NEW ORLEANS — Two months ago, a Marine Corps forward operating base in Afghanistan bought 55 gallons of cotton seed oil from a local farmer. Troops used the oil to power generators on base. It meant less fuel that marines had to transport along dangerous convoy routes to the base, and it injected some cash into the rural economy.
Through experiments in theater and changes in culture, the Marine Corps is trying to make this kind of activity common practice and even use cotton seed oil in ground combat vehicles, said Robert Lusardi, deputy program manager for light armored vehicles at Marine Corps Systems Command.
“What we use in terms of fuel and what we use in terms of energy in Afghanistan is ridiculous,” he told the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual energy symposium.
On average, one marine is killed or wounded for every 50 convoys that bring in fuel and bottled water. While deployed in January, Capt. Brandon Newell met a sergeant whose vehicle had been blown up by an improvised explosive device three times in just seven months. “So if I can take a couple of carriers out of a convoy, I save marines’ lives,” Lusardi said.
Marines use about 200,000 gallons of JP-8 fuel each day at a cost of about $7.05 a gallon. They spend about $154 million each year just to power generators on forward operating bases.
Newell is overseeing the Marine Corps’ Experimental Forward Operating Base, or Ex-FOB. The idea is to send troops into theater with off-the-shelf technologies and see what works. The feedback will be used to shape requirements for what the Corps eventually will want to buy.
“It’s an opportunity for us to see what industry has to offer, what’s available and what impact it may have,” Newell said. “This is an opportunity for us to leverage and encourage innovation … and do it quickly.”
Previous Ex-FOBs resulted in procurements of solar blankets used to recharge batteries, radios and laptops; LED lights; tent liners that reduce thermal demand; and a solar cell used to power generators.
Solar panels meant to hang from light poles were not as effective.
As a result of initial experiments, the Marine Corps now has in place a $40 million accelerated plan that will provide green technology to 10 different battalions spread across 100 locations in Afghanistan.
The next Ex-FOB event will take place in August. The Corps has received 60 submissions from companies, some of which will receive invitations in June to demonstrate their technologies in hopes of having their products sent to Afghanistan. An area of focus this time around is allowing vehicles to idle efficiently, Newell said.
The Marine Corps in February released an energy strategy. It is now finalizing staffing for an initial capabilities document. The Ex-FOB will help the Corps decide where to direct research and development money, Newell said. It is one more step toward the service’s goal of requiring 50 percent less fuel on the battlefield by 2025, he said. Newell remembers pushing toward Baghdad in 2003, when his unit had to stop and stay put on the side of the road for four days while waiting for logistics resupply. Though missions have changed over the course of a decade, the energy situation is just as dire, he said.
Ideally, a Marine expeditionary unit should be able to sustain itself for 15 days, and a brigade for 30 days. “That’s what we feel we are losing touch with in the way that we have been fighting these past 10 years,” Newell said.
Ex-FOBs are expected to become annual events.