Deadly bomb attacks on U.S. supply lines in Iraq, and later, Afghanistan, brought to light the military’s dangerous dependence on fuel shipments to war zones — to the tune of 60 to 70 million gallons per month in recent years.
The well-documented vulnerability of military supply convoys and greater awareness of the problem, however, have not yet diminished U.S. forces’ enormous appetite for fuel.
Wide-ranging green initiatives have been launched by all branches of the military, and most will take years to deliver the promised fuel savings. In the immediate future, the priority is to reduce demand at Army and Marine Corps base camps in Afghanistan, so troops there can become less dependent on daily shipments that may, or may not arrive.
The first order of business for the Army has been finding ways to consume less electricity. Most of its annual $2 billion war fuel bill — 35 to 45 percent — is for diesel generators.
Army officials claim some modest successes so far, but allow that energy efficiency on a grand scale will not happen overnight.
“These aren’t going to be things that you can achieve huge savings over the course of the first year,” said Lt. Gen. Michael Vane, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, or ARCIC.
A steady stream of headlines about U.S. casualties caused by bomb attacks on fuel convoys over the past several years put pressure on Congress and the Pentagon to do something. Legislation two years ago mandated the Defense Department to create a new office dedicated to “operational energy.” But, as is the case with any major initiative at the Pentagon, it takes time to gain traction and achieve results, Vane said in an interview.
“I don’t think anyone would disagree that the services in general did not exactly have a rapid start on this,” he said. “We started in the Army a couple of years ago.” Adjustments were made at the highest levels of the Army’s civilian leadership to “get the policies in place,” Vane said.
Both the Army and Marine Corps have published energy strategies that call for reducing demand and for technological innovations that should pay off years from now. Vane’s office is putting final touches on an “initial capabilities document” that identifies areas where the Army could cut back on energy use, he said.
The message is that energy efficiency is not an academic debate, but rather a key component of military strategy, Vane said. Overdependence on energy can undermine “operational effectiveness,” he said. “If I can reduce the [battery] weight on the soldier, that soldier can perform at a higher level. If I have fewer transports for fuel, it could mean fewer people are needed to operate trucks and people can do other missions … and fewer resources are diverted for protection of convoys or airlift.”
Richard G. Kidd IV, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for energy and sustainability, said energy considerations will “affect our tactics, our strategy, what we buy, how we train our soldiers, how we train our leaders, how we rate their performance.”
This is a “big change, but it will take a number of years to implement,” Kidd told National Defense.
In the near term, energy-saving activities are focused on forward operating bases, he said. “While the Marine Corps has tested a lot of technologies on a small scale, the Army is taking fewer technologies and deploying them at larger scale, at the brigade and battalion level.” Projects that are expected to produce tangible results include a rucksack collapsible solar panel that recharges batteries and a “networked energy system” that connects batteries and power generators such as fuel cells and solar panels.
“We’ve got a lot of things in the science and technology pipeline,” Kidd said. One of the most promising projects is an electricity “microgrid” that would connect the Army’s new “smart” generators. Even if the Army is not able to reduce demand, a microgrid would allow deployed units to produce energy more efficiently.
“We have focused on conservation more than renewables,” said Col. Paul E. Roege, who oversees Army energy programs at ARCIC. “If you look at the amount of energy we consume, the reduction in demand is the biggest payback that you can get.”
The current approach is to generate electricity on the spot, so every unit has its own generators. Often there is a mismatch between the capacity of the generator and the load. A microgrid automatically matches the load to the generator.
“We think microgrids are going to buy us 20 percent improvement,” said Roege. “It’s one of the grand challenges in our strategy: to network energy sources,” he said in an interview. “You reduce vulnerability. If you lose one source, you draw energy from somewhere else. You can be more efficient.”
The Army also is looking to replace its existing energy-hogging base camp housing structures, known as Force Provider, with greener alternatives.
One of the options is called SAGE, for smart and green energy. “It’s a more integrated across-the-board look at housing that includes shelter insulation, solid state lighting, power management and power generation,” Kidd said. “We’re going to deploy that for 150 soldiers so we can start swapping out Force Providers with something that is more efficient.”
Current Force Provider housing units in Afghanistan are being equipped with shower water-recycling systems. “That is saving a lot of water in the base camps,” Roege said. “We save energy from not having to produce and transport water.”
Also in the works are more automated energy-measurement systems that would replace current manual processes. “Before you can manage energy and save energy, you have to be able to measure energy,” Kidd said. “Quite frankly, there’s a significant requirement to improve how we measure energy, all across the services.”
The Army Petroleum Center designed a “tactical fuels manager defense,” a system that will keep track of the energy consumed by each vehicle or generator, Kidd said. It is expected to be in operation by the end of the year. “For the first time, it will provide us a comprehensive top-to-bottom look at fuel consumption,” he said. “A lot of the data we have now was collected manually after the fact, and not in a form that can be managed against.”
One concern for Army leaders is whether the energy-saving momentum can be maintained over the long run, even after U.S. forces leave Afghanistan.
Vane does not expect the Army to return to business-as-usual after current conflicts end. Although it will take time to institutionalize energy efficiency, increasingly soldiers and commanders are grasping the consequences of excessive fuel usage and are “connecting the dots,” Vane said.
The Army’s game plan for future operations demands less dependence on fuel, Roege said. “Flexibility, freedom of movement, protection, lethality” would be undermined if soldiers must carry huge backpacks full of batteries to accomplish a mission, he said. That is why being able to recharge batteries with solar energy is a key item, he added. “Solar power may not reduce your fuel bill that much. But it gives you some options so you’re not as dependent on today’s shipment of fuel coming to your operating base.”
As soldiers experience the benefits of renewable energy, Roege said, they will demand more green technology. “In increments of one-year rotations, you can make significant advances.”
As to whether the Army can change a culture that assumes plentiful fuel is a God-given right, Roege said it is possible, over time. “It’s a concern,” he said. “Typically you have a lot of attention paid to a military problem during a conflict.”
While future wars might not be like Iraq or Afghanistan, Army strategists still predict that access to energy will pose challenges in most areas where U.S. forces are likely to deploy, Roege said. Operations are envisioned in places like Africa, Central or South America and the South Pacific, he said. “Those are regions of the world that fit the profile of less developed, ungoverned areas of instability, where we can imagine the need for ground operations and humanitarian assistance,” he said.
In any of those locations, “sustainment is going to be a challenge. We’re trying to use those expectations to drive the way we craft the energy solutions. We need flexibility, mobility, a smaller footprint, options for resupply. This would be even more important when we don’t have the force buildup that we have in Afghanistan or Iraq.”