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I/ITSEC 2023: Climate change – how military training will need to adapt

25th November 2023 - 18:05 GMT | by Giles Ebbutt

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Climate change is likely to increase the need for HADR training in the armed forces to deal with events like major flooding. (Photo: Canadian Armed Forces)

How climate change poses various challenges and risks to defence training, readiness and infrastructure.

Climate change is beginning to affect every aspect of human activity and this impact is only likely to increase. Defence is no exception to this.

The recent UK House of Commons Defence Committee (HCDC) report Defence and Climate Change, published in August, opens with the statement: ‘In January 2023 the World Economic Forum listed climate change as the cause of the top six most severe risks to the planet over the coming decade. This directly matters to defence.’

While this will be felt across all defence activities, its impact on training is likely to be significant. The most obvious aspect is the effect of increased temperatures on individuals and the fallout from that, but extreme weather events will also play a part and could affect infrastructure and therefore disrupt training.

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A possible increased requirement to be able to provide an effective military contribution to humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) operations will also be a factor.

Training does not take place for its own sake, but is an essential component of readiness, a fundamental measure of military effectiveness. If training is restricted or curtailed, for whatever reason, it will have an impact on the affected unit’s readiness and hence its capability.

In the case of individual basic training, restrictions could affect the level of expertise reached or extend the length of the training period, affecting the training pipeline flow.

In 2020, the Rand Corporation undertook a study for the UK MoD called Exploring the Implications of Climate Change for UK Defence and Security. This identified specific impacts on training and infrastructure that would have a collateral effect.

Relating directly to training, the study concluded:

    • Coordination of military training activities could become more challenging, as extreme climate events could reduce availability and accessibility of existing training sites. For example, they might be affected by flooding from heavy rainfall or drought-induced wildfires; the use of live ammunition and other pyrotechnics could be restricted which is already the case during dry spells on some UK training areas.

    • Certain skills – particularly related to engineering, search and rescue, evacuation, construction, air traffic control and diplomacy – may increase in demand in the armed forces, with a corresponding need for tailored training in these areas.

    • Health and safety issues related to flooding, extremely high temperatures and physically demanding training programmes may increase.

    • Climate-related developments may alter design requirements for wargames and strategic exercises, including a need to adapt these for multiple simultaneous large-scale disasters.

As regards infrastructure the conclusions were:

    • Military infrastructure in the UK and overseas may become increasingly vulnerable to climate-related events.

    • Overheating of military installations will render some processes, such as movement of personnel and critical equipment, far more challenging.

    • High temperatures could damage equipment in storage and increase demand for air conditioning, resulting in higher energy costs and impact on the environment.

    • Degradation of civilian infrastructure (e.g., energy grids, railways, water systems and airfields) may also indirectly disrupt the MoD’s activities.

The study highlighted the likely impact of increased temperatures on individuals and stated: ‘In the UK, the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) – measuring the effects of the environment on the human body – cannot exceed 20-25°C for service personnel wearing a single layer uniform without helmets, while carrying 25kg of weight at 6.4km/h for two hours. In the US, training must be adjourned if the WBGT exceeds 32°C.’

Use of pyrotechnics is already restricted in some UK training areas during hot, dry weather due to the risk of wildfires. (Photo: UK MoD/Crown Copyright)

To mitigate this more physically demanding elements could be rescheduled to cooler parts of the day during those times of year when temperatures are likely to be in the danger zone, but this could result in the need for major changes to training programmes. There are, however, much wider implications for those used to temperate climates.

The HCDC report notes that ‘the British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK) and the Jungle Warfare Division in Brunei deliver training to allow UK forces to operate in more inhospitable climatic conditions. Given rising temperatures generally, however, it may well be necessary to expand environmental training for more personnel, including those based for extended periods overseas, such as in Cyprus or the Middle East’.

It also follows that training evolutions currently undertaken in these environments may no longer be feasible in their existing formats and may have to be adjusted or even abandoned.

There are other mitigation methods apart from scheduling. A recent report in the US publication Stars and Stripes noted that cooling practices have been introduced at Fort Moore in Georgia to reduce soldiers’ body temperatures while training, such as on the ranges, in what has been a particularly hot year.

One of these techniques, the report said, is arm immersion, where individuals soak their arm in cold water in order to lower their core temperature, with the aim of reducing this by 1°C. The report added that this technique has been implemented during ‘various training courses when… soldiers are working outside in the heat and humidity’.

As already noted, the increased chance of extreme weather events can also have an impact on training, both in terms of disruption and effecting preparation. The Rand study cited the example of the US 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit which in 2018 had its certification for deployment delayed because of the impact of Hurricane Florence.

This is a good example of where disrupted training had a direct impact on readiness. A further Rand Corporation study in 2023, Climate and Readiness – Understanding Climate Vulnerability of US Joint Force Readiness, identified how climate hazards affect training in different ways.

Some effects are temporal, which can ‘permanently or temporally constrain training windows in terms of time of day, season or expected/unexpected disruptions’. Others are qualitative, affecting ‘the type and/or quality of training that can be achieved, or the alignment of training to anticipated deployment conditions, including training realism, changing training environments, and related issues’. The last type of effect is logistical, including impact on transport networks and supply chains.

More personnel may need specialist training for operations in hot environments, such as that provided by the British Army in Kenya. (Photo: UK MoD/Crown Copyright)

If support of HADR operations is going to increase in importance, then more training will be required, particularly for commanders and staff who will have to deal with an unaccustomed set of problems and with different agencies and relationships. Inevitably this will be at the expense of training for other eventualities.

The bottom line is the effect on readiness. If you can no longer train in the way you want to, when and how you want to, and where you need to, your readiness will be affected and hence a key element of capability is degraded which ultimately feeds into a decreased deterrent effect.

The difficulties and challenges to training regimes and programmes caused by climate change that are already emerging and those looming on the horizon are going to need innovative solutions. These need to be addressed in anticipation of their being required, not as a response.

This article originally featured in Shephard’s Decisive Edge Newsletter – Training in September 2023. 

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Giles Ebbutt

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Giles Ebbutt


Giles Ebbut is a Shephard Media correspondent based in the UK who specialises in C4ISR …

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