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

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror