The True Currency of Fuel in the Military Is Lives

By Stew Magnuson
A KC-135 tanker refuels jets over Vietnam, February 1966.

Defense Dept. photo

It was during an operational energy panel at the recent Emerging Technologies for Defense conference when one of the speakers made me think about my stepfather Charles Strand, a retired Air Force major and navigator on KC-135 Stratotankers during the Vietnam War.

He told me that more than once the tanker crew would receive a desperate call from a fighter pilot who was dangerously low on fuel flying over North Vietnam.

“I don’t think I’m going to make it,” the pilot radioed to anyone who could help.

The tanker crews had standing orders not to fly into North Vietnamese airspace — understandable with Soviet-era air and missile defense systems, and the sheer size of the KC-135. It would make an inviting target.

“Don’t worry. We’re coming to get you,” the tanker pilot would radio back. It was Charley’s job to get them to the distressed pilot, who was probably very grateful that the orders were ignored.

“The true currency of fuel is lives,” was the statement that made me think of Charley and his crewmates.

Troy Warshel, associate deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for operational energy, uttered the words during the panel.

“It cost lives to transport. It cost lives to refuel airplanes and cost lives to refuel tanks,” he said.

While the days of Vietnam are remembered by fewer every day, most will recall the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the deadly toll insurgents took as they targeted fuel convoys.

Drivers had to not only worry about ambushes, they might drive over an improvised explosive device almost anywhere. U.S. troops and civilians alike made the ultimate sacrifice to deliver JP-8 fuel to forward operating bases to run generators and power vehicles.

If the same war were fought today, the drivers would have the threat of kamikaze drones from above, IEDs below and rocket propelled grenades from the side.

Operational energy isn’t the “sexiest” topic to write about in the world of defense technology — it’s not going to grab the readers’ or the reporters’ attention like the F-35 joint strike fighter, hypersonic missiles and next-generation Navy destroyers.

If we were to put operational energy on the cover, it’s probably not going to fly off the shelf at Barnes and Noble as it did when the B-21 Raider was featured.

But it is important. Why?

Energy touches every single warfighter every single day, no matter where they are in the world. Everyone from the analysts in the Pentagon sitting behind a computer to the warfighters in planes, ships and ground vehicles, to the special operators who left those conveyances behind and travel stealthily on foot behind enemy lines. It could be an electrical current, or JP-8, or double AA batteries. Energy is vital.

The last time National Defense featured operational energy in a cover story was October 2021. The story was based on a National Academies report that concluded that all-electric vehicles on the battlefield would not be practical until 2035.

That may have given comfort to some of the magazine’s readers who are vehemently opposed to hybrid or electric vehicles in the military.

Their thoughts can be found in the comments section after about every article we have published on the subject.

But in the world of military acquisitions, 2035 is right around the corner. Consider that it took the Army seven years to produce the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and that senior leaders at this moment are conceiving what the Army of 2040 should look like.

The inaugural Emerging Technologies for Defense conference had plenty of interesting talks, but the ones devoted to operational energy and contested logistics might have been a couple of the more important ones.

As for the environmental angle, “climate is interesting, but not compelling,” Warshel said. It can be a lever to pull to squeeze more efficiency out of vehicles, but ultimately for the military it’s about the impact on operations, he said.

As far as his employer, the Air Force, there is a lot of work to be done. Commercial airlines have improved their fuel efficiency from 1 to 3 percent per year over the past 20 years.

As for the Air Force fleets in the same period — zilch, he said.

If the service could improve the fuel efficiency of a C-17 by just 1 percent, it could save $10 million per year, he said.

“I hate to talk in dollars because, the currency of fuel — as I mentioned — is lives, but it’s something that people understand,” he said.

Warshel continued: “Our enemy is smart. They watched what we’ve done for the last 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Who wants to take the

United States head on in a fight? They don’t. Going back 2,000 years, China’s doctrine has said, ‘We will attack alliances and we will attack logistics.’”

If, as the National Defense Strategy says, the military must shift its focus to the Indo-Pacific, it is going to be dealing with “the tyranny of distance,” he noted.

“Getting fuel where we need it, when we need it, and in the right quantities, is going to be the margin of victory,” he predicted.

So, energy efficiency in the military can save lives, taxpayer dollars and could make the difference in a war in the Pacific. It’s hard to see the downside of squeezing every drop out of the military’s vehicles.

National Defense going forward is renewing its commitment to cover operational energy as often as possible. ND

Topics: Energy

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