Now is the time: the defence sector must become greener
Even if the media focus is on other issues right now – climate change is not taking a break and combating it must remain at the top of everyone's list of priorities. In recent years, the defence industry has also recognised that the growing challenges can only be met in the long term with sustainable solutions. There is still a lot to do along the way, but experts are optimistic about the future.
Historically, the defence industry has been a pioneer of technological progress in many areas. It is therefore all the more surprising that it is lagging behind the commercial sector when it comes to climate innovations. Less stringent requirements in product development are one factor, says Patrik Johansson, Climate Strategist at Swedish defence company Saab since 2020: ‘The defence sector, like the space industry, has always been heavily funded by governments. Competitive advantages were not forced, and research and development were much freer and unregulated. While there were good reasons for this, it also meant there was little external pressure to design products more sustainably or to have climate change on the agenda.’ Now, as operating conditions become tougher, along with the demands for products to continue to be functional and perform in certain environments, an industry-wide shift in thinking is taking place. It was made clear just how dramatic the situation already is, most recently, by Russia's attack on Ukraine, where energy suddenly became a scarce and very expensive commodity.
For some time now, alliances such as NATO have been issuing urgent warnings about the dangers of climate change and the associated dependencies, particularly in the energy sector. As part of the Munich Security Conference in February 2023, NATO co-hosted a roundtable on the topic with the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS), where NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges David van Weel emphasised that NATO ‘must integrate climate change and energy transition considerations throughout the NATO enterprise, including training, exercises, force planning, and military capability development and procurement.’ All this against the backdrop of supporting clean energy – including through technological innovation – while ensuring military effectiveness in a degraded security environment.
However, it is not only increasingly extreme conditions on the battlefield and dwindling resources that have been forcing the industry to finally get its act together when it comes to climate protection; the financial market is also exerting pressure and demanding transformation. The European Union's social taxonomy proposals, for example, would enforce stricter conditions for defence companies in the financial market, and more and more governments are demanding clear commitments and action on the part of the industry. Experts agree that defence is one aspect of security and that security is a basic condition for sustainability efforts but how the defence sector can function in an ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) context is still unclear. The Ministry of Defence in the UK already only awards contracts to companies that can demonstrate a long-term plan to reduce carbon emissions. The U.S., Sweden and other European countries are following similar paths, and the EU also supports these ambitions: ‘I welcome the efforts of defence ministries to develop their national defence strategies to prepare their armed forces for climate change. The EU institutions will continue to support this important endeavour. The forthcoming EU joint communication on linking climate change, environmental degradation, security and defence will be an important milestone on the road to a European Union better able to deal with the security and defence implications of climate change,’ says Josep Borrell, Vice-President of the European Commission and Head of the European Defence Agency.
Reducing environmental impact and growing at the same time – a contradiction?
Saab has long strived to design its products sustainably. Initially, this was mainly because more efficient products were also more cost-effective, but on top of that, eliminating the substances of concern minimised health risks. So, although there is a long tradition at Saab of making products more sustainable, the driving factor has not always been climate protection. A few years ago, the company conducted a risk and opportunity analysis at Saab. Among the risks that stood out was the risk of future legislation for climate protection and its impact on the business. That was the final push Saab needed to bring the issue to the forefront.
Saab is also active in the industry and works with competitors in the ASD Europe association to identify climate change challenges and opportunities and to share information. In 2022, it became the first major defence and security company to have its science-based emissions reduction targets approved by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi). The Group thus follows a global emissions reduction methodology and commits to, among other things, reducing Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions by 42% and Scope 3 emissions by 25% by 2030 (baseline 2020). An SBTi commitment target of 50% in Scope 3 for Saab's supply chain by 2027 was also established. Scope 1 and 2 emissions include sources such as flight testing and services, heating and cooling of buildings, and electricity consumption, while Scope 3 emissions include business travel, transportation of goods, supply chain and customer use of Saab products. ‘I'm really proud that this puts us at the forefront of the industry. Reducing our carbon footprint now permeates all our business areas,’ Patrik Johansson explains. Once a quarter, Saab reports on its GHG emissions, and annually to the CDP (formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project) to ensure that the targets are based on appropriate measures.
Challenging on this path, in any case, is the current growth within the industry. Can the sector really reduce its climate impact as conflicts increase? Since targets are absolute targets and were set in the period before this current growth it will be a challenge the sector needs to overcome. Nevertheless, Saab’s experts see the current situation as a short-term challenge, and firmly believe that the industry can and will succeed. There is no question that the entire industry, especially the supplier industry, will be challenged. Saab is therefore trying to make the GHG emissions from its supply chain, as well as those from the use of its products on the customer side, even more transparent and measurable. Saab can only take countermeasures if it knows where environmental impacts are happening. That's why transparency is essential when it comes to sustainability.
‘We need to use gap filler technologies’
Climate change multiplies the threats on the battlefield. Among other things, climate change leads to more severe weather events, higher temperatures, sandstorms and higher humidity. All these factors have an impact on the functionality and physical condition of weapon systems and military equipment. Research capacity has been increased throughout the industry and many new technologies are already on the market, but they are not always deployed. Patrik Johansson thinks that climate protection is a long-term commitment and therefore must be treated as such, both, within the industry and among customers, who sometimes still lack the courage to use technology that may not be perfect but is already on the market. Instead of filling depots, if we know that fossil fuels are becoming scarcer for various reasons, there should be more interest in what bridging technologies can already achieve. But there has already been considerable progress. Saab JAS 39 Gripen are single-engine fighter jets certified to run on up to 50% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). In test flights, they have shown no drop in performance even when operating on 100% synthetic fuel.
With the long life cycles of military products – up to 60 or even 100 years in some cases – bridging solutions can make a big difference. Saab is therefore conducting intensive research into how new fuel systems can be implemented and fossil fuels can at least partially be replaced. It also points its customers to particularly low-emission and energy-efficient products in its established Climate Impact Portfolio., for example, its Advanced Surface Movement Guidance and Control (A-SMGCS), a system that enhances a controller’s ability to manage airport traffic efficiently. With advanced tracking and safety net algorithms, it tracks every target, slow or high manoeuvring, resulting in a high probability of detection and low false alarm rates. The system even exceeds the alert capabilities defined by EUROCONTROL and EUROCAE. Saab’s Routing function automatically calculates a route for each inbound or outbound aircraft based on parameters such as runway configuration and other constraints. All of this leads to efficient traffic flows and less fuel consumption. The A-SMGCS system is in operation in over 100 airports around the world, including in the United States (at the 45 largest airports), Europe, Asia, Australia and South America.
The portfolio also includes camouflage products. For example, the Saab Barracuda CoolCam, which uses the specially developed HeaT reduction system to reduce interior temperatures in vehicles and improve the efficiency of the air conditioning system while driving or in use. A combination of insulation and reflection of solar radiation prevents the vehicle surface from heating up during the daytime solar cycle. At the same time, the system provides cooler surfaces in addition to the energy savings that come with a reduced need for cooling. This also makes it easier for personnel to work and move around outside the vehicle a win-win situation in terms of the operational benefits and the impact on the environment.
Protecting critical infrastructure
Our oceans are a particularly sensitive area. They are critical when it comes to stopping climate change. At the same time, more and more of our societies' critical infrastructure is located on the seabed as well as on the high seas, such as offshore wind farms, industrial-scale fish farming or even gas pipelines and cables for data transfer, which would have a massive impact if they were attacked or destroyed. Maritime infrastructure must therefore be protected on several levels. Nowadays, underwater projects often use remotely-operated hydraulic vehicles that are controlled from large surface vessels. This in turn results in environmental problems, especially with regard to the ecological footprint left by the supply vessels and the risk of oil leaks from their hydraulic systems. With a new type of technology, Saab is making it easier, more efficient and more environmentally sustainable to do what has been done so far below the water's surface. The Saab Seaeye Sabertooth, with an operational depth of up to 3,000 metres, is the world's only hovering and roaming system that can operate both fully autonomously (AUV) and tethered (ROV), enabling fully flexible dual operations from a single platform. What is new compared to other systems is, that the Sabertooth vehicle can be powered by the waves surrounding it, which are converted into energy – a major breakthrough in terms of renewable energy.
Modify, develop, adapt
Saab's environmental strategy focuses on three main areas: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving resource efficiency and the circular economy, and phasing out substances of concern. There is not one simple solution. All options must be exhausted in order to rapidly reduce emissions and adapt products to the new challenges. This starts with the use of renewable energy in production, the reduction of waste and a conscious decision in favour of renewables when purchasing electricity. Recycling also plays a major role. Even today, the company would like to use more recycled materials, but the corresponding legal framework is still lacking in some areas. In the case of aircraft, for example, certain components must be made from virgin materials for reasons of flight safety. It is not always easy to reduce the ecological footprint of a product range, however, experts think it is important to remain open to many avenues. At Saab, the team looks at how they can modify every existing product or make it more efficient and robust through additional functions. At the same time, the company is investing in research for new technologies, new materials with new capabilities and how it can replace fossil fuels altogether in the future.
The Armed Forces feel the growing need for action but are still acting timidly or for motives other than climate protection. Another reason is that the reliability of the products and their performance must not be impaired. The protection of one's own troops and of society in times of war, but also in times of peace, is the top priority. This is why the industry sees a great deal of scepticism towards renewable energies, which is quite understandable. After all, there are not yet enough storage options and there are also interruptions, for example, when the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow. This is another reason why transitional solutions are so important. Saab is currently researching, for example, the extent to which diesel generators can be supported by hydropower and where else hybrid solutions make sense until a switch to fully renewable energy solutions is possible. When the new applications will be available on the market and how quickly a changeover will take place will ultimately depend on the customers too. The whole defence sector is dependent on corresponding orders. The better it gets at showing customers the added value that efficient and thus climate-friendly products generate, the faster change is possible.
Boldly into a positive future
Experts agree – there is potential in the defence sector. A 2019 Roland Berger study explored the benefits that defence industry players can experience through environmental change, finding that reducing the military carbon footprint simultaneously enables more efficient use of resources and more effective operations. This mindset needs to be firmly embedded in the sector's long-term sustainability strategy to ensure that decarbonisation is a differentiator and not just a necessary evil.
Whether we ultimately achieve globally set sustainability goals such as the EU climate neutrality by 2050 or the UN Race to Zero depends on many factors. Armed conflicts, of which there are unfortunately too many at present, are bad for the climate. However, current geopolitical developments also show that a strong defence industry is needed to protect societies and to seriously enable sustainability efforts in the first place. It is therefore even more important that the industry quickly adapts to the new framework and applies its technological pioneering role, which it has in so many other areas, to climate protection. Otherwise, the defence industry will, at some point, be the only user of fossil fuels and will thus find itself in extreme danger and dependent. It is clear that the battlefield of the future will look very different, not only in terms of the environment, but also in terms of technologies. But both can complement and benefit from each other, Patrik Johansson, Climate Strategist at Saab, is convinced: ‘Our industry has already proven that it can grow while reducing climate emissions. We must continue on this path together. We need to become faster and bolder when it comes to investing in and integrating new technologies and processes. Green defence will not only be the future. It will make our entire sector stronger and more resilient and ultimately, everyone will benefit from this.’