The U.S. military has been pushing for the development of alternative fuels for a while now, and nobody paid much attention until the Pentagon finally put a price tag on the oil habit. As reported by Roxana Tiron in thehill.com, last week Pentagon officials disclosed that getting conventional petroleum fuel to remote combat locations in Afghanistan costs a whopping $400 per gallon.
There couldn’t be a more clear illustration of why the “drill baby drill” mentality is a non-sequitur when it comes to energy security. Regardless of whether petroleum fuels are domestic or imported, they need to be transported to their point of use. That’s not much of a problem when you’ve got modern seaports, highways and fuel depots, but to paraphrase one infamous former Secretary of Defense, you have to fight the war you have, not the war that’s got the ideal infrastructure to support your fuel of choice.
War and Oil
“An army travels on its stomach” was good a good logistical maxim for thousands of years of human conflict, up until the 20th century when oil took over. Germany gambled on oil in World War II with disastrous results, as Dwight D. Eisenhower recounts in his memoir “Crusade in Europe.” In the run-up to, and early years of the war, Germany burst to the front of the industrial arms race, assembling a manufacturing base that churned out oil-thirsty vehicles, aircraft and equipment, only to lose its ability to maneuver troops when the Allies achieved air superiority and bombed its oil reserves to smithereens.
Lessons from 21st Century Germany
Fast forward to the present century, and once again Germany is racing ahead of the pack to embrace a new energy future. Part of the country’s strategy includes large central power plants that generate mass quantities of wind and solar energy for distribution over a grid, with some even crossing international boundaries. But an equal focus of attention is on developing small scale or modular alternative energy systems for individual use in buildings and homes. In terms of national defense, it’s a lesson learned from World War II, one that, apparently, our own U.S. oil industry is more than willing to ignore.
The Future of Fuel for the U.S. Military
According to a January 2009 analysis by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Report, the U.S. military is the world’s single largest consumer of oil. And though it hasn’t been a subject of mainstream national discourse, the Department of Defense has been trying to lower its “carbon bootprint” for a number of years, despite the lack of support from large swaths of the civilian sector.
Like the German model, DOD has adopted a comprehensive approach that focuses on both efficiency and alternative energy. For example, just this September the U.S. Navy introduced its first hybrid-electric assault ship, the Makin Island. As reported by Steve Liewer of the San Diego Union-Tribune, instead of steam boilers the ship uses energy saving electric engines in cruise mode, then kicks into gas turbines for combat mode. The hybrid system saved 900,000 gallons of fuel on the ship’s maiden voyage around the tip of South America.
The military’s new energy toolkit also includes massive solar installations—such as a new 1,000 MW project planned for Fort Irwin—and a push for robust portable fuel cells that are meant to replace conventional batteries for small robotic vehicles and hand held devices, and may eventually replace some liquid fuels as well. With new battery technologies and harvestable energy such as wind, solar, and biomass, the green war of the future could mean that military combat units will have at least some capability for gathering and storing fuel at or close to base camps, relieving at least part of the “logistical nightmare” imposed by our long and all too close alliance with oil.
Image: slopjop on flickr.com
Sources: Treehugger, Wharton Report