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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Defense Energy Debate Unfolds as Fuel Convoys Become the Enemy’s Favorite Target
Defense Energy Debate Unfolds as Fuel Convoys Become the Enemy’s Favorite Target
The growing human and financial costs of supplying fuel to U.S. forces in Afghanistan may finally provide the needed momentum for energy reform at the Defense Department.

At least some Pentagon officials hope so.

The U.S. military’s dangerous dependence on massive fuel supplies is not only putting lives at risk but it’s also undermining its ability to carry out combat missions, said Sharon Burke, the Pentagon’s new director of operational energy. The only immediate solution is to reduce fuel demand, Burke said Oct. 12 at an energy forum hosted by the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C.

The daily requirement for forces in Afghanistan is 300,000 gallons of fuel. Recent Taliban attacks on NATO fuel convoys have only reinforced what experts have been saying for years: The enemy has found the U.S. Military's  Achilles’ heel and there is no easy way to turn that around.

In Afghanistan, the dreaded fuel tether has turned into an albatross, and doing something about it remains a tough challenge for the Defense Department. The Pentagon has managed to reduce energy demand at U.S.-based facilities. But that is not nearly enough. Seventy-five percent of the 300,000 barrels of oil that the Defense Department consumes each day is spent on operations and transportation.

Burke’s job is to fix the “operational piece” of the Pentagon’s energy problems. The U.S. military is now “more energy intense than it has historically been,” Burke said. The Defense Department has implemented some near-term measures — such as applying spray foam on temporary housing structures at military forward bases to cut down on the electricity used for air conditioning and heating. It also has kicked off several alternative and renewable energy programs, but those could take years or decades to deliver tangible results.

At the energy forum, Chief of Naval Operations Navy Adm. Gary Roughead said the time is right for the Pentagon to embrace ambitious goals to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, before the momentum is lost.

It is important to set bold targets, he said. “Otherwise inertia will take over and we’ll lapse back into the way we’ve always looked at things.”

Besides the current crisis in Afghanistan, there are other energy-related challenges that the Defense Department must prepare for, Roughead said. The Navy, for instance, expects that future conflicts will erupt — on the ground and at sea — over access to oil supplies. Not only is fuel going to become more expensive but it will also be the catalyst of armed conflicts, Roughead said.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has launched a major energy-saving campaign that will culminate in the deployment of a “green” carrier strike group in 2016, with 50 percent of the ships’ and aircraft fuel coming from renewable sources. A demonstration scheduled for 2012 will include an aircraft carrier along with three destroyers. The Navy wants to equip existing ships with hybrid-electric drive and is looking to outfit destroyers with stern flaps, which help move ships through the water with less drag. Fighter jets will be flying on camelina-based biofuels. The first green F/A-18 Super Hornet flew in April powered by a 50-50 blend of conventional JP-5 jet fuel and biofuel.

Saving fuel requires making many small changes fleet-wide that, over time, will add up to real savings, Roughead said. Another example is to switch ships’ incandescent bulbs with LED lights

“We’re just now getting started,” he said. Reducing the current dependence on oil could take many years, however, because it calls for a different way of doing business, Roughead said. Energy almost has to be regarded as a “war fighting function,” he said. At the Pentagon, energy usually is not factored into war planning or even into the budget process, until the very end of the cycle. That has to change, Roughead said.

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