear-armed Iran could block the west's supplies.

The technological challenges of Otec are huge. The projected cost of a plant that generates 100-200 megawatts - enough to power 50,000 homes - is $1.5bn. But the potential benefits are dizzying. The oceans could be harnessed as an immense solar-energy store. If the US navy can make it work, Otec could change the future of clean energy.

In April, the US navy declared that it will obtain half of its energy from alternative sources by 2020. It has been conducting flight trials of the Green Hornet, an F-18 fighter aircraft powered by a blend of camelina-derived biofuel and conventional jet fuel. It is the first aircraft to break the sound barrier on biofuel. The navy secretary, Ray Mabus, also announced that the "Great Green Fleet" - a carrier strike group that will use no fossil fuels - would launch by 2016.

The US army is auditing the greenhouse-gas emissions of each of its units. "We recognised that we were big emitters as well as big fuel users," said Jerry Hansen, the US army's senior energy executive in December. Once again, this isn't about protecting the environment so much as defending vulnerable supply lines.

“The more the military thinks about green technology, the more it sees how it goes hand in hand with improving operational effectiveness," Elizabeth Quintana, head of military information studies at Britain's Royal United Services Institute, told me. "Afghanistan is the principal driver for Nato nations. Resupply convoys can be eight miles long and they in effect say: 'Please hit me with a roadside bomb.' Up to 60 per cent of the convoys carry fuel and water. If you reduce that need for supply, you save lives. Forward-operating bases are increasingly using solar panels and wind turbines for sensors and radars. It saves troops from being predictable targets when they regularly refuel generators."

In February, the institute hosted an inter­national conference on military eco-efficiency. Quintana believes that the world's armed forces may prove the most efficient at speeding up green tech development: "The military can turn things around much faster than other government departments. Their get-things-done attitude may put them among the most forward-thinking organisations in this area."

Conflicting interests

Ecological activists are wary of welcoming the military into their climate camp. "There is an uncomfortable pragmatism with which we have to take these things," says Doug Parr, policy director of Greenpeace. "The military's technological advances can't be condemned out of hand. And it would be wrong to suppose that we could stop all military conflict. But if our government is serious about achieving fuel security, there are other things we could do that would be more strategically effective.

“If we want to reduce our dependence on imported energy," Parr continues, "then lagging our roofs should be more of a national security issue than having a more sustainable army. If we all had electric cars, we would not need warships patrolling our oil supply routes."

Alex Randall, of the Centre for Alternative Technology, is also sceptical. "The military is developing these technologies so that they can fight wars in a post-climate-change future. Such conflicts are likely to be caused by a lack of natural resources . . . We would rather that funds were concentrated on technologies and policies that prevent climate change, and which thus prevent conflicts from happening."

The world's armed forces are busily developing forms of green tech that will, no doubt, be devastating in their effects. The emergence of "low-ecological-impact" weapons is a case in point. British and American scientists are deve­loping reduced-toxin explosives and lead-free bullets that don't poison battlegrounds.

The eco-war scenario goes further. A PLA treatise called Unrestricted Warfare from 1999 proposed the use of ecological tactics such as creating man-made earthquakes or other natural disasters. The prospect is revived in General Zeng's report, which says: "Effective meteorological weapons could be a key to surprise in tomorrow's information warfare."

Nuclear weapons halted the game for war hawks, as they meant that any conflict between superpowers would wreck the planet. Green tech has revived the possibility of a mass war in which the environment isn't destroyed.

Our worst nightmare may be the promise of a clean fight.

John Naish is an environmental campaigner and the author of "Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More" (Hodder, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
Show Hide image

Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496