Each new generation of recruits raises the bar higher, reminding their commanders to recycle and save energy, asking tough questions that are echoed up the ranks.
By Jon Liberzon

When I tell people what I do in the military, the reply is invariably nonplussed: “I had no idea such a thing existed.” This would be understandable if my post was classified, if I dealt with a new weapons system or in a specialized unit. I don’t. I am an environmental protection officer. My job is to make the Israel Air Force greener, and it’s easier than most people think.

While it is well-known that historically, the military’s environmental record is checkered with pollution problems dating back as far as the British Mandate, a generational change is shaking the foundations of the Kirya, Tel Aviv’s defense establishment headquarters .

Nine years ago, the air force was the first of the Israel Defense Forces corps to take up the torch of a more sustainable military, adopting the ambitious goal of certifying every IAF base in the country to the ISO 14001 international standard of environmental management. Since then, more than 70 percent of all bases (and all the large ones ) have been certified, precipitating a sea change in the working culture of hangars, workshops, warehouses, classrooms and executive offices throughout the force.

The ISO 14001 standard is a powerful tool for assuaging the environmental impact of a large organization like the air force. To initiate the process, senior officers must first take responsibility for the environmental risks and impacts of the units under their command. A unique hierarchy of responsibility is established, so that each base includes a network of personnel with the specific duty of environmental management and protection. This distribution of accountability provides a powerful internal incentive for protection at the ground level. In addition, each base must commit to continued improvement, creating a long-range plan for mitigating environmental risks and dealing with inherited problems, such as substandard sewage-treatment facilities, leaky fuel infrastructure and contaminated soils. Yearly inspections by an independent agency ensure that environmental goals are advanced, funded and updated. The ISO 14001 system has been so successful within the IAF that the navy and ground forces are following suit.

While proper planning and management are the bedrock of sustainable progress, the proof is always in the pudding. Top brass have demonstrated their commitment with tens of millions of shekels invested in greener infrastructure, matched by millions of dollars from our American partners. The air force has leapfrogged the civilian sector by adopting green building standards for new construction, including cutting-edge energy, cooling and water systems for bases currently being built. Energy, water and waste efficiency are bolstered by decentralized budgets (boosting incentives to save ) and investment in efficient technologies, providing both fiscal and environmental benefits. One of the largest bases in the south, for instance, was able to reduce its water use by a whopping 30 percent, even during expansion, by adjusting toilet-flush volumes and initiating a comprehensive monitoring plan.

Drawing on the strengths of Israel’s technology sector, the IDF is looking to the future by partnering with government and private entities. In cooperation with the Ministry of Health, the military is working toward adoption of gray-water systems that reuse wastewater on-site. Private companies have been called in to discuss the establishment of solar power stations.

In 2009, the IDF opened an overarching environmental protection administration, with military-wide jurisdiction and Lt. Col. Eli Paz at its helm. The administration oversees a panoply of initiatives, including the Education Corps’ establishment of mandatory environmental courses for every soldier.

While this may suggest that the military is educating its personnel from the top down, much of the drive for these transformative changes has percolated up from below. As many career officers have told me, each new generation of recruits raises the bar higher, reminding their commanders to recycle and save energy, asking tough questions that are echoed up the ranks. Today’s youth demand a greener ethic as a matter of principle, and the military is doing its best to keep them happy.

Most officers can recall the days when motor oil was dumped on the ground and trash was tossed into the nearest ditch, but the modern military now works more like a factory than an auto shop. Work floors are clean, energy is conserved, and waste is minimized, collected and recycled. By increasing mindfulness on the job, environmental awareness has made soldiers safer, healthier, more careful and more focused on the task at hand. From a strategic perspective, the military has learned that clean work is quality work, and it is the imperative of the public to reinforce this trend by voicing its support.

In the words of Capt. Michal Morgenstern, a six-year veteran of the Environmental Protection Unit, “we want to be a good force and a force for good; to that end we will seek support from the public in reaching our sustainability goals.”

After all, a greener military is a better military.

Jon Liberzon works in the Environmental Protection Unit of the IAF’s Quality Assurance branch.