Russia’s targeting of civilian infrastructure is causing an energy security crisis and humanitarian disaster in Ukraine, as well as skyrocketing prices across Europe. There are widespread worries about more possible disruptions this winter. Americans are seeing volatile energy prices at home, too, but there could be a more direct impact. Most of the US forces and bases in Europe — key to America’s global presence and the Pentagon’s global reach — rely on civilian utilities for water, heat, and electricity. That means the US military is bearing the same higher costs as everyone else in Europe, but also that electricity and gas disruptions could affect everything from family housing to training ranges to actual operations, particularly for intelligence, remotely piloted systems, or other electricity-intensive functions.
The energy vulnerability of US partners and allies is a shared problem, and the US government is working with the European Union on solutions (not without some friction in the relationship), but the risk to US bases is not necessarily a shared priority. Yet the Biden administration’s defense budget did not include specific language about possible price hikes or supply disruptions in Europe, nor does the $4 billion European Deterrence Initiative appear to include much investment in energy resilience.
The good news is that the United States has an existing framework for addressing military energy security that could apply to European bases. This approach ranges from exercises and plans that help identify vulnerabilities and strengths to new equipment, such as solar and energy storage backup power or microgrids.
Unfortunately, these measures usually take some time and effort to put in place. Energy-resilience projects can take years to develop and build, and the limited funding for them is competitive. Moreover, domestic installations have communities and members of Congress with a directly vested interest to vouch for them, while overseas bases do not. The Department of Defense also has a track record of financing improvements through cooperation with the private sector, but that may not be possible with the property and power supply agreements that DOD has in place with host nations in Europe.
With a dangerous war in the heart of Europe, the energy resilience of bases across the continent should be a higher US priority than it has been. The first step would be for the Pentagon to rapidly assess the vulnerabilities at these bases, identify the most critical projects, and provide funding. In the interim, Congress could dedicate funding for deep energy conservation and resilience projects at European bases, which can be structured in a way that inherently builds or uses resilience in the communities that host them, too. The Biden administration can revisit US agreements with host nations to ensure that the US military supports and participates in the dramatic energy transitions underway across the continent.
According to forecasts, this winter should be fairly mild in Europe, which will help prevent a near-term catastrophe but is only a temporary reprieve. European countries are taking no chances and moving aggressively to improve their situation in both the short and long term; the United States should take similarly urgent steps to improve energy resilience at its bases. Beyond this winter, the United States has an opportunity to strengthen its geopolitical position, the resolve of its allies, and US military operations by doing so.
Sharon Burke is the president of Ecospherics and a former assistant secretary of Defense. Wilson Rickerson is a principal and cofounder of Converge Strategies.