The deleterious effects of high temperatures and humidity on the performance of aircraft are exacerbated in many places around the world under climate change. Last year, in a Center for Climate and Security briefer, these effects were discussed for both rotary and fixed wing aircraft. They include reductions in take-off weight because of reduced lift and, longer take-off and landing distances. The result will be that military operations will be at higher risk of disruption or outright failure, particularly in those locations where longer over-water distances need to be traversed. Complementing the briefer is a recent study by Gratton et al. (2020) that collected and analyzed climate change effects on the operation of two types of commercial, civilian aircraft that are commonly used at Greek airports.
By Mariah Furtek
Climate change is radically altering the physical environment in the theater of conflict, making future military successes dependent on adaptation today. New research shows that climate change is reducing performance of U.S. military aircraft. As the environment grows hotter and more humid, military aircraft will not be able to carry as much payload or travel long distances without refueling. More missions will be cancelled or modified due to decreased aircraft performance on hot and humid days, which diminishes the U.S. military’s ability to project power and respond effectively to conflicts.
Changes in the operational environment require corresponding changes in infrastructure, logistics, and acquisitions. To be effective long-term, these modifications must be informed by data-driven analysis of climate projections.
The adverse impacts of climate change on military-readiness are especially evident in aircraft and airbases. As heat and humidity rise, aircraft struggle to perform: meaning today’s inventory might not be fit to operate in tomorrow’s conflict. Anticipating the strain that climate change places on current inventory will help make current operations and infrastructure more resilient to climate threats. To this end, U.S. military and military stakeholders would benefit from a vulnerability assessment model that predicts the frequency and severity of climate-related performance impacts for both airbases and aircraft.
This Center for Climate and Security Briefer explores one such model developed by Air Force Colonel Mary McRae (ret.). McRae’s model translates future climate projections from Global Climate Models into Density Altitude (DA) measurements that communicate specific changes in aircraft performance influenced by heat and humidity. Using this DA approach, McRae maps the vulnerability of various airbases and aircraft to DA conditions that limit the viability of future operations. This vulnerability assessment tool will help military, policy and industry constituents determine the most critical threats to aircraft and airbase operations; effectively mitigate climate threats through more informed military acquisitions, infrastructure and mission planning.
More accurate and detailed climate threat assessments like McRae’s make critical threats to military-readiness more visible. In doing so, updated vulnerability assessments enable current acquisitions processes to take climate change into account. These assessments also help the acquisitions community inform industry stakeholders about climate threats and ensure that infrastructure in development today is being designed in a climate-conscious manner. The information these assessments provide also encourages research into innovative design solutions that can adapt existing infrastructure to fit more challenging environments.
 “PhD Candidate Develops Novel Method for Assessing Impact of Climate Change on Aircraft Performance.” Villanova University.
To read the full Briefer, click here.
Mariah Furtek is Research Assistant with the Center for Climate and Security