National Security

The Future of Sustainable Synthetic Fuel in Military Aviation

Published on
May 7, 2024

In the dynamic landscape of modern warfare, military aviation stands as a cornerstone of strategic prowess and operational agility. However, the reliance on traditional fossil fuels poses challenges, both in terms of environmental impact and energy security.

The emergence of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) could present a paradigm shift, promising to revolutionize military aviation by offering a greener, more resilient alternative and is one of the most critical ingredients in aviation’s mission to reduce its carbon emissions up to 2050 and beyond.

By diversifying fuel sources with SAF derived from renewable feedstocks, militaries can reduce dependency on fossil fuels, mitigate supply chain vulnerabilities, and demonstrate a commitment to environmental stewardship. However, the widespread adoption of SAF presents many challenges, which will have to be overcome to truly position it as a viable alternative.  

This article delves into the transformative potential of sustainable synthetic fuel in military aviation, exploring the opportunities but also the potential risks on the horizon.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel: Pioneering the Green Revolution

“In the pursuit of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the aviation industry finds itself at a pivotal juncture. A combination of technological solutions is required to achieve that ambitious goal. Various pathways to net zero are possible but all feature Sustainable Aviation Fuel as a key component in curtailing carbon emissions within the hard-to-abate air transport sector.”

International Air Transport Association, 01 Sep 2023

The quest for SAF has gained momentum in recent years, driven by escalating concerns over climate change and the imperative to reduce carbon emissions.

SAF holds immense promise in decarbonizing military aviation. Unlike conventional jet fuels derived from crude oil, synthetic fuels can be produced from renewable sources such as biomass, waste, or even captured carbon dioxide, mitigating the carbon footprint associated with military operations.

Furthermore, SAF offers strategic advantages in enhancing energy security and operational resilience. By diversifying fuel sources and reducing dependency on volatile oil markets, militaries can bolster their readiness and adaptability in the face of geopolitical uncertainties. The ability to produce fuel domestically also reduces logistical vulnerabilities and streamlines supply chains, ensuring sustained mobility and operational effectiveness in diverse theatres of engagement.

This is why SAF could be crucial for achieving military energy independence ensuring national security and militaries around the world are testing its use.

Military leading the push for SAF

The US military has been involved in the development of SAF for over a decade. In 2010 an unmodified US Navy Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet flew from NAS Patuxent River in Maryland powered by a 50:50 blend of sustainable biofuel and jet fuel.

At the time, Boeing said that “operating navy platforms with renewable energy sources such as sustainable biofuels are part of the service’s strategy to reduce reliance on fossil fuels by half over the next decade”.

That aspiration has not been met, but throughout this period the US military has continued its strong support in the research and development and fuel qualification phase for SAF.  

In 2022, the Royal Air Force and industry partners carried out a world first 100% sustainable fuel flight using a military aircraft of its size, the military variant of an Airbus A330. The flight was a joint endeavour between the RAF, Ministry of Defence and industry partners Airbus, AirTanker and Rolls-Royce, with the fuel supplied by Air BP.

In February 2023, France’s Ministry for Armed Forces, in cooperation with Safran, Airbus Helicopters and Total Energies, performed the first test flight of an NH90 helicopter on SAF without any engine modification. Safran Helicopter Engines is now working to certify operations with 100% SAF while assessing any operational impact.

While no military forces are regularly using SAF, there are many on the path of testing and certification, including the Japan Air Self-Defence Force and the Republic of Singapore Air Force, and the NATO Central Europe Pipeline that supplies Brussels airport with kerosene was opened for the transport of SAF in January 2023.

Opportunities on the Horizon

The adoption of SAF heralds a new era of innovation and collaboration within the defence industry. Research and development initiatives aimed at optimizing production processes and scaling up manufacturing capacities are underway, supported by public-private partnerships and government incentives. Advanced technologies such as carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) hold the potential to transform carbon dioxide emissions into valuable feedstocks for fuel synthesis, turning environmental liabilities into strategic assets.

SAF are critical for military resilience, offering enhanced energy security, operational flexibility, and environmental sustainability. By diversifying fuel sources with SAF derived from renewable feedstocks, militaries can reduce dependency on fossil fuels, mitigate supply chain vulnerabilities, and demonstrate a commitment to environmental stewardship.  

By leading by example and investing in green technologies, militaries can inspire emulation and drive a global shift towards a low-carbon future. The development of certification standards and regulatory frameworks for SAF usage further incentivizes industry-wide adoption, laying the groundwork for a sustainable aviation ecosystem.

Risks and Challenges

However, the journey towards widespread SAF use is not without its risks and the SAF ecosystem is in its infancy.  

In 2023, SAF volumes reached over 600 million litres (0.5Mt), double the 300 million litres (0.25 Mt) produced in 2022 but still only amounting to 0.2% of all aviation fuel for the year. Limited volumes mean SAF is much more expensive than conventional jet fuel. Alongside high costs, limited feedstock is a key hurdle facing the scaling of global SAF production, according to a recent report by Energy Industries Council (EIC).

Technical hurdles such as scalability, cost competitiveness, and feedstock availability remain formidable barriers to widespread deployment, and supply chain bottlenecks could also impact widespread roll-out. In addition, the capital-intensive nature of synthetic fuel production necessitates significant investments in infrastructure and research, posing financial strains on defence budgets already stretched thin by competing priorities.

Furthermore, concerns persist regarding the potential trade-offs between sustainability and performance in military operations. While sustainable synthetic fuel offers environmental benefits, questions linger about its energy density, combustion characteristics, and compatibility with existing aircraft engines. Any compromise in operational efficiency or safety could undermine the viability of synthetic fuels as a drop-in replacement for conventional jet fuels, constraining their adoption within military fleets.

What comes next?

In the short-to-medium term, sustainable fuels will likely witness accelerated adoption in military aviation as governments prioritize decarbonization and energy security.  

Increased investment in research and development will lead to advancements in SAF production technologies, driving down costs and improving scalability. Collaborative efforts between defence agencies, industry partners, and research institutions will facilitate the development of certification standards and regulatory frameworks, streamlining SAF integration into military operations. Additionally, strategic partnerships and international cooperation will play a pivotal role in expanding global production capacities and ensuring the widespread availability of SAF for military use.


“While SAF has numerous environmental benefits, its adoption is not without challenges. Yet, with strategic initiatives and enhanced governmental support we can navigate these challenges effectively.”

Nabil Ahmed, Energy Industries Council

The future of sustainable synthetic fuel in military aviation holds immense promise as a catalyst for greening defence operations and bolstering energy security. By embracing innovation and collaboration, militaries can navigate the complexities of transitioning towards a low-carbon future while maintaining their operational effectiveness and strategic agility. However, realizing this vision requires concerted efforts to overcome technical, financial, and regulatory barriers, alongside a commitment to balancing sustainability imperatives with mission-critical requirements.

Sustainable aviation fuels are indispensable for the future of military aviation, offering a pathway towards enhanced resilience, operational effectiveness, and environmental sustainability.


  1. International Air Transport Association (IATA). “Sustainable Aviation Fuel. Chart of the Week.” 01 Sep 2023
  2. Energy Industries Council (EIC). “Sustainable Aviation Fuel.” March 2024.
  3. International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). "Renewable Energy in the Water, Energy, and Food Nexus." 2020.
  4. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). "Opportunities for Innovative Aerodynamic and Aero-Propulsion Technologies to Improve Efficiency." 2019.
  5. International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). "Sustainable Aviation Fuel: The ICAO Vision." 2021.
  6. United States Department of Defense. "Energy Resilience and Conservation Investment Program (ERCIP) Guidance." 2022.
  7. European Defence Agency. "Sustainable Aviation Fuels in Military Operations." 2023.
Written by
James Morris
James is a Climate Risk and Resilience Manager for Accenture in the UK. James works extensively with Accenture’s global clients to manage the risks and opportunities to their business from the impacts of climate change. James has worked with many of the largest companies in the world over his 20+ year career, which includes time with both AIG and Aon in the UK. James started his career in Iraq and Afghanistan before working for the mining industry in Africa.
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