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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Short-Term Thinking Could Doom Pentagon’s Energy Reforms
Short-Term Thinking Could Doom Pentagon’s Energy Reforms
The Defense Department wants to cut back on its 300,000 barrel-of-oil per-day habit, but doing so will require taking a long view and making investments now that may not pay off for many years, senior officials said Oct. 13 at the Pentagon’s first energy summit, titled “Empowering Defense Through Energy Security.”

The cost of military fuel, which currently is about $13 billion a year, is now being regarded as more than a financial burden. Because of the security risks associated with delivering fuel to deployed troops, the price tag of energy now is measured in “blood and treasure,” said Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a keynote speech.

The way the department does business, however, is not conducive to the long-term planning that is necessary to drive down fuel demand, officials said. Forward-looking efforts would include building “green” housing and more fuel-efficient ships and aircraft that may be more expensive upfront, but could produce significant savings years from now.

The Pentagon’s procurement bureaucracies are only concerned about the immediate, upfront costs rather than the “life cycle impacts of what we design,” Mullen said.

In the energy arena, “one way to foster progress is to take a long view in how we design the next generation of ships, vehicles and airplanes,” he said. “We here in town are not that focused on life cycle costs. … We need to be. … Too often we focus on a platform’s capability while artificially ignoring the environmental and energy costs that all come with a price to pay, some financial and some, frankly, that are generational and more profound,” Mullen said. The war in Afghanistan alone demands 27 million gallons of fuel a month.

Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli also blamed “programmers” for stifling energy efficiency because the payoffs are too far into the future.

“Programmers have this vision of the world that ends every year, every five-year periods,” he said during a panel discussion at the summit. Because budget projections only cover five-year terms, in planners’ minds, “Nothing really happens after that,” said Chiarelli.

The Army, for instance, is looking at building new housing and other facilities that would be far more energy efficient but not until 14 years after the construction is completed. The bureaucracy’s instinct is to kill such projects because they can’t see the benefits, said Chiarelli. “It takes leadership to argue against the programmers who say: ‘Why should I build something in this five-year period that won’t show savings until a period that I can’t even envision yet?’ It’s not on their radar screen.”

It takes the involvement of top-level leaders to reverse short-term decision making, he said, “to make sure you make those investments, so you put your successor’s successor in a position to reap those savings.”

A similar approach has to be followed in the acquisition of Navy ships, said Secretary Ray Mabus.

Better fuel economy in ships can be a matter of life and death, he said. Current vessels have to be refueled at sea or taken into port every couple of days. “During those refueling operations, those ships are at their most vulnerable,” he said, citing the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, which occurred during a refueling stop in Yemen.

The Navy is now hiring life-cycle cost experts so it can make wiser buying decisions that take into account the impact of energy on operations and logistics, said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead at a naval energy forum Oct. 12. The Naval Sea Systems Command, he said, is hiring life-cycle cost analysts who were laid off from the auto industry, Roughead said. “I'm pleased with the direction we're going.”

The Pentagon’s acquisition process also impedes energy reform by slowing down innovation and making it difficult to buy off-the-shelf technology for military use, Chiarelli noted. One of the most successful fuel-savings measures that the Army introduced several years ago in Iraq was to spray temporary housing and tents with insulating foam, which cut down dramatically on the use of heating and air conditioning. That was a relatively inexpensive product that resulted in sizeable savings, Chiarelli said. But it was “cheap because we bought it off the market … Had we developed it ourselves, it probably would have cost 20 or 30 times more, and we would be waiting five more years to spray it on the tents.”

Swapping out fuel-hogging helicopter engines could generate significant savings, but it would take 10 years under the Army’s procurement process, Chiarelli said. “I worry that our acquisition system is too slow to take advantage of technological changes.” During the decade that it takes to complete an engine replacement program, he said, the Army would not be able to take advantage of new technology that may not exist today.

The same principle applies to ground vehicles. In almost 10 years of war, the Army has done little to improve fuel economy in tactical vehicles because trucks and tanks are not designed to be easily upgraded. The engines are bolted to the transmissions, for example, Chiarelli said. Also, during budget drills, green programs don’t fare so well against other needs that are deemed more pressing, he said. “We have to be smarter in how we design vehicles in the future.”

A government procurement culture that does not promote innovation is not a Pentagon-unique problem, said Aneesh P. Chopra, the Obama administration’s chief technology officer.

Energy conservation and efficiency require new ways of thinking that cannot be achieved “through RFP,” Chopra said, using government-speak for the “request for proposals” that agencies publish when they are seeking new products.

There are many creative, smart, entrepreneurial people that could help the government become greener, but Uncle Sam can be its own worst enemy sometimes, Chopra said.

When White House officials asked GSA for statements on federal buildings’ energy performance, the documents provided contained “strange, rearview mirror information” that would not help anyone come up with ideas on how to save energy, he said. Smart metering and sensors are available today to help design green buildings, but until the government can produce the relevant data on energy usage, progress will not be achieved. “If you don’t have the data, you can’t empower people to think creatively,” Chopra said.

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