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  • Célestin Toeset

Sustainability and Security: A New Battlefield for the Defence Sector

Promoting circularity in the defence sector is a complicated task. It requires objectively presenting a set of recommendations to improve the longevity and sustainability of respective military apparatuses, all the while not condoning the development of military-industrial complexes. Some argue that suggesting circular improvements for the sector - one that historically has and still does contribute to a plethora of devastating events - borders on immorality. Nevertheless, avoiding the topic in its entirety would prove equally challenging because the notion of defence is inherently tied to human nature and one’s sense of security. In other words, neglecting the potential for circularity in an industry that totals $2.443 trillion globally as of 2023 would undoubtedly hamstring the green transition. This op-ed seeks to provide a comprehensive approach to implementing circular economic principles in the defence sector.

As has been proven time and time again, the linear economic model that has long been observed in a majority of industries is unsustainable. It often describes the straight progression process that products follow in their life cycles - a beginning, middle, and end - it requires changing. One of the primary motivators for this transition is the depletion of natural resource reserves and the increasing scarcity of critical raw materials (CRM). The current climate crisis and rapid production age can be seen as both a blessing and a curse, as while resources are unsustainably consumed, they have sparked a critical awakening. The circular economy offers an appealing vision for the defence sector, enabling it to stay competitive in a more sustainable manner by reducing both its environmental impact and logistical footprint. Shifting to this model favours green management practices that promote resource-efficient manufacturing, an increase in CRM-focused policymaking, and a rise of strategic partnerships to secure the necessary materials.

The evolution of sustainable defence

The inclusion of circular economic principles, or at the least their rising popularity in the legislature, is the fruit of years and years of gradually environmentally inclusive policies. Historically speaking, respective defence industries have been primarily government-funded. This means that while the sector often pioneered change and technological advancements, it has never truly been exposed to free-market competition. In this sense, as stated by Saab Climate Strategist Patrik Johansson, “competitive advantages were not forced, and research and development were much freer and unregulated”. From a legislative point of view, the reporting of military emissions, though initially omitted from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, was overturned and made voluntary during the 2015 Paris Agreement. Although the language is somewhat relaxed, it is still seen as a symbolic win for many supporting the transition. 

Beyond the legislature, this shift is also supported by increased pressure from financial markets. While bills explicitly targeting defence companies are rare, less so are those addressing corporate sustainability goals. The gradual emergence of Environmental, Social and Government (ESG) standards since the early 2000s, for instance, has made its way into boardrooms and is bringing more attention to companies’ footprints. Coupled with governments worldwide implementing more ambitious environmental regulations for companies to follow, it is unsurprising that said companies will comply to avoid fines and operational disruptions. Defence contractors with poor sustainability records face potential divestment and difficulty attracting capital, hindering their ability to innovate and compete. 

Financial institutions are also increasingly recognising the environmental risks associated with defence contractors. Banks are increasingly factoring these risks into loan assessments, making it more expensive for unsustainable (defence) companies to borrow. Specialised financing options are also offered to companies with strong sustainability commitments. We have seen green bonds and sustainability-linked loans rapidly emerge to incentivise a more pronounced engagement in exchange for access to capital at lower interest rates, incentivising defence companies to invest in green technologies and circular practices. 

A turning of tides for European defence

One of the United Kingdom’s preferred defence contractors, Landmarc, is a prime example of this turn. Operating across the country, it specialises in sustainable infrastructure management of military and defence assets. It has released a Carbon Reduction Plan based on the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) own Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach, outlining how it aims to become net zero carbon by 2035. The company’s firm and ambitious stance was rewarded in May 2023 when it won a new £560 million training estate support contract from the UK government. It notably rewarded Landmarc’s introduction of “innovative, more responsive and flexible services [...], resulting in facilities that will be more agile to meet the changing needs of the Armed Forces”. The Ministry of Defence further utilises a “through-life management” process that incorporates circular economy principles. This unified approach to acquisitions and equipment support considers the entire lifecycle, from identifying military needs to final equipment disposal or recycling.

At Air Force Base No. 5 in Monte Real, Portugal too, has innovated in the implementation of circular principles. In a program that sold F-16 aircraft to Romania, the base strategically modernised them with an eye towards future sustainability. It notably involved modifications that facilitate the recovery and reuse of materials during future maintenance procedures. Crucially, they were implemented without compromising the jets’ military efficiency or operational capabilities. It demonstrates how circularity can be implemented within defence programs by promoting resource conservation and potentially reducing long-term maintenance costs for the receiving nation.

Circular economic principles have also been operationalised by the Dutch MoD, whose designated clothing and personal equipment company, Biga Groep, has reduced waste and extended the service life of the military’s equipment. Previously, used uniforms and gear were incinerated, costing €500,000 annually and wasting valuable resources. Now, the MoD employs a multi-pronged strategy to maximise reuse and recycling. Today, quasi-new items are cleaned and redistributed, a dedicated facility handles minor repairs like stitching or replacing buckles and orthopaedic shoe repair further extends the life of footwear. It has done so by partnering with social enterprise Biga Groep, which does much of the reconditioning. This private partnership has even gone to create value for all parties involved, with the cost of operations saving the MoD around €8-10 million annually by not buying new uniforms. 

The way forward: towards a more ambitious integration

Evidently, this op-ed has yet to cover all use cases for circular practices in the defence sector. Priorities and working methods may change depending on geography, economic systems, and existing policies. However, it has shown multiple instances in which the implementation of circular practices can improve a company’s standing regarding governmental contracts, boost bilateral relations, and lead to long-term cost-saving. 

Although exclusively drawn from European states, applying such practices presents great promise if carried out on a broader scale. It highlights key points that should be included in future policymaking to include the defence sector in the green transition. One such strategy is prioritising resource efficiency and material security. Military equipment should be designed and maintained with a long lifespan in mind. While many may think this applies only to the manufacturing process, maintenance plays an equally important role in extending those life cycles and avoiding unnecessary waste. It further allows countries to safeguard those increasingly scarce CRMs and strategically stockpile them to ensure sustainable use and supply. 

As goes for many other sectors, the role of financial markets will prove key to engaging stakeholders in promoting the transition. Sustainable procurement practices that incentivise circularity and integrate ESG principles will attract responsible investors and financing. Lifecycle cost analysis, factoring in environmental impacts, will guide better purchasing decisions and supporting green suppliers throughout the defence supply chain will further bolster a circular ecosystem. As seen above, the case of Diga Groep’s successful collaboration with the Dutch MoD serves as a sample of how public-private partnerships can also pave the way forward. 

Now, as this trend grows, so does the potential for greenwashing. True circularity goes beyond superficial gestures. Independent monitoring and transparent reporting of environmental metrics are essential to ensure genuine progress. The defence sector can achieve a truly sustainable future through a multi-faceted approach that simultaneously prioritises national security and environmental responsibility.


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