21 March 2024

Climate change and military power

Hunting for Submarines in the Warming Ocean

What effect will climate change have on military power, capabilities, effectiveness, and force employment? Despite the growing attention to climate change in the field of international relations scholars have paid little attention to how climate change directly affects military power and military operations. This paper addresses these questions by investigating the effects of climate change on the oceans, and in particular on how sound travels underwater, thus contributing to the academic and public debate about the future of submarine warfare. It shows that, climate change is going to affect the ability of submarines to hide from detection, with significant implications for military operations, military technology, and international security.

Submarines exploit the ocean to hide from enemy sensors such as human sight, infrared cameras, and radar systems, which makes them a very effective military platform. However, the future of submarines might be at risk. Progress in sensor acuity, multi-sensor connectivity, big data, and machine learning could significantly improve anti-submarine capabilities in the future, and, in turn, deprive submarines of their capacity to exploit the ocean to hide. Ocean transparency would have important implications for deterrence and warfighting. It could deprive countries of an effective means of defending their coasts and providing conventional deterrence. It could also make the most credible delivery system for nuclear weapons, ballistic-missile submarines, obsolete, thus jeopardizing nuclear stability.

Existing understandings about ocean transparency rely on an unwarranted assumption — namely, that the environmental conditions of the ocean will remain constant. The ocean, however, is changing as a result of global warming. Sound traveling underwater is a function of variables that are directly affected by climate change, such as the temperature and salinity of oceanic waters. By affecting the oceanic environment, climate change will also affect the probability of detecting enemy submarines and the range at which it can be done. 

In military operations, the natural environment plays a central role, providing opportunities for cover and concealment. In warfare, real-time information that is accurate is a critical component of the long-range precision-strike complex, which requires the capability to detect, identify, track, and geolocate enemy platforms at long distances. Climate change might interfere with such capability, therefore countries should investigate more deeply how anti-submarine warfare is likely to evolve in response to this phenomenon.


These are extracts from a paper published in March 2024 by the Texas National Security Review, authored by Andrea GilliMauro GilliAntonio RicchiAniello Russo and Sandro Carniel. The full paper can be accessed through the link here.

Photo credit: Bundeswehr-Fotos via Wikimedia Commons