Pentagon Energy Office Seeks Expanded Role in Defense Programs (UPDATED)
Patrol Base Boldak in Helmand province
Greening the military became a trendy topic over the past three years when the Pentagon began to equip troops with solar panels and launched an ambitious program to blend jet fuel with non-fossil alternatives.
But as wars wind down and a U.S. oil and natural-gas boom makes the nation less dependent on Middle Eastern oil, will renewable energy in the military turn out to be a passing fad or a permanent feature?
The Pentagon’s first-ever Assistant Secretary for Operational Energy Sharon E. Burke is hopeful that energy efficiency will be less an afterthought and more a part of the “core strategic thinking” in the Defense Department.
“I want to see it [energy] integrated” into military strategy, acquisition programs and war planning, Burke said April 3 at the Center for National Policy, in Washington, D.C.
Burke said she recently had an opportunity to meet with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to discuss the Pentagon’s energy initiatives. He is supportive of these efforts, Burke said. But it takes more than an endorsement from the secretary of defense to change the Pentagon’s entrenched culture, she acknowledged. “The question for me is not so much whether I am going to get more face time with Secretary Hagel so I can tell him about energy, but whether energy can be integrated into what we are doing,” she said. Her definition of success, Burke said, is to reach the point when "the way we do business as a department takes energy into account.”
Nearly three years after she was sworn in, Burke's office is only beginning to scratch the surface of what it will take to engrain green thinking into the Pentagon’s routine operations, she said. “I don't really want to see a separate annex or full-color spread in strategy documents saying ‘this is your energy piece,’” she said. “I want it integrated into our core strategic thinking. … We will continue to work to that end.”
Burke’s office was created in 2009 by congressional mandate. Lawmakers at the time became alarmed by the violent attacks against U.S. fuel convoys in Afghanistan and the realization that dependence on fuel supplies was a military vulnerability. They passed legislation that required the Defense Department to have a senior official in charge of “operational energy,” which is a catchphrase for reducing fuel demand on the battlefield. Efforts have ranged from replacing diesel generators with solar-powered systems to upgrading military aircraft with more efficient engines.
Although Burke’s office was designated to report directly to the defense secretary, she quickly learned that political clout doesn’t necessarily help break through to the bureaucracies that hold the real power when it comes to buying and maintaining equipment.
Operational energy now falls under the office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. Working under the AT&L umbrella has been helpful, Burke said. By statute, she reports to the secretary. “While that is a wonderful thing, if you know the institution well enough, you know that it is not such a wonderful thing in practice because you're floating out there in the ether,” Burke said. “And the poor man [Hagel] has a lot to do,” she quipped. “So it is much better to be owned by someone who is going to resource you and support you.”
Burke said energy efficiency is beginning to influence weapons requirements documents and acquisition decisions. Energy is now a “key performance parameter” in weapon programs, which means fuel efficiency is one of the criteria used to evaluate systems.
“My office is an advisor to the joint staff in executing that KPP,” she said. Burke also is establishing working relationships with procurement managers. “They are the people who really build the military,” she said. “If you don't work with them to incorporate better energy [considerations] into the department, you're not getting anything done.”
Another important fiefdom in the Pentagon is policy making, particularly as the Defense Department gears up for the 2014 congressionally mandated quadrennial review of military missions and strategy. Burke said she has discussed energy issues with Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller. “The department hasn't looked at energy quite this way before,” she said. “We work with policy people to study the dimensions of this challenge,” Burke said. “We also want it incorporated into guidance and partnership with other countries.”
Investments in technology also are a priority, she said. Her office plans to spend anywhere from $5 billion to $10 billion over the next five years on green technology such as solar energy, storage devices, efficient heating and cooling systems for deployed forces. [SEE CLARIFICATION]
The primary focus is not on spending, but on saving, she insisted. The Defense Department consumes 375,000 barrels of oil per day at a cost of $17 billion a year, which makes it the nation’s largest user of liquid fuels. The goal is to help bring that cost down, she said. The Air Force is pursuing fuel-efficient engines, she said, which could cut consumption by 25 percent. “We expect those investments to continue.”
The Pentagon’s biofuels program, meanwhile, will remain strictly a research-and-development effort, said Burke. The biofuels industry has been looking to the military to become a catalyst for a massive expansion of alternative fuel production in the United States. But the Pentagon does not plan to buy massive quantities of biofuels until their prices are comparable to petroleum products. The Defense Logistics Agency in 2011 procured 450,000 gallons of advanced drop-in biofuels. Over the next three years, the Defense Department agreed to contribute $170 million to support advanced biofuels, with matching amounts from both the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy for a total of $510 million in government funding. Under the Defense Production Act, the government is allowed to directly invest in an industry that is deemed to be important for national security.
Clarification: The Defense Department's $5 billion to $10 billion investments in operational energy projects come from across the department, not from a single office. The investments focus on energy performance and efficiency upgrades.
Photo Credit: Defense Dept.