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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Marines Take Unusual Steps to Reduce Battlefield Fuel Demand
Marines Take Unusual Steps to Reduce Battlefield Fuel Demand
In Afghanistan, U.S. troops are fighting the Taliban, and also waging a tough battle of logistics.

“In order to be effective in Afghanistan we need to get in there and get set. In order to get in there and get set, we need the logistics,” said Ashton Carter, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, in a recent interview on “This Week in Defense News.”

For the Marine Corps, logistics is a relative term. Marines regard themselves as a rapid-response “expeditionary” force that can set up shop anywhere, no matter how austere the conditions. But in Afghanistan, even marines are being challenged to unusual lengths. They must set up forward-operating bases, or FOBs, in areas with zero infrastructure. They have to bring their own means of survival and sustainment — fuel, electricity, water, food. Even a modest FOB requires tons of fuel and power just to run the essential equipment. Each marine on average needs 20 gallons of water a day.

In Afghanistan, the traditional means of supplying a deployed force are problematic for several reasons: It is difficult and dangerous to move cargo on mostly unpaved and mine-infested roads; it is expensive and risky to transport items by air. Small marine units are constantly moving and can’t afford the time it takes to receive fuel and water shipments. They want to carry everything either on them, or in their trucks.

Last year, in anticipation of the troop buildup in Afghanistan, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway asked vendors for “expeditionary energy” solutions. He requested portable renewable energy sources in order to reduce the fuel demand from electric generators. Another urgent need is water-purification systems so marines can produce their own potable water in the field and not be dependent on deliveries of bottled water.

  At Conway’s request, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory and other service organizations set up a mock FOB at Marine Corps Base Quantico, in Quantico, Va. The experimental FOB, located in a remote field, had so little infrastructure it almost could pass for a combat zone. Vendors set up solar panels, windmills, water filtration systems and other technologies. The demonstration lasted about three weeks.

During a visit by a National Defense reporter, vendors said they were impressed by the Corps’ determination to tackle its logistics problems. They also said they liked that the Corps is talking about buying equipment sooner, rather than later. Conway said he wants to bypass the Pentagon’s onerous procurement cycle because troops need systems within weeks, not months or years.

But fast-track procurement is never easy for the military. Even “off the shelf” systems that could be quickly shipped to a war zone, in many cases, cannot easily transition to the battlefield. A case in point is solar energy systems. Troops who have spent entire careers running generators in some case may not be ready to step out of their comfort zones into the unfamiliar world of renewable energy.

These issues echo recent findings by the Government Accountability Office last fall. GAO officials noted that many FOBs are not implementing ideas that could save fuel and lives because of “lack of guidance, lack of incentives and funding, and lack of visibility.”

Despite Conway’s personal involvement in the effort, it is difficult for many operators in the field to understand how they would benefit from renewable energy. Why spend $50,000 on a solar unit when the military already has plenty of generators that can run on diesel, gasoline or jet fuel? The military traditionally has regarded fuel as a plentiful, low cost and easily accessible commodity. The commandant’s lectures may not be enough to turn that around any time soon.

The lack of specific policy guidance from the Defense Department is another hurdle that is slowing down the deployment of new technologies that would ease the logistics burden, according to GAO. There are no rules that direct forward-deployed locations to address fuel demand, and there are no financial incentives or simple funding mechanisms for units to invest in fuel-reduction initiatives, the government auditors pointed out.

Amory B. Lovins, chairman and chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute, in Colorado, says a typical Marine Corps combat brigade needs more than a half-million gallons per day, and much of that fuel is for generators. A single typical 60-kilowatt generator burns 4 to 5 gallons per hour, or $700,000 per year at a typical Afghanistan estimates fuel cost of $17.44 per gallon. Fueling one FOB’s generators might cost more than $34 million per year, Lovins writes in the latest issue of the National Defense University’s Joint Forces Quarterly.

Suppliers, meanwhile, have found that even if a piece of equipment helps to save fuel, it is not enough to secure a sale. Marines, particularly, are known for avoiding complicated pieces of hardware if they don’t believe it is going to make their lives easier in the field. They also won’t buy anything that is not transportable in a backpack, towable by humvee or sling-able by helicopter.

“Everything has to be on wheels,” says Tom Lederle, vice president of NEST Energy Systems, of Prescott Valley, Ariz. The company brought two renewable-energy systems to Quantico for the FOB demonstration. One is a “hybrid power trailer,” which he says reduces fuel consumption in tactical generators by 40-70 percent. It uses solar or wind power. The other is a towable solar lighting system, which uses no fuel whatsoever, and has been purchased by the Air Force and the Air National Guard, says Lederle.

The renewable-energy power unit could save an FOB thousands of gallons of fuel because they would only be running their generators half the time, he says. When connected to a conventional generator, it automatically starts it and shuts it down based on the demand.

Currently generators are running 24/7 whether they are needed or not. Another benefit of renewable power is that a unit would not need as many people assigned to operate the generators. Once they are set up, the hybrid power unit automatically turns them on and off. That would free up marines to do other things, Lederle say. Still, some unit commanders are not always willing to take a new technology to war with which they are not familiar, Lederle says.

The solar panels most commonly found in combat zones are small foldable devices that can be used to charge up radios or cell phones, but there are not many choices in the market for battle-ready renewable power sources that could help power an entire FOB. Lederle says his company’s hybrid power unit could be sized to 4,500 pounds so it can be towed by a humvee. Anything that marines take to war also has to be able to operate in extreme weather and dust, he says.

Providers of water filters also have found that it is not easy to make military-friendly systems that can be transported by humvee, that are easy to set up and don’t require a lot of energy to operate.

Robert Park, a former U.S. marine and now an executive at Shift Power Solutions of Encinitas, Calif., demonstrated at Quantico a reverse-osmosis water purifier that he says produces 2,500 gallons a day. Four of the suitcase-size units are being used in Haiti for earthquake-relief operations, he says. Park says marines currently use large water-filtration systems, some 60 feet long. For a platoon on the move, that is not a good option, he says. Small units need portable equipment that can be quickly set up, so marines can filter enough water to fill up their hydration packs within a few minutes, or shower, and keep moving, Park says. In Afghanistan, there are many sources of fresh water that could be purified relatively easily, sparing the military from the burdens of transporting bottled water. Of all the bulk fuels now shipped to Afghanistan, three parts are water and one is diesel fuel.

As is the case with fuel use standards, there is also a lack of guidance for water testing. It’s not clear in combat zones who determines if the water is safe, Park says. “That’s an interesting question. I just retired from the Marine Corps and spent about a month trying to find out within our Marine Corps circles who tests stuff like that,” he tells National Defense. “All the way down to BUMED [Bureau of Medicine and Surgery] I asked who does field testing of water? There’s nothing out there. Absolutely no guidance, no procedures, regulations, as far as I was told.”

The Army often prefers to buy NSF-certified water purification systems, but those are far more expensive, he says. The portable Shift unit is not NSF certified but all the components that make up the system are, he says. The filtered water is safe to drink, he says as he points to a unit at the Quantico FOB that was filtering water coming from a muddy pond.

Water purification systems can cost as much as $200,000 for the large units but the portable ones are less than half, Park says.

NSF certification adds to the cost of a system, he says. It takes a year and a half for a device to attain the NSF seal of approval. It would cost a company at least $150,000 to have a small reverse-osmosis filtration unit certified. “For a small company, it’s truly asinine. It’s costly and it does nothing. All our components are NSF certified.” Parks says the Army plans to begin testing Shift’s reverse-osmosis devices at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.

Another vendor at the FOB demonstration, Meckow International, of the United Kingdom, offers a simpler but unusual solution to the water problem: a purification system that is contained in a chest-size metal tank that requires no electrical power. The water can be pumped from a pond into the tank and gravity fed into the purification system. The Meckow Aquapur originally was designed for African nations that needed low cost means to access a constant supply of safe drinking water. One system can provide sufficient water for a community of 2,000 people, a company spokesperson says. Water may be taken from a pipeline, river or stream. The Aquapur unit requires a one-meter head of water for operation.

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