What will it take for the military to be greener? If $400 a gallon fuel, incalculable logistics burdens and losses of human life don’t light a fire under the leaders of the Defense Department, it’s hard to imagine what will.
The current wars have exposed a previously ignored military vulnerability: the huge dependence on fossil fuels. The daily requirement for Afghanistan is 300,000 gallons a day. Most of it comes through a tenuous supply line through Pakistan where fuel theft is on the rise and roadside bombs target convoys.
At the Pentagon, officials are fully aware of the situation but are not sure what to do about it.
At least the Defense Department can’t say that it wasn’t warned. As early as January 2001, the Defense Science Board called on the Pentagon to do something about its fuel-hog weapons systems and the massive logistics tail associated with bringing fuel to the battlefield. The report noted that 70 percent of the tonnage required to position the Army into battle is fuel. And that was before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, particularly, the dreaded fuel tether has turned into an albatross.
“Next to Antarctica, Afghanistan is probably the most incommodious place to be trying to fight a war,” says defense acquisition chief Ashton Carter. The British army recently estimated that it takes seven gallons of fuel to deliver one gallon to Afghanistan. Not a small matter is the price tag associated with transporting and protecting the fuel supply: up to $400 per gallon. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon is spending $1 million per soldier deployed in Afghanistan, and up to $350,000 of that is for the fuel needed to support that soldier.
So far, the Pentagon has been focused on improving the energy efficiency of its fixed facilities and non-tactical vehicles, but has been slow in adopting green practices for making weapons and vehicles that burn less fuel, and finding ways to produce renewable energy in the field. The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Conway, has asked for items such as portable solar panels and wind turbines, but that may only help marginally.
Even though the Defense Department has acknowledged that it faces an enormous challenge, it has not made the cultural and technological changes that would be needed to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Now, the enemy has “found our Achilles’ heel,” says Charles F. Wald, retired Air Force general and senior defense and aerospace advisor at Deloitte LLP.
Fuel consumption by troops in combat since the Vietnam War has increased by 175 percent, according to a Deloitte study. The average Marine brigade burns 500,000 gallons of fuel per day. “With the significant number of troops supporting the transport, logistics, and deployment of fossil fuel to the front lines, there is a call to action to reduce dependence on oil in war,” the study says.
“They do have a big problem in Afghanistan,” Wald asserts. Standing in the way of solving it is not technology, but rather the Pentagon’s byzantine management and disjointed organization. There is no empowered leadership to really drive change, so each service does its own thing. “That’s inefficient,” Wald says.
One immediate fix for Afghanistan would be to replace older generators, which devour the bulk of the fuel at U.S. bases there. “The best they can do is cut the consumption at forward operating bases,” Wald says. Another helpful measure would be to reduce the enormous expenditure of batteries, which adds to the stress on the transportation system.
“Other than that, it’s going to be very difficult,” Wald says. Ideally, the military would need greener vehicles and means to produce electricity locally. “But there is no quick fix,” Wald says.
The Pentagon did once make an attempt to start building greener weapons systems. In response to alarming fuel price jumps, in 2006 the Pentagon’s acquisition executive Kenneth Krieg directed that the “fully burdened cost of fuel” be considered in the design of new weapons systems. He selected three “pilot programs” — the Air Force long-range strike concept, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and the maritime air and missile defense ship. This policy has not had any significant impact, and only the vehicle program is still alive.
U.S. buyers of military trucks, in fact, have shown little enthusiasm for green technology, says Chris Chambers, vice president of BAE Systems, which manufactures tactical vehicles for U.S. and other military forces worldwide. The company unveiled a new “global tactical vehicle” powered by hybrid engines in order to comply with Europe’s strict emissions requirements. U.S. military customers, however, have shown no interest in these new systems, Chambers says.
Defense insiders and lawmakers will be watching whether the Pentagon’s new “energy czar” Sharon Burke can shake things up. There is now a huge window of opportunity with the buildup in Afghanistan to gain momentum for energy reform, Wald says. “Is the fact that we’re in two wars motivating us to change?” The good news is that the nagging energy predicament has drawn high-level attention, Wald says. “We’ll see if this time it will stick.”
Once troops start coming home, the push for reform will lose steam and, many observers lament, it will be back to business as usual.