How the French armed forces are reducing their carbon footprint

Published by on 11.03.2020 - 6 min

Across the Atlantic, a report commissioned by the Pentagon in 2019 predicts the collapse of the US army in the next 20 years owing to climate change. What about in France?

In 2019, the Ministry of Armed Forces used 835,000m3 of oil products, making it France’s biggest consumer of energy. 73% goes towards powering their fleet of vehicles on land, water, and in the air. Faced with these facts, the armed forces are now addressing their environmental impact. The self-devouring nature of the system means something has to change… but how?

Consuming less, consuming better, consuming safer

In a speech made on September 25th last year, Minister of France’s Armed Forces Florence Parly announced her intention to “reach carbon neutrality by 2050,” before adding: “By 2025, we’ll invest 60 million euros in the development of innovative energy projects.” Her motto is simple: “consume less, consume better, consume safer.” But what does this look like in practice?

Reducing the armed forces’ dependence on fossil fuels? Yes. Increasing the resilience of energy supply sources? Yes. Reinforcing France’s energetic independence? A resounding yes. The current plan is to dedicate more R&D to finding more alternative fuels (though they haven’t specified which): “The main solution we’re looking at in the mid- to long-term is the use of alternative fuels, which aren’t produced using fossil energy. They have the immense advantage of being compatible with our current equipment and with the equipment that will be built in the next few years,” Parly said.

They’ve got other energetic solutions in mind—hydrogen, for example, which has recently earned favour with executive powers. Parly emphasises that “the aeronautics industry has placed itself on… an ambitious trajectory, with plans for hydrogen-powered airplanes by 2035.”

In addition, the French Defense Procurement Agency (DGA, in French) and the Agency for Defense Innovation are working together on a combustible battery that can power the FÉLIN system—or French infantry combat equipment—used by soldiers on the ground, according to the DGA. They’re also working on “a mini-drone that can regularly refuel itself at a nearby hydrogen station.” It may be enough to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels, but can it be used with other kinds of vehicles?

Transforming vehicles

“We’re going to develop a real operational energy policy. There’s a concrete purpose to having cleaner, hybrid, electric systems: they’re quieter, more autonomous, and more resilient,” said Parly in her speech. Indeed, the transformation and hybridisation of defense vehicles is not only a winning bet in terms of reducing carbon output; it can also help strengthen tactical operations. Greener, quieter vehicles may become a strategic focus for the minister. One of the most compelling examples of this is the Griffon armoured vehicle: “I’d thus like to announce that we will build a demo of the hybrid Griffon for use by the infantry army by 2025,” she said. As confirmed by French newspaper Le Figaro, strategic considerations are one of the principal motivations for this transition. “Because they’re quiet, with low thermal output, these vehicles have much to offer our operational forces, for whom discretion is key,” says Parly. As for the navy, she added that “a multi-mission, hybrid barge equipped with an electric battery will be used 75% of the time.”

France’s armed forces are also embracing a more eco-conscious approach to building their fleets. At the moment, it’s limited to test projects and R&D. This new approach isn’t meant to replace all existing vehicles—which, given their number, would be too costly—but to design the defense of the future. “This eco-focused design approach is something we also need for our arms supply programs. We’ve already started,” Parly affirmed. “Our 2019 call for bids for overseas patrol boats includes a requirement for energy efficiency. Going forward, these ecological and energetic requirements will become selection criteria in their own right,” she added. She says it’s a job France is sharing with its European neighbours: “We’re working on R&D in association with our German partners, and our work on future tanks and future fighter jet motors will also address the question of hybridisation and energy consumption.”

Even the names of certain departments are changing. What was once the army’s ‘Fuel Department’ is now referred to as the ‘Operational Energy Department.’

The French Patrol – Joe Desousa via Unsplash
The French Patrol in full flight

Change through education

The writer George Santayana famously wrote that “The greatest challenge in education is turning ideas into experience.” To overcome that challenge, the Ministry of Armed Forces is, as they recently announced, “educating the 25,000 young people who’ve joined our ranks about the problems and uses of energy. We’re also working on developing ongoing training in ‘digital sobriety’ through a Green Tech module taught by the Ministry’s digital academy.” In addition to this policy, they say that “selection criteria around sustainable software design will be added to contracts awarded by the Ministry in order to encourage software makers to cut back on ‘digital fat’.” So from their own staff to those responding to calls for bids, they’re working to educate people both internally and externally.

Digital technology plays a significant role in environmental issues. In the aeronautics department for example, they say they’ve “made the choice to improve the quality of training through virtual simulations,” thus reducing pollution-generating, real-world training exercises. To do that, they’ve even built a special simulation centre in the town of Mont-de-Marsan, France.

With their commitment to greater sustainability and their work to reduce their carbon output across the board, the army may go from khaki to full-on green in the next 30 years.

 

Vincent Thobel, L’ADN journalist
L’ADN is the media on innovation that every day analyses the best concepts of the new economy on the web and in magazine format.

 

 

Copyrights: Joe Desousa – Unsplash, John Lockwood – Unsplash