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Navy and Marines Aim for a Leaner, Greener Fighting Machine

LAUREL, Md. -- Going green and renewable doesn't just save money, it may save lives of U.S. soldiers, according to military leaders who argue that a push for energy efficiency and a move away from fossil-based fuels could strengthen America's military.


By LAUREN MORELLO of ClimateWire
Published: March 25, 2010

"Every dollar spent on gasoline is a dollar that could be better spent on armor, or artillery, or machinery," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said, speaking here at a conference at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory.

A benefit that may be less evident to civilians, according to Mabus, is that switching to renewable and more efficient fuel sources will mean undertaking fewer supply convoys to supply military bases in Afghanistan and Iraq. That's important because those convoys are ripe targets for enemy attacks.

And that vulnerability is evident in the supply chain that brings gas to Marine platoons in Afghanistan. Transporting a gallon of gas there begins with a journey by ship to Pakistan, then a truck convoy through the Hindu Kush. Every stage of that process adds to the total cost of that gas and diverts fighting power.

"You take a Marine way from doing things a Marine ought to do," Mabus said. "And you expose them to one of the most dangerous tasks in that theater, guarding a fuel convoy."

When it comes to energy, there are also larger geopolitical considerations at stake.

Blunting future oil price shocks

"Petroleum is sold on a world market," said Jeffrey Werling, executive director of the University of Maryland's Interindustry Forecasting Project. "We don't import much from the Middle East. But if there's a disruption in the Middle East, Europe might do what it can to bid away oil from Nigeria or Venezuela. We're not insulated from shocks in Syria or Iran. We all buy out of the same bucket."

Recent history shows just how quickly the market can veer between highs and lows. Oil went from $147 per barrel in 2007 to $33 per barrel the next year, after the recession hit. The Navy felt the brunt of those price swings. It spent $5.1 billion on fuel in 2007, a sum that dropped to just $1.2 billion in 2008. Those types of price swings are difficult to manage within the confines of the military budget process.

"At the end of the day, in restricted budgets, it's got to come from somewhere," said Rear Adm. Philip Cullom, director of the Navy's fleet readiness division. "Maybe you won't buy planes, maybe you won't buy ships. There is a ramification for it."

With those concerns in mind, Mabus recently set ambitious energy targets for U.S. naval forces. They include switching half their energy consumption to renewable and alternate sources by 2020, making half their installations "net zero" energy consumers over that same time period and, by 2016, sailing what Mabus calls "The Great Green Fleet" -- nuclear- and hybrid-powered ships and aircraft that run on biofuel.

For a fighter pilot, having a plane that's 4 percent more efficient than today's aircraft "is one more pass around the boat, one more chance to catch the wire for the pilot, more time to execute your mission," said Cullom, the officer in charge of the Navy's Task Force Energy. "That's pretty important stuff for a warrior at the end of the spear."

In addition to plans to remake its energy mix and launch the "Great Green Fleet," the Navy has opened a 270-megawatt geothermal power plant at its China Lake testing range in California, set up a wind farm at its base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and installed solar photovoltaic panels at its facilities in San Diego.

A need to cut supply lines

Next month, on Earth Day, the force will conduct an airborne test of an F/A-18 aircraft powered by biofuels. And Mabus said the Navy will shortly announce a joint project with the Agriculture Department to grow camelina, a type of flax that can be used to make biofuel, in Hawaii.

Military leaders said they're convinced that those actions will eventually pay dividends in lives, time and money.

"We need to get off the roads hauling fuel and water," said Col. Robert Charette Jr., director of the Marine Corps' expeditionary energy office, which was created to improve energy efficiency throughout the force. "For us, the energy and climate issue is one of maintaining combat effectiveness at a reasonable cost to the American people -- but also making us more combat-effective, because we're less reliant on supply lines."

Charette said those supply lines can have hidden costs, beyond putting soldiers into harm's way and ratcheting up the cost of fueling military aircraft, ships and artillery.

"As we found out in Afghanistan and just about every war we ever fought in, some of that money goes into the hands of people we're fighting," he explained. Contractors are responsible for transporting much of the fuel destined for Afghanistan's Camp Helmand. As they traverse the 45-day land route to the camp, some end up paying bribes to the Taliban and other enemies of U.S. military forces.

But one stumbling block for naval forces' energy push is the reality of how the military orders its equipment, and how long it's expected to last.

"Ships stay in the fleet for 30, 40 years -- and the same for airplanes," said retired Air Force Gen. Charles Wald, the former deputy commander of the U.S. European Command.

Retrofits and biofuel from poppies

Some models are expected to last even longer. Wald said that he expects that B-52s in use today will retire at 90 years old. A new Air Force tanker now in development will be part of the fleet for 50 to 60 years, he said.

Navy and Marine Corps leaders say their solution is to push for new engines and other modifications that can be "dropped in" to existing equipment without expensive alterations.

The Marine Corps is also exploring now whether it can use those advances not just to improve its equipment in the field, but also as technology it can transfer to villages in places like Afghanistan to help develop relationships with local people.

Charette said the corps is attempting to procure oil extruders to send to Afghanistan's Helmand province before the next poppy harvest, four weeks from now. Their plan involves giving the extruders to locals to extrude oil from their poppy seeds, which the U.S. forces would then buy back.

"We're skirting fine lines," Charette said. "The American people expect us to be a war-fighting element. The stuff we buy, they expect us to hand back. So we're working with other agencies to try to help seed them money to do those things."

"What have [we] been for the most part of our lives? Consumers of everything," Cullom said of the current generation of Americans. "After 9/11, what did we do? We spent money in a mall. That's the way we contributed. Is this the way we want to go down in history? Or do we want to be part of a different generation, the regeneration generation? I think the military can help lead the way."