Readers Sound Off on Recent Stories

Electric Microgrid

In reference to the July 2011 article, “High-Tech Weapon Makers Set Sights on ‘Smart Microgrid’ Market,” I see that the bureaucracy has already lost sight of the obvious and is befuddling itself into foolish wastefulness in the name of green energy. Having conflated power generation, power consumption, and power distribution together with green energy and renewables, this is now yet another ill-defined overarching “system of systems” acquisition reminiscent of the Army’s failed Future Combat Systems, only on a far grander scale.

At the lowest level, there are individual generators. In a variety of sizes and power, they provide electricity to power individual or small clusters of equipment. Sized for the maximum load typically needed, they in fact do waste energy when they generate more than needed when some component systems are off line. If all the lights but one are off at night, the generator is still running. Here is where hybrid generator systems make sense although their added weight and complexity caused by the batteries and power management architecture must be considered. Hybrid generators are definitely the answer in semi-permanent or permanent settings.

Smart microgrid technology also implies smart usage, coordinated against peak and off-peak loads. That’s great at installations that purchase power from the grid as it averages out usage and allows for the purchase of power at lower rates, where available. As mentioned in the article, there is an added security risk since the computerized monitoring and control network is itself vulnerable to cyber as well as physical attack and is something to be considered.

Smart power distribution at small scale, especially if with hybrid generators, also makes sense. Instead of running two generators on separate loops, each at one-third load, you can tie them together and temporarily shut one down completely while only the other runs, and at only two-thirds load.

Where things get stupid is when the discussion shifts to smart grids as a source of secure power to an installation. Imagine a stateside installation that encounters occasional power outages, now determined by pundits as a “security issue.”

More than likely, the base is already wired much like a city. There are one or more power stations from where high voltage lines run across to power substations, from where distribution lines lead to housing areas and facilities, where transformers drop the voltage and feed it to the individual structures. Of course, key and critical facilities (headquarters, communications, hospitals) should already have their own backup power systems. If outages are frequent, it is likely because of aged and obsolete infrastructure which should be upgraded and modernized, regardless. But all of the installation’s power comes through the existing national — or at least regional — electric grid from a network of commercial power providers, whether they are public utilities or regional cooperatives.

Intending for a smart grid to disconnect from the existing grid and instead becoming the installation’s own stand-alone power generating system is entering the realm of unmitigated exponential growth of cost, equipment, labor and expertise, all of which are lacking within the Defense Department.

You need a primary power generating plant, be it coal, natural gas or nuclear, on the installation. You need the personnel to operate it, as well as the fuel delivery and waste disposal systems, whether coal trains and ash mitigation, gas pipeline, or nuclear fuel rod delivery and disposal. And the installation is still vulnerable since the rail lines and pipelines are soft targets themselves.

Add green energy solutions like solar and wind into the mix and you really get an astoundingly complex power generating installation.

Finally and most preposterous is the government’s folly of green fuels. Here we now have the military, whose sole expertise is as a customer, setting itself up to compete against the existing national and global fuel oil industry.

If it is still unclear why this is all a bad idea, please consider: Why doesn’t the Defense Department just grow its own food and make its own uniforms? Grow cotton, raise and shear sheep for wool, then spin them into thread and weave that into whole cloth. Next, the Pentagon can mine ore and build its own factories to manufacture its own weapons. Then it can operate its own truck fleet to deliver all of these supplies wherever needed. That is once it builds the trucks, and the roads.

Meanwhile, that hybrid generator that was urgently requested years ago by then Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer has yet to be delivered.

Chester A. Kojro
Rolla, MO

Space Programs

Thank you for the July update on the status of the nation’s two most advanced infrared-sensing satellites, the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) and the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS). The story (Troubled Space-Based Infrared Satellite Program Finally Gets Off the Ground, p.18) was a useful reminder that it takes many years, sometimes decades, to design, develop, test and produce advanced military systems. Our political culture operates on a more compressed schedule, and thus many costly systems are canceled long before they reach fruition, often with critics complaining that the technology has become “out of date.”

It is true that both SBIRS and STSS incorporate design features conceived some time ago, but they are capable of doing their respective missions far more effectively than any other systems currently in the joint inventory, and nothing better can be developed anytime soon. If SBIRS were delayed, the United States would lose its ability to generate timely and detailed warning of hostile missile launches. If the technology utilized by STSS is not orbited in a complete constellation, our military will have no continuous capacity to track enemy warheads throughout their trajectories at a time when countries like Iran and North Korea are rapidly developing long-range ballistic missiles.

Critics of these and other programs associated with the nation’s strategic posture need to be realistic about the options that our leaders have for coping with the threat of nuclear aggression. It is reasonable to complain when a program is behind schedule or over budget, but it is dangerous and irresponsible to oppose programs vital to nuclear security when no substitute is available in an acceptable timeframe.  With the number of potential nuclear aggressors growing, we can no longer wait to get an optimal solution to our strategic needs. We must deploy whatever we have that works, and then focus on correcting any deficiencies. That is the only sensible response to the circumstances we face.

Loren B. Thompson
Lexington Institute
Arlington, VA

Defense Budget

Regarding your Defense Insider column (July 2011, p.7), while I agree with retired Gen. Ronald Fogleman’s assessment that personnel costs have been a driving force behind the ballooning defense budget, I disagree that it is the size of the force driving these costs. The all-volunteer force was sustainable at higher levels and lower cost prior to the huge pay increases that started in the 1980s and continued into the 1990s. These pay increases continue to have second- and third-order effects on retirement pay and other benefits, not to mention the secondary but direct impact they have had on both contractor salaries and government civilian salaries. The default response to the impact of these costs has been what Fogleman suggests — namely to reduce force levels and/or to impact future retirement and other benefit payouts.

There is another path that will also effectively impact the latter and have a more immediate impact on the former. That path would reduce current pay levels in general and would be politically charged to the point of being a practical non-starter.

If anyone wants to seriously address the defense budget issue without deep force structure and readiness sapping modernization cuts, then this would be a clear and straight forward path.

Eric Lanman
Sent by email

Your comments in Defense Watch (July 2011, p.6) on the lost decade of procurement echo a tired set of complaints about the difficult business of weapons acquisition in the post Cold War era. It is not the failure to plan and manage that gives us problems, but rather the belief in planning and in the layering of acquisition management that does.

No organization seems to have learned less from the collapse of the Soviet Union than the office of the secretary of defense. The Soviet collapse hardly demonstrated the virtues of planning. It did, however, create an extended period of international uncertainty that offers little guidance for our own force structure or weapon acquisition.

Instead of hedging our bets in this period of uncertainty by encouraging experimentation or seeking adaptable systems, we have this foolish quest for the plan and the tough managers to implement it. Until we know, as we did in the Cold War, who is the enemy and what capabilities he is developing, the acquisition process will be very frustrating.

Harvey M. Sapolsky
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Energy, Alternative Energy, Space

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