Air Force: To Save Fuel, We Must Change How We Fly

By Sandra I. Erwin
The Pentagon in recent years has launched umpteen projects to promote the use of renewable energy and lower consumption of fossil fuels.

Green initiatives such as solar-powered military bases, bio-fueled fighter jets and hybrid-electric trucks are advertised as secret weapons in the war against foreign oil. In the near term, however, none of these energy-saving schemes realistically will make much of a dent in the Pentagon’s considerable consumption of oil, which has reached 120 million barrels per year — or nearly 2 percent of all U.S. demand.

If the Defense Department is to seriously begin to end its dependence on foreign oil, there is only one simple way to do it in the near term: Fly less.

It’s the Willie Sutton principle applied to energy: If the Pentagon wants to save energy, it must target aviation because that’s where the fuel is.

Air Force officials have acknowledged that much. They have set a goal to reduce aviation fuel use by 10 percent between now and 2015. That is a tall order that Air Force leaders concede may be tough to achieve but is still worth pursuing. Of the armed services, the Air Force currently spends the most on fuel, running up 64 percent of the Pentagon’s gas bill. Most of that fuel — about 84 percent — is for aviation. More than half of the aviation fuel, or 52 percent, is spent transporting cargo and passengers.

The money that could be saved just by cutting fuel use by 10 percent is not insignificant. In 2010, the Air Force will spend $6.7 billion on aviation fuel, compared to $1.4 billion on energy for installations and ground equipment.

“We realize it’s ambitious, but it’s incredibly important” to set specific goals for reducing demand, said Erin C. Conaton, undersecretary of the Air Force.

Conaton, a former staff director of the House Armed Services Committee, joined the Air Force in March and has been put in charge of overseeing the service’s energy strategy. Conaton said it has become clear that only by consuming less aviation fuel can the Defense Department make any substantial, near-term progress in curtailing purchases of imported oil.

Aviation-fuel economy is part of a broader Air Force energy plan that was unveiled in December and sets three goals: reduce demand, increase supply and change the culture.

Consuming less aviation fuel is the most challenging, but potentially the most rewarding piece of the strategy. The idea is not simply to cut flying hours by 10 percent, Conaton told reporters during an Air Force Energy Forum in Washington, D.C., last month.

The Air Force cannot arbitrarily control how much it flies, as it provides air transportation for all branches of the military. But Conaton said there are “simple, smart” ways to reduce fuel use even if the overall flying demand does not decline.

“We remain 100 percent committed to supporting the war fighter,” she said. “However, that needs to be done as efficiently as possible.”

Conaton said she was taken aback by how much fuel can be saved via common sense approaches, such as eliminating unneeded excess weight from airplanes or rerouting flights.

“I’ve been surprised by how simple things have made some impact,” she said. “We need to do more.”

The Air Mobility Command, which manages airlift operations under the U.S. Transportation Command, at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., has begun to seek ways to economize on fuel, she said. “We can fly more cargo in fewer sorties and use less fuel if we think creatively how to do it.”

Many of these “demand reduction practices” have been adopted from the commercial sector, said Conaton. Aircraft weight can be trimmed by removing non-essential items. AMC also is coordinating with foreign countries to fly more fuel-efficient routes. The command expects to save 70 million gallons of fuel annually from the initiatives it has already implemented, said Conaton.

AMC is upgrading software so it can “optimize” flight profiles in real time to make the most efficient use of fuel, she said. Other efforts include retrofitting older aircraft with new engines and low-power electronics.

Some of these measures are long overdue, point out critics of the Pentagon’s energy practices. One of the department’s most influential advisory panels, the Defense Science Board, noted in a 2008 study, titled, “More Fight — Less Fuel,” that the Pentagon is not making the most efficient use of its transportation assets and thus is wasting fuel.

The head of U.S. Transportation Command, Air Force Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, said logistics planners are making greater use of intermodal transportation in order to boost efficiency.

“Any time you can avoid using air you save a lot of money,” McNabb said in an interview. He estimated that the Transportation Command has saved up to $500 million a year recently by increasing the use of surface transportation worldwide, and particularly in U.S. Central Command’s area of operations.

“It costs 10 times as much to move stuff by air as it does by surface,” he said. Transportation Command has spent nearly $80 million on computerized systems that help plan transportation routes more efficiently, he added. “What you have to do is marry the technology with the concept of operations.”

Moving cargo by sea takes longer but is far less expensive, noted retired Air Force Gen. John Handy, former chief of Transportation Command. A single “roll-on roll-off” military cargo ship can carry 300 C-17 aircraft’s sorties worth of equipment, said Handy.

The Air Force is now completing a “global access” study that seeks to identify key transportation hubs for U.S. military forces. One of the goals is to make greater use of hubs that support intermodal transportation, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson, director of strategy, policy, programs and logistics at Transportation Command. “Multimodal locations like Rota, Spain, and Diego Garcia, where their ports are connected by roadways to airfields provide critical support for our global force projection,” Johnson told lawmakers at an April hearing of the air and land subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.

“We do 90 percent of our support from sea and land, and only 10 percent by the air in a mature theater,” said Johnson. “We’ve become more sophisticated at our mode selection.” In Afghanistan, fuel economy is not a top priority given the unsafe conditions for ground transportation. As a result, 80 percent of the supplies for Afghanistan go by surface and 20 percent by air, said Johnson.

It remains to be seen whether the Air Force’s new energy policies will succeed over time. Although the service has a strategy with clearly defined goals to reduce fuel use, it has no “metrics to measure progress,” lamented Conaton. “We need accountability,” she said. “We have an energy plan. … We need metrics for implementation.”

For the Air Force, downsizing its fuel appetite is more than just about dollars and cents. National security strategists have warned that one of the key vulnerabilities of U.S. military forces is its enormous dependence on fuel. The so-called fuel “tether” has made supply convoys targets of enemy attacks and has caused thousands of U.S. casualties. Military bases where fuel is stored and supplied increasingly are being regarded as an Achilles’ heel.

“We need to rethink the way we consider energy in our force planning,” doctrine and weapons acquisition, said Oliver Fritz, the Air Force’s assistant director of strategic planning. The “energy performance” of the Defense Department in many ways has gotten worse, he said at a seminar hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies, in Arlington, Va. As fuel requirements continue to increase, “We’re more dependent on those fuel lines,” he said. One of the Air Force’s critical staging areas for access to the Pacific, the island of Guam, is a case in point. “Getting fuel to Guam is a hard and fast vulnerability. That’s no secret,” said Fritz.

He also studied how bases in U.S. Central Command are provided fuel. “It’s a pretty helter-skelter organization,” he says. “Lots of contractors, lots of overland travel. We are also flying in the fuel. Those are all nodes that can be disrupted.”

Topics: Aviation, Energy, Alternative Energy, Energy Security

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