Climate Change Has US Military Bases in Its Bullseye
Omaha's Offutt Air Force Base takes direct hit from 2019 floods
By: Kat Woerner
Offutt Air Force Base helps protect the US from strategic threats like a Russian nuclear strike. In March 2019, it faced an enemy much closer to home: the Missouri River.
Rising waters overran a levee and 235,000 sandbags stacked as a last-minute rampart. The flood swamped a runway, ruined flight training simulators and drowned the main security building.
Offutt Air Force Base personnel filling sandbags in emergency preparations for flooding in March 2019. Photos by TSgt. Rachelle Blake
The overflow left a depleted 55th Wing that couldn’t perform the breadth of its mission, including critical intelligence gathering.
“For at least 8 to 10 weeks, there was a diminished capacity and we really had to load share how we were supporting all the missions going on around the world,” said Ret. Col. Mohan Krishna, a former commander of Offutt’s 55th operations group.
Contingency planning meant that US national security was never seriously compromised, said Krishna, who is now helping to lead the recovery effort as a civilian. But officials say the event should serve as a reminder that the threat of climate change is real and already limiting the military’s ability to respond to threats.
“You can’t fly your planes. You’re limited on maneuverability of your ships,” former defense secretary Chuck Hagel said in an interview as the one-year anniversary of the Offutt flood approached. “The lethality of your national security apparatus, of launching your platforms, is directly affected because they are inhibited by those problems.”
It isn’t just Offutt at risk.
Sea rise is threatening Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, the largest naval complex in the world. The US Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico is in danger of being overrun by the desert as a mega-drought hangs over the southeast. Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California is threatened by wildfires.
What’s more, the challenges to US military operations are coming at a time when climate change will likely lead to greater destabilization, increasing the hazards the armed services are forced to respond to.
“You bring famine on, and pestilence on, and water that no one can drink, and all the other consequences with it, there’s going to be a national security (risk) on that region and on the world,” said Hagel, who served two terms as a Republican senator from Nebraska. “That’s another consequence of what’s coming if we don’t adjust and prepare.”
Offutt serves immensely important functions for the US military.
As home of US Strategic Command, its responsibilities include monitoring Russia’s compliance with the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. It served briefly as the secure base for President George W. Bush in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
Its surveillance planes provide support and intelligence for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. It helped to interpret “signals intelligence” when the US was searching for Osama bin Laden.
“Sometimes prosecuting the mission is … tracking a really bad guy so we can kill him according to the laws or armed conflict and what the president told us we need to do,” Krishna said.
The base also serves as a significant economic resource to the region. According to its website, Offutt had a total economic impact of $2.3 billion in 2018, which includes $742 million in salaries for military and civilian personnel.
Starting on March 15, water from the Missouri, swollen by record winter precipitation and a “bomb cyclone” that dumped snow and rain on frozen ground, swamped the levee and the airfield. Soon one-third of the base was overrun by four feet or more of water.
In all, 130 buildings were affected, with roughly 60 damaged beyond repair. The base’s wing commander had to take a boat to visit the base’s security headquarters, Krishna said.
Representative Don Bacon, a former Air Force general who served at Offutt before being elected to Congress, said the flooding “prevented operations for a couple of weeks minimum while the water was on the runway.”
The Air Force had a carefully crafted contingency plan that prevented any serious security risks from the loss of base operations. Other bases helped to plug holes so that missions could continue. Still, some capabilities were lost.
“(The mission) was happening at a lower capacity because what we had here was much more capable than anything else,” Krishna said.
The flood also was draining on Offutt’s personnel. Not enough equipment survived the flood, so military personnel had to pair up, trading access to computers from one 12-hour shift to another.
“That kind of wears on you after a while, especially if that wasn’t what you were doing before,” Krishna said.
According to a United States Department of Defense 2019 analysis, climate change is affecting military operations across the globe.
“Climate effects to the Department’s training and testing are manifested in an increased number of suspended/delayed/cancelled outdoor training/testing events,” the Pentagon report found.
It reviewed 79 installations and found 53 faced recurring threats from flooding. Forty-three were threatened by drought. Thirty-six were at risk of wildfires.
At Norfolk, for example, rising water “makes hurricanes worse there because the water goes farther into the bases,” Bacon said. “And the water level is high, and they can’t dock their ships as easily.”
The threats can reduce the readiness for troops and some experts say jeopardize missions.
“If we can’t maintain force readiness at all moments in the homeland, that means we’re vulnerable,” said Kate Guy, a senior research fellow at The Center for Climate and Security, a nonprofit group that includes former US defense officials.
There’s also the expense of replacing lost equipment and repairing damage caused by natural disasters like last year’s flood.
“We’re going to have to raise our docks up along the coastlines to accommodate for this,” Bacon said. “That’s expensive. That takes money away from airplanes and ships and other combat capability.”
The Center for Climate and Security released a report in February that found a temperature increase from 2 to 4 degrees Celsius, or 5 to 7.4 degrees Fahrenheit, would result in “catastrophic” security threats.
Bacon believes that climate change is a risk but that the group’s assessment is overblown. Terrorist groups like ISIS remain a far more serious risk.
“I am not convinced it’s catastrophic,” he said. “I really feel like it’s a scare tactic by some who want to take over our economy.”
But scholars like Guy see a connection between terrorism and a warming planet. Climate change is viewed as a threat multiplier in that it can, through extreme weather events like drought, exacerbate underlying problems and tensions.
“You’re really dealing with not one threat but many, many threats everywhere,” said Guy, who is studying climate change and national security as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oxford. “The effects that we’ll have will be different and destabilizing, but will happen all across the world.”
Long-term threats in Africa include economic shocks and conflicts over water. In the Middle East, large areas might be rendered uninhabitable, forcing mass migrations. Europe faces rising seas and prolonged droughts, and an influx of migrants, according to the center’s report.
Under a 1.8 degree to 3.6 degree Fahrenheit temperature rise in the near term, regions will experience more disease, resource stress and greater destabilization, the report said.
“(Climate change) destabilizes all of the systems in other countries that they rely on for their own security,” said Elizabeth Chalecki, Ph.D., a University of Nebraska Omaha political science professor who has studied how climate change affects global security.
Prior to the Arab Spring in 2011, a series of droughts led crops to fail and hungry citizens to the streets demanding action from their government. As climate change worsens more people will likely be forced to flee to countries that have food.
“If they can’t live where they’re living, they’re going to try to go somewhere else and that’s going to mean huge numbers of people on the move,” Chalecki said.
The populations left behind are ripe for extremist group recruitment. “We’re not taking climate change seriously,” she said.
In that regard, Guy sees similarities between climate change and the current coronavirus crisis. The threat is known, but the preparation is insufficient.
“We knew a global pandemic could come along and strike our shores,” she said. “We didn’t take it seriously enough and prepare for it like we should have.”
The virus has also affected operations at Offutt. In March, several training flights came to an abrupt halt to maintain social distancing requirements. In early June, it was announced the base is moving into the first phase of its COVID-19 base transition plan but still advocating strict hygiene habits, temperature screens and face-masks to limit the spread of the disease.
Meanwhile, the work of fixing the damage from last year’s flood continues. The levees are being strengthened and raised 2 to 3 feet. Krishna said the process could take five years and cost $1 billion to complete.