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Energy transition: How NATO can get it right

Interoperability is one of the key foundations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) military power. In the age of oil, NATO has enforced the interoperability concept in the area of fuel logistics by adopting the Single Fuel Concept. Today, oil still dominates the energy mix of the alliance’s armed forces; it is almost exclusively used for propulsion purposes in the land, air, and maritime domains. This simplifies energy logistics, and enables interoperability.

In NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept, allies recognised climate change as a ‘defining challenge of our time’. They also pledged to contribute to combating climate change by ‘reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving energy efficiency, investing in the transition to clean energy sources and leveraging green technologies, while ensuring military effectiveness and a credible deterrence and defence posture.’

The implementation of those goals will require the development of NATO’s future energy mix for the post-oil era. This next-generation energy mix, which is often referred to as the ‘operational energy concept’, will be based on sustainable energy sources. In fact, different types of propellants will be required for different operational domains. This might complicate the future energy supply chain of NATO’s militaries and puts additional emphasis on the necessity to develop adequate interoperability standards. To further complicate things, the technology needed to ensure this energy transition is being developed by the private sector. Worst still, European and North American allies seem to currently have divergent views about the appliance of future propellants.

By 2035, the United States (US) Army intends to field hybrid-drive tactical vehicles with fully electric tactical vehicles coming into service by 2050. In Europe, the European Commission hopes that hydrogen will allow for the decarbonisation of the transport sector, especially long distance land and heavy-duty trucks. The European industry currently deploys hydrogen-powered tractors in an effort to decarbonise the agricultural sector. In October 2022, the European Defence Agency participated in the first two-day hydrogen thematic workshop of the Consultation for Sustainable Energy in the Defence and Security Sector.

Similar discrepancies appear in the aviation sector. In Europe, Airbus is developing a hydrogen-powered fuel cell engine. According to the company, the propulsion system is being considered as one of the potential solutions to equip its zero-emission aircraft that are announced to enter service by 2035. In the US, as Boeing experiments with hydrogen and electric technologies to power its future planes, the company is simultaneously working on a gradual transition to sustainable (i.e. synthetic) aviation fuel.

In other words, the decarbonisation of the armed forces of NATO allies will drastically complicate energy logistics. At the same time, allies – confronted with mounting public pressure – might choose to hastily adopt competing technologies designed to serve the same purpose (e.g. electric engines versus hydrogen fuel cells for land mobility). This might negatively affect NATO’s interoperability, thus weakening its deterrence and defence posture. 

The NATO Summit in Vilnius in July 2023 offers a chance to move the alliance’s energy transition agenda in the right direction.

Therefore, agreeing on a vision of a future fuel and energy design, and adopting new standards (NATO Standardisation Agreements (STANAGs)) is of paramount importance to ensure the alliances’ coherence. It would also send a much needed signal to the defence industry to ensure cohesion of choice and amongst NATO forces. Such steps could also guarantee that the decarbonisation of these forces will not have a negative effect on NATO’s collective defence.

NATO must also remain vigilant, and not replace old dependencies with new ones. Sustainable energy sources require critical minerals and rare earths to be produced. Extraction and processing sites of these resources are highly concentrated, much more so than in the case of oil and gas. In fact, they are primarily located in countries that are NATO’s strategic competitors, namely the People’s Republic of China and Russia, and in regions plagued with weak governance and instability.

Meeting the climate objectives that underpin the required energy transition will translate into a skyrocketing demand for many of those minerals. In order to avoid new dependencies, NATO allies should create their own reliable supply chains for critical minerals and rare earths and implement circular economy concepts to recycle them. This would also require investing in research and development to examine ways to limit their usage or even substitute them in the manufacturing processes of sustainable energy sources. NATO should also look at rare earths and critical minerals through the prism of security and defence.

Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated the importance and fragility of supply chains. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the weaponisation of energy supplies by the Kremlin constitute a sombre reminder of the vulnerabilities steaming from a high degree of dependence on external suppliers, particularly those hostile to NATO. To avoid new dependencies, and to preserve the energy independence of its armed forces, NATO should also explore the possibility of opting for a force-wide transition to synthetic fuels across all operational domains.

The NATO Summit in Vilnius in July 2023 offers a chance to move the alliance’s energy transition agenda in the right direction. To achieve this goal, allies should agree to a comprehensive energy pledge based on five pillars. 

First, NATO members should commit to accelerating energy diversification with a goal of becoming fully independent from Russian fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Second, they need to increase energy resilience – a key element of energy support to the armed forces – by preserving security of supply and mitigating against current and potential energy dependencies. Third, allies should enhance NATO’s fuel supply chain – including the NATO Pipeline System which is able to transport sustainable aviation fuel – on the eastern flank of the alliance. Fourth, allies need to increase investment in technologies necessary for the energy transition, including through NATO mechanisms (e.g. the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic). Fifth, NATO should deepen energy cooperation with partners – including Ukraine – with a view to building a like-minded energy transition community.

NATO requires an extensive and proper energy adaptation process to ensure it remains fit for purpose. Therefore, its members need to take urgent action in designing the alliance’s future energy mix to ensure the effectiveness of its deterrence and defence posture.

Dominik P. Jankowski is a Polish security policy expert and soon to be Policy Advisor in the Office of the NATO Secretary General. Julian Wieczorkiewicz is an energy and climate security expert currently serving as political adviser and head of the Political Section at the Permanent Delegation of Poland to NATO.

All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent.

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