What is the UK defence sector doing to respond to the challenges and evolving security risks associated with the climate emergency? Should the defence sector even be considering emissions when the risks they deal with are immediate and life threatening? And what role should the industry play in moving the planet to net zero?
Steve Murray, VP of Strategy and Marketing from Thales, explains why defence and tackling the climate emergency are critically linked.
What does Climate Change and sustainability mean to Thales and to the defence industry?
Thales sees tackling climate change as core to our purpose and inextricably linked to defence. In order to be able to decarbonise, you first need a foundation of national stability and security.
The war in Ukraine demonstrates this most starkly. Clearly any thoughts about decarbonisation in Ukraine are very much second order to preserving the nation state and the lives of its citizens at the moment.
Dramatic changes to the climate increase the chance of hostilities over access to environmental resources, like water and crops, but as extreme weather events become more common, defence will also have a greater role to play in providing humanitarian assistance.
Translating that into activity that Thales undertakes as a business – we’ve committed to becoming a net zero organisation, for activities that we directly control, by 2030. This includes such things as how we heat our buildings and buying 100 per cent renewable electricity.
The most complicated piece for industries more generally – not just the defence sector – is when we buy goods and services from our supply chains. Working with our key suppliers, we’re establishing carbon action plans that will see a 35 per cent reduction in our indirect carbon footprint – also by 2030.
Products and services within the defence industry also have a role to play, such as through the incorporation of eco-design principles into our products and finding environmental applications for existing products. For example, an unmanned surface vessel, currently part of an autonomous counter mine programme, has already been trialled using military-grade surveillance cameras to inspect wind turbine blades as they rotate – giving them more time to spend generating clean energy.
Where do you see the most potential to exploit existing technologies to make big strides forward and pick up the pace of change?
There are clear areas where we can establish some quick wins and pick up the pace. The process of digitisation, for example, can develop, test and optimise systems with a much smaller environmental footprint than traditional approaches of live testing and evaluations.
We’ve also seen a huge benefits in the use of Thales’ advanced flight simulators. In the UK, aviation accounts for two thirds of all defence emissions – with defence, in turn, accounting for half of all government emissions. However, by training air crew in simulators, we’re able to dramatically reduce the need for live flying by 90 per cent – which is hugely impactful in saving emissions.
There are also green energy and renewable solutions that have applications first in the civil market that can then be applied to defence. For example, electric vehicles, energy generation, and storage batteries, are going to be developed first for the larger civil markets. The defence customer can then take the best from this technology and adapt and integrate it to their own needs. Thales has an opportunity to play a significant role in encouraging these cross-sector developments, as our footprint in the civil markets is as large as it is in our defence business.
Finally, we expect our customers to start considering the total life-span of products – ensuring that the products are recyclable, and we’re able to recapture increasingly valuable raw materials.
Are there any new technologies coming through the pipeline now which are going to have a significant impact on energy consumption, or that will need to change?
From 2025 onwards, we’re looking at the military using technologies including AI, autonomy, quantum computing, quantum sensing and so forth. These will dramatically increase the demand for processing power and, ultimately, electrical energy. So, while technologies are emerging to improving energy efficiencies, the demand for energy will continue as present and could rise.
The defence industry is looking at other technologies to offset this effect, such as edge computing, where the processing is done in the deployed vehicles or on the soldier, rather than transmitting large amounts of data back to a central hub, which is by its nature inefficient. We’re also looking at making so-called “frugal AI” systems, which require less data and are much less energy consuming.
The evolution away from fossil fuels will inevitably lead to more electric propulsion. However, this is only a positive step if the power generation is also sustainable, and could potentially lead to deployable renewable or nuclear power solutions.
Lastly – with some elements of climate change here to stay, we are going to see frontline soldiers and their equipment operating in increasingly hostile and unpredictable weather conditions. This means equipment will have to undergo much more rigorous testing to ensure it is able to operate in all extremes.
What role do you see for legislation and government support in driving decarbonisation in defence?
For organisations working in the UK with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and for His Majesty’s Government, you are working within a framework that is driving towards net zero in less than 30 years.
The recently released Defence Capability Framework for the first time, gave the defence industry a very clear indication on future capability acquisition plans from the MoD – there is an opportunity to go further and link up the capabilities required to their Climate Change & Sustainability Strategy.
If you can work with your customers to agree clear roadmaps, aligned both to domestic needs and export opportunities, then you build up a virtuous circle which allows businesses to invest with greater confidence, making them more resilient and able to sustain and expand their skill-base. Which, ultimately, makes the UK more secure, and gives it a basis from which to decarbonise.
Thales is a global technology leader in the Aerospace, Transportation and Defence & Security markets. In 2019, the company generated revenues of €18.4 billion with 80,000 employees in 68 countries. With its 30,000 engineers and researchers, Thales has a unique capability to design, develop and deploy equipment, systems and services that meet the most complex security requirements. Thales has an exceptional international footprint, working with customers and local partners around the world.
Thales in the UK is a team of over 7,000 experts, including 4,500 highly skilled engineers, located across 9 key UK sites.
Each year Thales invests over £575 million into its UK supply chain, working with over 2,000 companies. They are dedicated to research and technology, working with partners to invest over £130m+ in R&D in the UK annually.
With a heritage of over 130 years, Thales in the UK understands the importance of developing skills for the future. They currently have 112 graduates and 238 apprentices, and are forecasting an additional 56 graduates and 104 apprentices for their 2023 intake in the UK. Thales is committed to supporting its people, and continuously developing talent, and highly skilled experts.
Thales helps its customers think faster and act smarter. Whatever it takes.