Opinion: Embracing “green soldiering”


The ongoing international focus on “defensive” as opposed to “offensive” military interventions has seen a significant commitment of defence industries around the world to align themselves with international protocol, including compliance with environmental norms and standards.

This has led to valuable technology and scientific contributions, exemplified by the US military’s recent work on an HIV/Aids vaccine, that are largely based on research that was previously focused on creating offensive advantages.

In South Africa, the SANDF is setting the standard for “green soldiering”. It has introduced rigid environmental protection measures in its operational doctrine that ensure due care for the environment whether on internal or external deployment.

The concept of “green soldiering” was coined by retired Colonel KB Godschalk in 1998. This was in response to the collective impact of pressure from local communities, emerging environmental legislation (that also impacted on military activities), and a growing respect for the environment among serving members.

Otto Schür, Denel Group Executive: Technical, says these concepts have been since accepted as a driving principle in South Africa’s defence-related industry. 

In accepting that the Department of Defence and Military Veterans and associated South African National Defence Force (SANDF) units had to lead by example, “we have seen a willful shift from merely conserving local areas under military control to integrating environmental management principles and accountability into all levels of military conduct.”

Before formal legislation was contemplated with regard to the military, and green soldiering became an accepted principle, the SANDF implemented formal environmental management interventions at its home bases and employed these principles in tactical deployments.

The first records of environmental policy can therefore be traced back to 1978, with responsible management reviewed by internal inspections. This commitment to responsible soldiering included the planning of tactical deployments, their execution and deactivation of temporary base areas.

It further necessitated the development of state-of-the art technologies by the supporting industry sector to control emissions and effluent. These in turn set numerous benchmarks for the broader industry.

The early successes of this approach were underpinned by the promulgation of the Environmental Implementation Plan for Defence in 2001 and the implementation of the Environmental Management System for Defence. These efforts have since been accelerated with the tightening of national legislation that has drawn South Africa into peace support operations under auspices of the United Nations.

Today “green soldiering” refers to integrated environmental management by the broader defence sector, including industry. As such, it encompasses everything from implementing energy-efficient manufacturing processes to effluent management, and ensuring that military equipment does not randomly impact on broader civil society.

In the local context of “green soldiering”, Denel has already implemented measures to meet the immediate 10% energy saving target set by government.

This mirrors interventions by the US Army for example, which has set a target to reduce its energy consumption by 30% by 2013 and 45% by 2025. Denel’s use of the latest technologies, implementation of ongoing environmental conservation techniques and application of energy management systems under its control also ensures the safe and responsible use of resources at its disposal, thereby minimising any risk to the environment.

The organisation has additionally committed itself to implementing all necessary control measures, underpinning compliance to legislated prescripts. By tasking its engineers and scientists with the investigation of new guidelines and improving the efficiency and accuracy of its weapons systems, Denel is additionally. ensuring that, should its clients have to employ these systems; their proper utilisation will not have adverse consequences on civil society.

With vast areas of land assigned to the development, manufacturing and testing of defence equipment and systems throughout the world, environmental policies have become pivotal. Greener soldiering has seen defence forces around the world aim to ensure compliance with environmental regulations whether operating from their home base or allocated training facilities.

Local environmental policies require that all personnel, as well as support equipment, comply with minimum standards. Munitions must additionally comply with very stringent international protocols on defence equipment. These standards are also maintained by key industry players.

Where Denel and its subsidiaries are deployed to military bases to assist in the through-life maintenance of Denel equipment used by the SANDF and its international client base for example, (a management approach that is not negotiable, as all Denel entities are either already ISO 14001 accredited or in the final stages of accreditation), the company liaises closely with adjoining metropolitan management structures.

This ensures full internal compliance and involves offering Denel assets to mitigate the impact of any ecological/environmental disaster that may occur in close proximity to the area. 

This type of close co-operation with metropolitan, provincial, as well as national environmental control and oversight bodies has already proven successful. The most notable local example in this regard is perhaps Denel’s partnership with Cape Nature Conservation.

This has seen management of the OTB Test Range being expanded to adjoining nature conservation areas. Today, together with the De Hoop nature reserve, OTB represents one of the few relatively untouched natural areas remaining along the country’s southern coastline. Before any new test campaign is accepted at the facility, a detailed environmental impact study is conducted, followed by the creation of an integrated test plan, and even closer management during test execution to prevent negative impact on the environment. As such, if something untoward were to occur, the test would be terminated immediately with pre-assigned resources ready to combat the identified risk.

Contributions made by Mechem, a Denel subsidiary specialising in post-conflict activities including clearance of mines and unexploded ordnance, have also created a safer environment through the development of unique detection technologies in support of border control.

The innovative use of trained dogs to detect contraband and/or explosive substances in a laboratory environment through sniffer technologies negates any risk to dogs and their handlers, as well as to the greater community – and is a further example of the potential of companies like Denel to make a valuable contribution to a safer environment.

While some military items and processes cannot realistically be made environmentally-friendly, every conservation success or renewable energy conversion within the military’s jurisdiction mitigates its collective impact on the environment.

When one additionally looks at the scale of the industry – and its ability to positively impact on the manufacturing, testing and disposal activities of suppliers – one realises that uptake of more environmentally responsible processes can realistically induce everything from energy-efficiency to effective waste management.

To this end, “greener” soldiering initiatives should not be championed by the SANDF alone, and greater industry participation and innovation in this area should be further encouraged.