Green Machine

The US Military is the World’s Largest Fuel Guzzler. It’s also Leading the Charge to Break Our Addiction to Oil.

Being the son of a physicist, and an historian by training, I never put much stock in lucky numbers, rabbits’ feet, special charms, and the like. In the summer of 2005, while serving in the US Army in Iraq, I reappraised that position.

image of a battle tank

That year I regularly commuted down “Route Irish,” a four-mile stretch of highway running between central Baghdad and the city’s airport that, at the time, was known as “the most dangerous road in the world.” Nearly every day there was a small-arms attack on the road, or the detonation of an Improvised Explosive Device, or both. One day I was taking some new guys (FNG’s in our parlance, supply your own translation) around the various headquarters of Baghdad. Inside the so-called “Green Zone” it was safe. Then we started toward Route Irish. Halfway through the maze of concrete barriers separating the Green Zone from the rest of Baghdad I went into a panic.

First I was muttering, then shouting “Shit! Shit! Shit!” as I scrambled around the Humvee. My passengers, new to the combat zone, were frantic: “What? What is wrong?” About 100 meters onto Route Irish, I found what I needed: The Eagles, Greatest Hits, Track 6, Take It Easy. We had never been hit on Route Irish while Take It Easy was playing.

If only such a simple charm were effective. My panic just proved how dangerous the road was. Many US service men and women died there, regardless of what they were listening to. The soldiers who took the greatest risk were those who spent their entire tour of duty on the road. Between 2003 and 2007, 3,246 US military personnel were killed or wounded during convoy operations. And that figure doesn’t include the casualties incurred during other missions designed to keep the supply routes open. Of course, maintaining secure supply lines has always been a key part of warfare. But that task was made more difficult in Iraq (and, still today, in Afghanistan) because so much of the supply route is dominated by a single resource: fuel. According to the Department of Defense, about 70 percent of the logistics load “in theater” consists of fuel. Many of the soldiers who spent each and every day on Route Irish were traveling down a road pre-rigged with explosives while carrying up to 5,000 gallons of diesel behind them.

The US military is the single largest consumer of petroleum in the world. The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines combined consume roughly 300,000 barrels of oil each day – about 120 million barrels annually. And each year the Department of Defense Energy churns through about 3.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. Energy is the lifeblood of the modern military, but such dependence also creates a military weakness. As the casualties on Route Irish demonstrate, moving fuel costs lives.

All too aware of the risks poised by oil addiction, the military’s leadership has set for itself a new mission: to dramatically reduce the amount of energy troops need. This has little to do with saving the planet – though some in uniform (and I count myself in that group) appreciate the environmental advantages of reduced energy use. The campaign to slash the Armed Forces’ fuel footprint mostly has to do old-fashioned military thinking. Lowering fuel load is a tactical necessity and a strategic imperative. The military’s embrace of renewable energy is about reducing the number of men and women who must demonstrate the last full measure of devotion to our nation.

The US military’s move to renewable energy is crucial for combat soldiers, says US Army Major General H.R. McMaster – the commander of the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Ft. Benning and the author of the bestseller Dereliction of Duty, about the lies that led the US into Vietnam. “Green efforts are important because they help to preserve our forces’ freedom of movement and action at the end of extended and contested supply lines,” McMaster told me. “These systems help make our forces more combat effective in operations in austere environments, and they reduce the risk to soldiers in combat because they result in fewer supply convoys.”

Robert Killebrew, a military veteran and an analyst at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC, agrees. Killebrew says: “Anything we can do to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels that have to be hauled, or carried, to the battleground or the fleet would revolutionize warfare. Self-contained energy sources on the battlefield, vehicles and ships with less dependence on long logistic lines, and lower costs per unit of use would be a godsend, not just to commanders and logisticians, but to budgeteers as well.”

The military’s embrace of renewables also could be a godsend to the nascent clean energy economy. Military technical innovations and investment have a strong track record of helping to boost emerging sectors of the civilian economy. The best example is the military’s creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANET. The decentralized communications network was designed to allow for continued military functioning in case of a Cold War nuclear attack. ARPANET eventually would evolve to become the basis of today’s global communications infrastructure – the Internet.

The Armed Forces’ first priority is to reduce the amount of fuel used in combat. The challenge of doing so is staggering. In 2010, a year that actually represented something of a dip in usage, the US military used 5 billion gallons of fuel in combat zones. Most obviously, this is the fuel needed to run tanks and helicopters and armored personnel carriers. It also includes all the diesel required to fuel the generators to run the dining halls, keep the lights on, power tens of thousands of computers, and sustain air conditioning. The Pentagon annually spends up to $20 billion (yes, with a b) to keep soldiers and Marines cool. That might seem a luxury – until you remember that it’s 120 degrees outside, and the men are doing combat patrols all day in body-armor and long-sleeves, carrying 30 pounds of water and ammo and communications gear, and that they need to be able to retreat during their off hours into someplace cooler, where they can recharge and rehydrate. In those combat conditions, air conditioning suddenly becomes a combat multiplier.artwork depicting green aircraft carriers

In cumulative terms, every time that the cost of a barrel of oil goes up $10, it adds about $1.3 billion to the DoD’s annual fuel costs. But what the Pentagon pays for an actual gallon of fuel is just a fraction of the total price, because of all the embedded logistical costs. In 2007, the DoD estimated that the real cost of providing fuel to forces in Western Iraq was literally hundreds of dollars per gallon. During a 2010 energy security forum at the Pentagon, Admiral Mike Mullen, then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered a startling accounting of the military’s fuel costs – and the benefits of reducing those costs.

“When we consider that estimates of a fully burdened cost of diesel fuel approached $400 a gallon and required 1.3 gallons of fuel to use per [man] delivered at some forward-operating locations, these benefits [of green technology] start to really add up,” Mullen said. “This translates to fewer Marines maintaining fuel storage and distribution systems, fewer Marines dedicating their lives to protect the convoys in the routes used to deliver the fuel. Or, as this conference theme tells us: Saving energy saves lives.”

The most fuel-hungry military devices are aircraft and tanks, but there is little way around the fuel burden of those systems. One key target is reducing the energy demands of on-the-ground electricity generators.

Enter “Juice in a Box.” Developed by the Marine Corps, the Ground Renewable Expeditionary Energy Network System (yes, the acronym is GREEN) is a hybrid system that can integrate different power sources – from vehicles, generators, or solar cells – and then make the energy usable for military systems. A GREEN system has eight built-in solar panels that feed direct current into a lithium-ion battery array. This DC power can then be converted to the alternating current needed by computers and the like. The energy savings? About 10 gallons of diesel per day per vehicle. During a test of the system in Afghanistan in 2011, one USMC company discovered that the GREEN system reduced its fuel needs by 80 percent. The Marine Corps leadership immediately developed plans to field more than 100 of the systems to five battalions in southern Afghanistan.

Not to be outdone, the Army has responded with its own initiatives. A typical load for a “light infantryman” consists of a change of clothes, lots of socks, ammunition, water, a few mortar rounds, and enough batteries to last for several days. Each battery weighs about five pounds and lasts six to twelve hours; on a multi-day patrol, every man in a platoon needs to carry more than 20 pounds of batteries. The “Rucksack Enhanced Portable Power System” is reducing that load. The system allows grunts to use a flexible, 62-watt, solar panel to recharge batteries. Daisy-chain a few together, and soldiers can get even more power. The simple, solar energy system goes a long way to cutting what is called “The Soldier’s Load.”

In the combat-vehicle arena, efforts to “go green” are mixed. Despite the best efforts of Army engineers, thus far there does not seem to be an even remotely economical way to drive an armored beast with electricity. But one combat system that does seem to hold promise is a lightweight reconnaissance vehicle that uses a hybrid power system to increase range and operate nearly in silence. Nicknamed “Shadow,” the Reconnaissance, Surveillance, Targeting Vehicle can travel more than 450 miles using less than 25 gallons of fuel – far more efficient than most military vehicles. And it can go almost 20 miles on battery power alone. Although neither the Marines nor the Army have launched full-scale production of the Shadow, the program has generated useful prototypes.

Meanwhile, the US Navy and US Air Force are exploring ways to use fuels other than petroleum for their ships and aircraft. In July, a solar powered airplane completed a cross-country trip for the first time ever. While the achievement generated plenty of headlines, few outlets reported that the civilian feat – by a company called Solar Impulse – was made possible, in part, by initial research funded via the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. The military technologies group has been interested in the possibilities of solar-powered flight since the 1980s. Now, the technologies may have advanced to the stage where the military could deploy a drone aircraft that would rarely have to land.

A more promising possibility for reducing petroleum dependence is biofuels. Last summer, the Navy tested biofuel’s potential with what Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus called “The Great Green Fleet.” The hokey name harkens back to a distinguished predecessor, “The Great White Fleet,” a collection of all-steel battleships that President Teddy Roosevelt sent around the globe a century ago to demonstrate American military might. Secretary Mabus’s green fleet was, in its own way, just as audacious – an attempt to display a navy powered by twenty-first-century fuels.

The Great Green Fleet took to the seas during the annual “Rim of the Pacific” war games. For three days, some 71 fighter jets and helicopters, two destroyers, and one guided missile cruiser ran on a blend of petroleum, recycled cooking oil, and algae-based biofuel. The exercise grabbed plenty of positive media attention, and showed that the Navy could, in fact, operate on something other than petroleum. “Those aircraft are flying the way they always do. The ships steamed the way they always do,” Secretary Mabus told sailors and reporters in the midst of the exercise. “There was no difference with the fuel.”

The case for a greener army might seem clear cut, but the military’s push into renewable energy has sparked controversy.

Pilots seemed to agree. “I’m hoping someday I’m going to look back and this will be the point where we turned away from dependency on fossil fuels,” said pilot Lieutenant Commander Jason Fox. “There have been many steps that the Navy leads on, and I’m hoping this is one of those steps.”

Biofuel producers share that hope. The industry desperately needs a large-scale customer that can help jumpstart the market and pull biofuel out of the inefficiencies of boutique production. If Mabus realizes his dreams of having some ships running on biofuel full time by 2016, the Navy could be that customer.

The Air Force has focused its efforts toward trying to be less dependent upon local energy infrastructure when it heads off to foreign lands. Like the Marines, the USAF has developed a multi-source energy package for when it needs to set up “expeditionary” bases. The package deploys miniature wind turbines as well as solar panels, and has the ability take in power from generators and even parked vehicles. The new USAF energy system routes through batteries, which means that ground crews only need to run diesel generators when the batteries run out – not constantly, as is the case now, a major inefficiency.

One of the clearest indicators of the military’s seriousness about renewable energy is the money it is spending to make bases energy independent. Last year the DoD announced the launch of a $20 million program to lease some 500 electric vehicles for use on bases. And each of the services is pursuing its own individual green energy initiatives at its stateside bases, blowing right past the federal renewable energy standards, sometimes by 50 percent or more.

At the White Sands base in New Mexico, for example, the Army recently brought on-line a solar array of 15,500 panels. Although the panels will supply only 10 percent of the base’s electricity demand, the investment will have a clear payoff. The Army forecasts that in its first year alone, the panels will save close to a million dollars in electricity costs. The USAF has an even larger solar array at Nellis Air Force Base, outside Las Vegas. The 14-megawatt installation there supplies a quarter of the base’s power.

For its part, the Navy has been a leader in geothermal technologies. The Navy opened its first geothermal energy plant in 1987 at its China Lake Weapons Station, the airbase of Top Gun fame. The 270-megawatt facility is one of the largest geothermal plants in the country, accounting for nearly 8 percent of all the geothermal energy produced in the US.

The military is also bringing its immense market power to the task of greening the housing market. A company called Solar City has launched “SolarStrong,” a plan to install photovoltaics on 120,000 military housing units. If Solar City reaches that goal, it would be the largest residential PV project in the US.

Green energy is not just a fad for the military. According to Dr. Peter Mansoor of The Mershon Center at the Ohio State University: “Efforts by the Department of Defense to use green energy, find new conservation techniques, and develop more efficient engines for use of fossil fuels make a great deal of sense. The outcome of these efforts will be significant cost savings, fewer carbon emissions, and an improvement in the ratio of tooth to tail in US military forces.” Mansoor should know. Before he was “Professor Mansoor” he was “Colonel Mansoor”; in his final assignment he was General David Petraeus’s right-hand man in Iraq.

The case for a leaner, greener military might seem clear cut, but the military’s push into renewable energy still has sparked controversy. The Navy’s Great Green Fleet ran into stiff headwinds from critics in Congress who complained that the military was wasting money on Secretary Mabus’s biofuels push. Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma said that the Pentagon “should not be wasting time perpetrating President Obama’s global warming fantasies or his ongoing war on affordable energy.” Last year the House of Representatives passed a measure barring the military from spending, purchasing, or making investments in biofuel; the program was ultimately saved by the Senate.

To some outside observers, the political obstruction makes little sense. Peter Singer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Wired for War, says both boosters and critics have it wrong. “Too many people are trying to tie it [military energy initiatives] to other ‘green’ efforts, whether it’s the supporters who talk about its effect on climate change mitigation or its opponents who still want to keep their head in the sand on climate change,” Singer says. “In either case, the efforts actually have value whether climate change is in motion or not. The politics of the matter are often getting in the way of national security.”

And that, I think, is my own bottom line. As an infantry officer I can tell you that I want these technologies. I need these initiatives. I must have them, because to fail in these is more than I can bear.

There are 14 names carved in the granite of my memory, the names of dead men and women from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Seventy more people I know, loved, led, and taught, lost flesh or limbs in those same conflicts. We in uniform do not pick the wars. You, the voters, choose the leaders who decide such things. But we carry the weight. New renewable energy technologies could lessen the load that you place upon us. Not all of that load, I know, but at least some of it. And, for a soldier, “some” has to be enough.

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