The war in Afghanistan is testing the limits of “deployable energy.”
As the Pentagon prepares for a troop buildup, officials worry about the huge logistical challenge of having to ship enormous amounts of fuel and power generators to military bases that are located in remote areas and have no access to local grids.
That was not as big a problem in Iraq, where there is a far more developed infrastructure. In Afghanistan, troops must bring their own power.
The gargantuan demand for generators is straining the military’s already overburdened logistics support system, said officials. Transporting fuel on dangerous mine-infested roads also creates additional hazards for troops and contractors.
Defense officials said the Pentagon is taking steps to reduce fuel demand at forward-deployed locations. But a recent investigation by the Government Accountability Office concluded that the military lacks clear guidance for addressing this problem, and noted that most efforts so far have been ad-hoc energy-savings projects that are not part of an overall strategy.
The Defense Department “still lacks an effective approach to fuel demand at forward-deployed locations,” said William M. Solis, director of defense capabilities at GAO. He spoke at a hearing of the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee.
“Managing fuel at forward-deployed locations has not been a priority …. and reduction efforts have not been well coordinated or comprehensive,” said Solis.
The Pentagon should consider offering commanders financial incentives to consume less fuel, he said. GAO investigators at Camp Lemonier — a U.S. naval base in the Horn of Africa — found that base commanders had identified a number of ways to curtail fuel demand, but they saw little return on the investment because they would not be able to apply the savings toward camp improvements.
One reason why the Pentagon is having difficulties managing energy consumption at forward locations is the absence of data about fuel demand, said Solis. “We found that the information on fuel demand management strategies and reduction efforts is not shared among locations, military services, and across the department in a consistent manner.”
The U.S. military currently operates several hundred bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008, the Defense Department supplied more than 68 million gallons of fuel each month on average to support those installations. “Fuel demands for these operations is higher than for any war in history,” said Solis.
While aircraft and trucks require large amounts of fuel, the most egregious battlefield consumer is generators. The generators are needed for air conditioning, heating, lighting, refrigeration and communications.
At Afghanistan’s Bagram air base, much of the fuel is for aircraft and ground vehicles. At most military posts in Iraq and the Horn of Africa, said GAO, between 50 percent and 70 percent of the fuel is spent on base operations.
For the Pentagon, it has proven more difficult than expected to replace older fuel-guzzling generators with more efficient ones. Despite an abundance of high-efficiency generators and other green technologies in the commercial world, many are not rugged enough for military use.
“What we have found as we have gotten into this whole area of deployable energy is that a number of the systems don’t work as well as we had hoped they would in a forward-deployed location,” Alan Shaffer, acting director of defense research and engineering, told lawmakers at the hearing.
One drawback of commercial generators is that they cause electromagnetic interference, which affects radio communications and other signals, Shaffer said.
The Army’s current generators are rugged enough for combat use but they are fuel hogs. The service is now testing a militarized generator — called the “advanced mobile power system” — that is expected to consume 10 to 20 percent less fuel. A forward-deployed battalion typically requires about 24 60-kilowatt generators. The experimental generator is made by Cummins Corp., based in Minnesota. The company will ship prototypes to the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in June so they can be tested for at least a year before they are shipped to deployed forces possibly by 2010, Shaffer said. “It’s not as fast as we would like to go, but we don’t want to field systems before we are sure that they won’t cause additional problems.”
If the tests are successful, the Army plans to buy up to 67,000 of the advanced mobile generators in 2010 and 2011.
The Army also launched an energy-management experiment called “hybrid intelligent power generator,” or HI-Power.
The goal is to estimate potential energy savings by creating a smart grid that can be powered by multiple sources, such as generators, wind turbines and solar panels. Currently, generators are not connected to a grid, so individual systems are required for each application. The HI-Power project seeks a more efficient distribution of available power.
At Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, the Defense Department is testing the use of “microgrids” by creating groupings of multiple generators, Shaffer said.
The Air Force also has created a “renewable energy tent city” — a collection of deployable shelters that are powered by solar and fuel cell generators. These are still experimental technologies, cautioned Shaffer, and there is no certainty of whether or when they will be fielded.
Until more efficient generators and mobile grids become available, the Pentagon is seeking to drop fuel consumption in the field via common-sense techniques. One of the most successful has been to spray insulating foam on military tents. The foam helps cut down on air-conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter, said Shaffer. In cases when the temperature on the skin of a foam-covered tent is about 130 degrees, inside it is only 75 to 80 degrees.
The insulation could save as much as 180,000 gallons of fuel a day, Shaffer said.
Most tents at bases in Iraq are being foamed. The entire structure — minus doors and windows — are covered. Once they are foamed, those tents cannot be moved or reused elsewhere.
On the issue that GAO raised about a leadership gap in defense energy projects, officials at the hearing said they expect the Obama administration to soon appoint a “director of operational energy.”
The director’s position, which Congress mandated in last year’s defense authorization bill, will oversee programs and funding for the entire Defense Department, Solis said. “Right now, every service is sort of doing their own thing,” he said. “You don’t really have visibility across the board.” The Pentagon has a $1.3 billion budget in fiscal year 2009 for energy-related projects — up from $440 million in 2006. It received an additional $300 million as part of the stimulus bill that Congress approved in February.
When the new director is appointed, he or she will have to navigate the confusing chain of command that currently governs energy efforts. Fuel use reductions in deployed locations, for example, are at the discretion of the tactical commander and are not mandated by the Pentagon.
Shaffer said it is difficult to establish “metrics” for energy consumption at forward bases because every operation is different and each confronts unique circumstances that may drive energy use up or down.
“Deploying to Iraq, and air-conditioning tents in summer takes a lot more energy than deploying to some place where it’s a temperate region,” Shaffer told the subcommittee. “So I’d like to tell you we have good metrics. We do not. We probably need to get better metrics. But we don’t have specified goals other than down.”
GAO suggested that more oversight should come from the regional combatant commanders.
“Right now, there is really no guidance that talks about reducing energy fuel demands at forward locations,” Solis said.