WASHINGTON — Congress is pushing the U.S. Department of Defense to transition its vast fleet of non-tactical electric vehicles away from fossil fuels over the next 12 years. But at least one Republican senator says not so fast.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, added language to the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act that would set an additional barrier for the Pentagon – the world’s largest institutional fossil fuel consumer – to purchase non-tactical electric, advanced-biofuel or hydrogen-powered vehicles. The House passed the NDAA 350-80 last week, and the Senate is expected to vote on it by the end of the month.

“It’s an expensive investment for an unreliable product constrained by a [Chinese Communist Party-controlled], child and slave labor-powered supply chain,” Ernst told Defense News in a statement. “The NDAA should never prioritize climate politics over national security, and Democrats were forced to concede that point in this year’s defense bill.”

Senate Democrats included their own NDAA provision that would require the Pentagon’s fleet of 170,000 non-tactical vehicles to run entirely on electricity or alternative fuels by 2035. The deadline in the final bill marks a five-year extension over the 2030 date for the transition to alternatively fueled non-tactical vehicles that the initial Senate bill stipulated when the Armed Services Committee advanced its draft in June.

Ernst used her position on the Armed Services Committee to place additional hurdles on efforts to create a green non-tactical vehicle fleet for the Defense Department. She drafted a provision that would require the Pentagon to first supply Congress with a report on the cost estimates per unit, for the infrastructure to support them as well as a comparison of their lifecycle costs compared to costs of vehicles with combustion engines.

The report would also have to provide an assessment of any supply chain shortfalls and fire-related security risks while identifying any components of the vehicles being sourced from China.

“What confounds me – I don’t get this at all – is all of this push behind electric vehicles, not drilling, not refining here in the United States, which means that we’re relying on China,” Ernst told Defense News in an interview earlier this month.

“So much of what we use and what goes into the batteries ... is coming from our adversaries,” she said. “So just like the movement to manufacture chips in the United States, where do the resources to develop them come from: the silica? China.”

Congress passed legislation this year attempting to loosen China’s grip on key elements of the supply chain — including the defense industrial base — that are needed to build non-tactical vehicles and complex weapons systems alike, such as semiconductors and critical minerals.

The Ernst provision would also prohibit the Defense Department from procuring any green vehicles whose parts violate federal regulations while barring the acquisition of products produced by forced or indentured child labor.

The final version of the NDAA also maintains a requirement inserted by House Democrats that would set up a pilot program for transitioning the Defense Department’s non- tactical vehicle fleet to renewable fuel.

That pilot program would require the secretary of each military department to select an installation for the pilot and submit a plan to make all non-tactical vehicles at that location electric powered by 2025.

The Defense Department started incorporating climate analysis into its wargaming last year after identifying the risks posed by climate change in its 2018 National Defense Strategy.

The Pentagon released its climate strategy last year. For its part, the Army plans to install a microgrid on all its installations by 2035 and field fully electric tactical vehicles by 2050.

Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

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