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22 Nov 2022

Defence rises to answer sustainability challenge

Defence rises to answer sustainability challenge
Image: RAF Voyager's 100% Sustainable Flight Source: UK Government

The recently released Sustainable Support Strategy by UK MOD Strategic Command is designed to bring about a greener Defence sector. Industry is responding as increasing need and expectation is driving innovation to achieve decarbonisation, environmental resilience and self-sustainment which is not only good for the planet, but also creates high-efficiency and operational effectiveness.


The Challenge

When it comes to making the Defence sector eco-friendly, there is much work to be done. The world’s militaries are responsible for ‘between 1% and 5% of global emissions’, with defence in the UK making up 50% of UK central government emissions.

NATO’s Jens Stoltenberg spoke at COP27 to express his vision of NATO as a driver of decarbonisation, admitting that “heavy battle tanks, battleships, planes, they are not normally very green,” whilst seemingly optimistic about the adaptability of the sector going forward. With the recent release of the UK Strategic Command’s “Sustainable Support Strategy (SSS)” which leads on from the MOD’s “Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach”, frameworks and initiatives are coming together to reduce defence’s emissions. And despite gloomy projections that the world will miss its 1.5 degree target, there are many innovative SMEs which could play a vital role in creating a greener, more sustainable defence sector.


A path to a greener industry

Many companies now have a Sustainability policy or are expected to demonstrate their sustainability credentials when being assessed for contract awards. Formalising the roadmap to sustaining the Forces at reach, adapting to environmental challenges and, reducing climate impact, the recently released Strategic Command’s Sustainable Support Strategy (SSS) lays out six Strategic Initiatives:

 1: Sustainable delivery of platform availability

2: Maintaining operational energy through the energy transition

3: Building resilience across the global Strategic Base

4: Increasing self-sustainment of operations

5: Decarbonising the impact of Defence materiel

6: Reducing the impact of deployed food

It looks to resolve four elements: improving the effectiveness and efficiency of operational support; increasing military capability; reducing vulnerability to environmental threats; and mitigating our activity’s impact on the environment. These initiatives aim for both the MOD and industry to provide long-term solutions which can empower the forces of tomorrow and minimise the carbon footprint of defence.


    1. Sustainable delivery of platform availability

The first of the strategic initiatives in the SSS deals with the emissions produced by the manufacture, testing and assembly of defence equipment. This means creating greater longevity in the equipment designed, whilst considering how it is sustained going forward. Additive manufacturing is at the forefront of fulfilling this strategic initiative through the efficient utilisation of resources and increased repairability, which can enhance the lifetime of equipment. Defence Engage member Roxel for example, owned by Herakles (Safran group) and MBDA, are driving additive missile designs, which are produced faster and more reliably.

Virtual reality is another capability that can support sustainability as it can enable faster human servicing in more hostile conditions, giving increased access to expertise, and reduced lost productivity from equipment inoperability. A successful collaboration between Defence Engage member Hadean and technology company CAE is resulting in groundbreaking 3D replications such as ultra-realistic and high-fidelity 3D worlds, which can help accelerate transformation across global digital infrastructure.


    2. Maintaining operational energy through the energy transition

The Defence Operational Energy Strategy gives direction for the Defence energy transition in order to maintain operational capability, exploit emergent energy opportunities and enable the retention or achievement of operational advantage. Electromagnetic radiation is one alternative power used under project CRENIC for example, where soldiers will gain protection on the battlefield with the next generation of innovative solutions to counter the threats posed by radio controlled Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) by using advanced techniques across the electromagnetic spectrum.

Battery energy storage is increasingly important, such as that provided by Defence Engage member Powerstar, and there is a particular trend for evolving lithium batteries to provide more energy for less weight, “essential for a soldier carrying between 15-25 pounds of batteries alone”. NanoGraf was previously tasked by the US Department of Defence to develop silicon anode-based lithion-ion portable batteries to replace the heavier graphite anode lithium-ion batteries currently used by the military. Though the US has given no firm commitment, the British Army laid out its strategy to battlefield electrification in May 2022, with the goal to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels by increasing the use of batteries, sustainable energy, and hybrid electric drive technologies over the next 15 years. Indeed both the UK Army and the US Army have gotten behind hybrid-electric propulsion vehicles, notably supplied by Supacat and, General Dynamics who this month supplied the US Army’s first robotic infantry support vehicle.


    3. Building resilience globally

The support network needs to be resilient to a changing environment, with vulnerabilities assessed and mitigated. Defence Engage member Reaction Engines has been building resilience by embedding zero-emission power innovations into power-dense and lightweight heat exchangers, providing additional capability and thermal power in a variety of environments.

In the US, having learnt from the destruction of hurricanes, the Army has already begun placing microgrids and carbon-free energy sources on a number of its facilities. The service’s climate strategy goals include installing a microgrid on every Army installation by 2035 and achieving on-site carbon pollution-free power generation for Army critical missions on all installations by 2040. The thinking is that if less energy is needed to power facilities, less backup power is needed in case of an emergency, and that puts the Army’s self-generation goals in reach. The Lockheed Martin GridStar Flow redox battery system is helping the Army reach its goal as it can apparently can offer superior storage and discharge duration compared to lithium-ion batteries.


    4. Increasing self-sustainment of operations

Greater self-sustainment can be achieved by having fewer people deployed through the increased use of autonomous systems. More reliable equipment and a better understanding of spares required will also reduce demand. Technologies that can locally produce what has previously been transported long distances is another factor for self-sustainment, though the SSS warns the solution is more complex than simply using emerging technologies. It points to the importance of considering the cost of operating, not only the cost of procurement.

There has been a surge in UAVs and USVs in Defence, for good reason. Naval equipment designers Saildrone for example has developed uncrewed surface vehicles (USV ) powered by renewable solar and wave energy. Saildrone’s wing technology enables the USV to complete missions with a duration up to 12 months without the need for refuelling or returning to land for maintenance, boasting the ability to collect data collection in the most remote regions of the ocean and in the harshest conditions.


    5. Decarbonising the impact of defence materiel

The fifth Strategic Initiative of the SSS is concerned with the decarbonisation of commodities and creating a circularity of lifecycle within individual and overall projects, to ensure minimal waste. One such effort is the recent RAF partnership with industry which delivered ‘the world’s first 100% sustainable aviation fuel’. The test saw RAF Voyager pave the way for sustainable flight in the defence sector. In on the project were Rolls Royce, Airbus, Air BP, AirTanker, DE&S and the RAF.

Smaller companies are also trailblazing decarbonisation, such as Defence Engage members Advanced Navigation who maintains carbon-neutral operations whilst exporting globally from Australia, as an impressively cutting-edge AI, robotics and navigation innovator. Flare Bright is another spearheading clean innovations, with their novel aviation technologies such as flight simulators, and are building on their success of creating the UK’s first low-carbon aviation test centre in a commercial airport.


    6. Reducing the impact of deployed food

Defence’s deployed food footprint is relatively small, with low immediate benefits to reducing emissions. Yet it is part of a ‘systems of systems’ and so should be seen in the broader context where there is pressure to decarbonise agricultural production, since food systems and production account for 25-35% of global emissions.

Reducing the impact of food on the battlefield and in operations is a logistical challenge, as most recycling systems will be back in home territories rather than present during the operations. However, this does not mean that innovators are not on the case. Bright light of industry and Defence Engage member Green Eco Technologies is a small business who is particularly capable when it comes to repurposing and reusing organic waste. Their ‘Green Eco Technologies WasteMaster system’ allows waste to retain its nutrient value for ‘green power generation or soil enhancer’. This means that such waste is “diverted away from landfill or sewers, helping to create a more sustainable planet.”


Defence may not have been the most advanced in its approach to sustainability, but it now has a clear plan of how to get there.


Defence Engage spots trends and opportunities in the defence market and shines a light on the innovators and SMEs in our growing community of suppliers to Defence. As the defence sector seeks to grapple with climate goals, drivers of innovation can be found on the Defence Engage platform, finding and sharing the solutions of tomorrow.



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