Why the military is becoming a lean, green fighting machine
Captain Planet might be getting reinforcements
One of the deadliest mission types in Iraq and Afghanistan isn't what you'd expect. It's not rescuing comrades under siege, extracting high-level terrorists, or securing areas like Afghanistan's Helmand province — it's helping carry fuel to fellow troops.
Between 2003 and 2007, over 3,000 American soldiers were killed during fuel supply convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan. Put another way: One in 24 fuel convoys resulted in an American death.
The experience of those wars taught the military a brutal lesson: Its dependence on oil is deadly and – with the cost of delivering gas to remote regions of Afghanistan at $400 a gallon — financially unsustainable.
So in response, the Pentagon is going green.
It's a practical reaction to battlefield conditions: Less fuel consumption means fighter jets can stay in the air longer, fewer fuel convoys in Afghanistan that can be attacked, and lower overall costs as budgets shrink and the price of oil continues to rise.
Take the Marines, for instance.
Once skeptical of renewable energy, Marines on the front lines of Afghanistan have become some of solar power's greatest proponents.
Marines have widely deployed several solar panel systems, including a small, pack-carried panel that can charge radio batteries, a solar tarp that fits over a tent to power lighting systems, and a larger ground unit that can power four computers at a time.
In addition, by using solar chargers to power equipment at night, the Marines don't have to run noisy generators, which reveal their position to the enemy. The solar panels are also light and highly compact. With the ability to recharge batteries on the go, Marines can forgo packing spares and carry more ammo and other critical supplies.
At forward operating bases, these chargers have reduced generator fuel consumption from 20 gallons a day to 2.5 gallons a day, which in turn has reduced the number of fuel convoys, which are prime targets for insurgents and IEDs.
"A refueling vehicle becomes a screaming [easy] target," said 1st Lt. Daric Kleppe, commander of 1st Platoon, India Company, based outside Sangin, Afghanistan.
According to retired Brig. Gen. Steven Anderson, the chief logistician in Iraq in 2006-7, where he coordinated the transport of millions of gallons of fuel, the military was suffering one casualty every other day by just delivering fuel, so reducing fuel consumption and the number of fuel convoys was a matter of life and death.
"There's a direct relationship between energy and the military. The more energy consumed, the less effective you are militarily because you're more vulnerable," Anderson said.
Looking ahead, the Defense Department is facing a future where the price of oil is projected to nearly double to $145 a barrel by 2035 (in 2010 dollars), according to the Department of Energy, and every $10 increase in the price per barrel of oil adds an additional $1.3 billion in costs, leaving less funding for training, equipment, and other critical needs.
Recognizing the dangers and high costs of its dependence on oil, the Pentagon has set an ambitious goal of obtaining 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025.
With marching orders in hand, each branch of the military has aggressively moved forward in its efforts to find alternative energy sources. The military's largest consumer of energy — the Air Force — is doubling its renewable energy projects and experimenting with biofuels. The Army is outfitting domestic military bases with alternative energy sources, and the Navy is turning into a "Great Green Fleet," equipped with everything from the biofuel-blend-powered F/A-18 "Green Hornets" to hybrid electric amphibious assault ships.
Despite the success of these efforts, the military is running into opposition from an unlikely domestic source: Republicans.
Echoing last year's biofuel showdown, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) has once again successfully introduced two amendments to this year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that limit the "plan, design, refurbishing, or construction of biofuels refineries" as well as the procurement of alternative fuels.
"It is not the job of the Department of Defense to develop the biofuel industry, and I will continue to oppose this wrongheaded policy," Conaway argued.
The congressman added that he is opposed not to the military's purchase of alternative fuels, but rather to the fact that they currently cost more than fossil fuels. Paying $27 a gallon rather than $3.50 a gallon for oil "makes no sense," he said.
"Of course it costs more. It's a new technology," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus shot back in response to criticism. "If we didn't pay a little bit more for new technologies, we'd still be using typewriters instead of computers.... And the Navy would never have bought a nuclear submarine, which still costs four to five times more than a conventional submarine."
So far, the Democrat-controlled Senate has repelled Republican attempts to introduce amendments limiting the use of biofuels.
Last week, Senate Republicans along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) blocked the defense spending bill from moving forward, and it is clear there are still many issues that need to be debated before a final vote can occur. In the past three weeks alone, senators from both sides of the aisle have unleashed a deluge of more than 500 amendments to the NDAA that are waiting to be considered.
With the debate dragging on, there remains little time for the House and Senate to smooth any differences between the two bills in conference. As Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said, this year's defense spending bill is going to be a "cliffhanger."