Defense Energy-Efficiency Efforts Hurt by Slow Pace of Reform
In January 2001, the Defense Science Board criticized the Pentagon for not considering fuel efficiency as a top benchmark for selecting a new combat vehicle, ship or airplane.
Taking into account how much energy a weapon system requires before acquiring it should be done out of concern for fuel prices, but also because of the logistics burdens associated with supplying energy to deployed forces, the DSB suggested.
More than a decade later — and two wars where thousands of U.S. troops and contractors have been killed and wounded in bomb attacks while delivering fuel — the Pentagon has yet to act on this advice.
“It’s startling that the [DSB] recommendations are exactly what we are talking about today,” said Joseph Westphal, undersecretary of the Army. “The same things we are wrestling with today, they were saying in 2001,” he said July 19 at an energy conference co-hosted by the Army and the Air Force, in Arlington, Va.
Westphal’s comments are testament to the frustration that supporters of energy-saving efforts experience at the Defense Department.
During the past several years, leaders from every branch of the U.S. military have called forreducing the Defense Department’s dependence on fossil fuels. One of the major initiatives has been to reform the weapons acquisition process to ensure that energy efficiency is a “key performance parameter” in buying decisions. The Pentagon earlier this year also unveiled an "operational energy strategy" that calls for cutting back on fuel consumption in the battlefield and for greater use of renewable energy.
Speaking to a standing room only crowd of more than 800 contractors, civilian government and military officials, Westphal recognized that the desired energy reforms face huge obstacles.
The federal government cannot even agree on how to fix really big problems, such as the nation’s debt. The high level of discord in Washington does not bode well for energy, even though the military services have made progress in some areas, Westphal said.
Energy has become too politicized, he said. Whether it is climate change, global warming, or subsidies to energy companies, the polarization of the debate is slowing down change.
Even within the Defense Department, where current leaders have been vocal about the need to increase use of renewable energy and emphasize fuel conservation, there is no guarantee that today’s efforts will have any long-term continuity into the next administration, said Westphal. “Erin and I are temporary, we are not tenured,” he said, referring to Erin Conaton, undersecretary of the Air Force, who participated in a panel at the conference along with Westphal.
“We all rotate,” he said. He is hopeful that career civil servants will “carry this mantle forward,” he said. “We have to educate them and engage them in this process.”
Energy reform in the Army has been “really difficult,” he said. With up to 120,000 troops deployed in two major wars, and fiscal pressures from all sides, energy efforts easily can slide down the totem pole.
Changing the weapons-procurement process, for example, could mean that more expensive but more fuel-efficient equipment potentially would be picked over a cheaper gas hog. That would entail a big cultural shift in how the Pentagon does business.
Some investments are shunned because the returns don’t come until years later, said Westphal. “We have to think long term. That’s a challenge.
Conaton struck a more optimistic cord. She sees a “groundswell” of support and attention to energy issues from the highest levels of the administration. “Congress is very focused on energy security, and a number of retired flag and general officers are out talking about it,” she said. “The Defense Department leadership is all pushing behind this,” she added. “The Navy is doing a tremendous amount in this area. We’re building on each other’s work.”
The Air Force, which consumes the largest share of the Defense Department’s annual purchases of about 130 million barrels of oil — at a cost of $15 billion in 2010 — has much at stake in changing the acquisition system so it can buy more efficient airplanes.
“We want to try to make sure that when an acquisition program is set, and they establish key performance parameters, that … fuel use is taken into account upfront,” Conaton told reporters following her remarks at the conference. “Some of the work is ongoing. But there’s more work to do,” he said. “Our goal is to keep moving this forward.”
Pentagon officials told Congress in 2008 that the department was taking steps to enforce rules that require weapons systems to be evaluated based on how much energy they demand — a policy known as "energy as key performance parameter." The panel of senior military officers that oversees weapons procurement — the Joint Requirements Oversight Council — approved the energy KPP measure in 2007.
Westphal acknowledged that the Army has not always put energy at the top of the selection criteria when buying new equipment. “We are not doing that very well in the Army,” he told reporters. “We are not really incorporating fuel efficiency as a principal requirement.”
Army buyers usually focus on size, weight, lethality, survivability and mobility. “We need to look more consciously at [energy] requirements,” he said. “The problem is that we haven’t had the vision and the wherewithal to really be aggressive.
One of the Army’s top procurements for the next decade, the new Ground Combat Vehicle, has yet to set any specific fuel-efficiency thresholds. “It’s not one of the four markers we put on the table, but it is one of the important variables,” said Westphal. “But we are prepared to be more aggressive about energy efficiency.”
There is some concern, however, about Congress standing behind the “energy as key performance parameter” approach even if it costs more money upfront.
Westphal said Congress generally supports what the Army is doing in trying to become less energy dependent, as long as it is described in terms of “mission critical” goals, as opposed to discussing energy in a philosophical or ideological way, he said. “That is when people start taking sides.”