How NATO is making progress in energy efficiency for military forces

By Susanne Michaelis

How NATO is making progress in energy efficiency for military forces

Over the past years, enhancing the energy efficiency of military forces become an increasingly prominent part of NATO’s agenda. The issue has found its way into Summit Declarations, with NATO Heads of State and Government stating their determination to “work towards significantly improving the energy efficiency of our military forces”. The stakeholder community within and beyond NATO has grown steadily. Exercises have featured various “smart” energy solutions. Finally, yet importantly, the NATO Energy Security Centre of Excellence has devoted a large share of its activities to the military energy efficiency challenge.

Establishing resilient energy supply

The move to enhancing the energy efficiency of NATO’s armed forces remained so compelling that it was not derailed by Russia’s low-level war against Ukraine and NATO’s subsequent re-emphasis of collective defence. While the NATO Allies’ pre-2014 frame of reference had been shaped by the fuel supply challenges in Afghanistan, Iraq or Mali, it became increasingly clear that “smart energy” was also going to be relevant for collective defence. For example, establishing a resilient energy supply for forward deployed forces in Eastern Europe requires sound and resilient energy logistics. With the compelling logic of “smart energy” clearly established, how will the story unfold from here?

Three steps appear essential:
The first step is the mainstreaming of “smart energy” into NATO’s policies and activities. One major challenge is standards – the key to interoperable forces. They are one crucial factor in NATO’s unrivalled military competence, irrespective whether the issue is purchasing ammunition or integrating technologies into micro grids to power a field camp. Consequently, NATO has started the process of updating existing policies and standards. However, NATO is also looking into new standards, notably regarding smart micro grids for field camps. Smart micro grids are a “quick win” for reducing fossil fuel consumption with relatively little effort and cost. As more nations are planning to procure technologies for micro grids, it makes sense to focus on standards, for example for the accurate measurement and logging of data, for enabling the smooth integration of different technologies into the energy management system of a camp. The proposal to establish a Smart Energy Training and Assessment Camp (SETAC) in the framework of NATO’s smart seeks to accelerate progress in this regard. Once a lead nation has been found, the SETAC could also play a role in encouraging the harmonisation of data collection (power production, generator effectiveness etc.). Another option could be a NATO Science for Peace and Security project that aims at developing a NATO camp planning model to improve the energy efficiency and reduce the life cycle management costs. Yet another area of mainstreaming pertains to the NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP). If energy efficiency were recognised as a so-called “Minimum Capability Requirement”, and be integrated into the NDPP, it would boost the importance and visibility of the subject across the entire Alliance.

The second step is the further broadening of the exchange of information and best practices. As mentioned above, the “smart energy” stakeholder community has grown, with more experts from more interested nations. This community has been instrumental in achieving many important milestones: The Green Defence Framework, the Policy of Power Generation for Deployed Force Infrastructure, and greater involvement by NATO’s Military Committee. The number of energy security training courses that either centre on or at least feature modules on “smart energy” is growing, not least due to the initiative of the Centre of Excellence in Vilnius. The training of energy efficient behaviour will become part of NATO training courses, as well as the planning of “smart energy” micro grids. The European Defence Agency will also contribute its share to the evolving training landscape.

Third and finally, one must continue to bring relevant industry on board. NATO is only a facilitator between industry and nations, but its role is quite significant. A very good example was the exercise “Capable Logistician (CL-15)” in Hungary, which featured 14 companies who demonstrated their energy efficient solutions. In the past, technological solutions were developed in the military and later became available for the civilian consumer. When it comes to “smart energy”, however, the choreography may be different: the civilian sector may often have the solutions that the military is looking for. Trusting and trustful relations between NATO and the private sector are therefore more important than ever. With CL-19 almost around the corner (where NATO is planning to bring together power equipment for field camps that nations procured for demonstration projects), there will be further opportunities to deepen established ties.

A challenging approach

This three-step approach will be challenging to implement, and for a number of reasons. One pertains to the stakeholder community: as that community continues to grow, coordination and, in some cases, necessary strategic leadership will be difficult to ensure. Another challenge is NATO’s bureaucratic landscape. “Smart energy” cuts across a wide range of issues, which means that, for example, NATO’s two Strategic Commands, NATO HQ, NATO’s Science and Technology Organisation, and the NATO Energy Security Centre of Excellence have to interact seamlessly. The third challenge is to demonstrate to the companies involved in developing “smart energy” equipment that their technological and financial investment will ultimately reap the desired benefits. While a healthy competition among companies is always desirable, NATO and its member nations will also have to put their money where their mouth is and procure “smart energy” equipment.

The prospects are good

After all, NATO Allies did not only manage to stop the decline in their defence expenditures but are finally spending more. With a rougher security environment both to NATO’s East and South, this turn in defence spending did not come one moment too soon. While the discussion on defence spending and transatlantic burden sharing is likely to centre on high-visibility items like fighter jets or naval vessels, energy remains a critical enabler that only military amateurs would dare to ignore. By investing into efficient diesel generators, renewable energy technologies, sophisticated energy distribution systems and advanced energy storage, governments can make sure that NATO remains not only the strongest military alliance in the world, but also the most effective. 

Susanne Michaelis

Susanne Michaelis, PhD, is Officer (Environment and Smart Energy) in the Energy Security Section of NATO’s Emerging Security Challenges Division, NATO Headquarters, Brussels.