Consumer Energy Report is now Energy Trends Insider -- Read More »

By Will Rogers on Jun 7, 2012 with 12 responses

The Operational and Strategic Rationale Behind the U.S. Military’s Energy Efforts

The recent debate over the role of the military in investing in renewable energy technologies, energy efficiency and conservation programs and alternative biofuels has included many voices that sometimes conflate the linked but distinct efforts by defense officials to address energy concerns. The rationale behind the military’s energy programs can be broken down into two efforts:

  1. Adapting to operational energy requirements and security challenges in Afghanistan and other combat theatres;
  2. Hedging against future uncertainty in the global petroleum market.

Adapting to Operational Energy Challenges

Military leaders have become increasingly worried about operational energy challenges in Afghanistan and other theatres where U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen are deployed and are working to reduce the demand for energy that must be transported across volatile terrain.

To date, part of the military’s effort to reduce operational energy requirements includes:

  • prioritizing energy efficiency in the acquisitions process for new combat platforms;
  • fielding micro-grid technology to more efficiently manage traditional power distribution systems that waste energy;
  • replacing — where possible — diesel-fuelled generators with solar panels and other renewable energy sources;
  • equipping soldiers with advanced batteries that stay charged longer to help keep them in the fight;
  • and increasing awareness among all U.S. military personnel about energy use to help promote conservation practices.

There are clear operational advantages to reducing the fuel required by military personnel in theater. In particular, reducing fuel consumption also curbs the demand for petroleum that has to be trucked across dangerous territory where the fuel and the soldiers and contractors transporting it are vulnerable to insurgent attack.

According to a 2009 Army Environmental Policy Institute study, for every 24 fuel convoys deployed in Afghanistan, one U.S soldier is wounded or killed. Those casualty counts are even more striking in the aggregate: the most recent estimates from the Department of Defense found that between 2003 and 2007, more than 3,000 Army personnel and private contractors were wounded or killed by insurgents attacking fuel and water convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And besides the need to reduce unnecessary causalities, curbing the amount of fuel that has to be transported into a combat zone can act as a force multiplier, enabling soldiers that would otherwise be guarding convoys to reenter the fight.

There are also financial advantages to reducing operational energy requirements that are becoming increasingly relevant in a fiscally constrained budget environment. In general, reducing total energy consumption can help insulate the Department of Defense from dramatic energy price spikes. The Department of Defense estimates that every $1 increase in a barrel of oil adds approximately $130 million to the military’s energy bill.

US Marines solar panelsMoreover, fuel consumed in combat zones is by its nature more expensive due to the fully burdened cost of fuel — that is, the total cost from acquiring the fuel from a supplier to delivering it to troops at the tactical edge in countries like Afghanistan. The personnel and transportation costs of delivering fuel by jet, truck or helicopter add to the initial $2 a gallon cost of fuel. Although the fully burdened cost of fuel has been suggested by some to top $400 a gallon, the Marine Energy Assessment Team, or MEAT, offers a more conservative assessment. According to the findings from a 2009 visit to Afghanistan, DOD’s Defense Energy Support Center paid $2.19 per gallon for fuel. When the fuel was delivered to the operational level — a forward operating base — in Afghanistan, the price increased to $6.39 a gallon. The MEAT then estimated that it cost $11.70 per gallon at the tactical edge — for those military units deployed outside the wire, presumably at remote outposts.

The uniqueness of each war often makes it difficult for defense planners to develop lessons learned from one conflict and apply them directly to the next one — except when it comes to operational energy. The experiences of fueling the force during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have revealed a critical choke point that the U.S. military can address: the delivery of fuel to troops in combat. The Department of Defense is leading efforts today to reduce fuel requirements and — where possible — plug in renewable energy technologies in lieu of diesel generators and other systems requiring loads of fuel, enabling the U.S. military to be more effective war fighters by managing the risks of delivering fuel in conflict. At the end of the day it is about reducing the amount of petroleum needed to fuel the force.

Hedging Against Strategic Uncertainty in the Global Energy Market

On the other side of the military energy coin are the efforts underway at the Department of Defense to research, develop and test alternative fuels, such as algae-based biofuel, and by the Navy to cooperate with the Departments of Agriculture and Energy in public-private sector ventures to develop refineries and scale up commercially available biofuel. Although these efforts are related to the work being done by DOD officials to assuage operational energy concerns, the military’s broad investments in biofuels have a different goal in mind: preparing to fuel the force using non-petroleum fuels.

Critics charge military leaders and administration officials with promoting a green agenda — using war fighters to combat climate change instead of violent extremists. But that is not it at all. Although being environmentally sustainable and promoting security are not mutually exclusive, the investments in alternative energy are first and foremost about ensuring that U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen have access to the fuel they need to conduct their operations and protect U.S. interests decades from now.

There is a lot of uncertainty in the future petroleum market that is stirring anxieties about assured access to energy. Although technological breakthroughs in hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), ultradeep water offshore oil drilling and other techniques are unlocking new petroleum reserves in the western hemisphere to augment Middle East reserves, demand for energy could still outpace supply by mid-century, largely as a result of demand from major developing economies like China, Brazil, India and Turkey. As a result, petroleum supplies could become increasingly tight.

The Department of Defense increasingly faces concerns about assured access to energy resources necessary to power the military. Major supply disruptions stemming from conflict in the Persian Gulf that could close (even if only temporarily) the Strait of Hormuz, or a natural disaster that takes U.S. domestic petroleum refineries offline pose major challenges for the U.S. military and its dependence on petroleum. And even though legislation gives the Department of Defense priority access to U.S. domestic petroleum reserves, some policymakers share concerns that a long-term disruption could exhaust those supplies and put at risk the U.S. military’s ability to conduct its missions.

U.S. military investments in alternative biofuels are driven largely by this uncertainty in the global petroleum market and the need to reduce reliance on petroleum, which provides nearly 80 percent of all DOD energy. Diversification is the aim of the game. While energy conservation and efficiency programs and electrification of non-combat vehicles help hedge against this uncertainty by reducing the overall demand for energy, liquid fuels remain the real albatross for the military. Purchasing, producing and testing advanced biofuels that can serve as a drop-in replacement to conventional gasoline decades from now help diversify the liquid fuel sources and reduce the vulnerability of being tethered to only one source of fuel. The emphasis on drop-in replacement fuels is important: DOD is procuring aircraft, ships and vehicles today that will be in service for many decades and, as such, new liquid fuels must be chemically equivalent to work in engines being designed today.

Although current biofuels are not cost competitive with petroleum, the Department of Defense cannot wait for a petroleum supply disruption before it tests and evaluates new fuels in its combat equipment. Making investments in advanced biofuels today will drive the development so that these fuels (if and when they are needed) are standardized for military use. This will help the U.S. military hedge against a future where petroleum resources may be scarcer, requiring the military to rely on drop-in replacements. While critics will argue against this plausible but seemingly remote future, the military must be prepared for a range of contingencies, especially high-threat but low-probability ones.

Finally, DOD’s motivation to invest in clean biofuels such as hydro-treated algae fuel versus dirty alternative fuels derived from coal-to-liquid technologies is in part a response to the changing regulatory environment in the United States and abroad that is demanding the use of less-carbon intensive energy sources. President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order in October 2009 that charged federal agencies to measure and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, providing military leaders with guidance on renewable energy investments. Additionally, many U.S. states like California have instituted renewable energy regulations that compel compliance by the U.S. military active in those states. Moreover, foreign countries in Europe and elsewhere have increased their environmental standards, including regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from fuels. The Department of Defense must be prepared to adapt to these emerging environmental regulations in order to guarantee the U.S. military’s freedom of access to foreign ports and territories.


Defense officials and military leaders overseeing DOD energy programs are promoting two linked but distinct efforts to address energy concerns.

The operational energy challenges that the United States faces today in Afghanistan and other countries threatens both blood and treasure. Military investments in energy efficiency and conservation programs, including renewable technologies that can displace the demand for petroleum, will help logisticians adapt to the challenges of fueling the force in a combat zone by reducing the total energy requirement and managing more efficiently the energy the military does consume.

Finally, given the strategic uncertainty of the global petroleum market, defense officials are helping lead the effort to research, develop, test and evaluate advanced biofuels that can serve as a drop-in replacement to conventional fuels.

Continuing these efforts will help the Department of Defense ensure it its prepared to adapt to a future where petroleum resources are increasingly scarce (even if that scenario seems remote), and, more importantly, ensure that its platforms will operate just as well on drop-in fuels.

  1. By Scott Pugh CAPT, USN (ret) on June 7, 2012 at 9:03 am

    America’s petroleum dependence problems are driven by the 99% of US oil consumed by civilians not the 1% consumed by the military. DOD’s mission is to defend the country not to change it, and enough of the Congress seems to agree that military spending on biofuels is currently not an appropriate use of DOD funds. Creation of a competitive civilian market for biofuels to displace some oil is a smart US strategy that may eventually be successful but DOE and Congress should lead that charge – not DOD. All of the other energy initiatives listed here have clear military value because they either increase platform range and endurance, enhance energy security at bases and FOBs, or reduce the fuel logistics burden. Biofuels don’t offer any of those warfighting advantages today.

    • By Will Rogers on June 8, 2012 at 8:18 am


      Thanks very much for your comment, and for your service in the Navy. I agree with you that DOD’s mission is to defend the nation, not to change it. And I agree that biofuels don’t offer warfighting advantages today – algae-biofuel or other alternative liquids would still have to be transported to troops in theatre, which would not ameliorate the operational vulnerabilities with fueling the force in Afghanistan or anywhere else.

      However, biofuels do offer warfighting advantages in the future. When one looks at some of the energy trends that are projected to develop between now and mid-century, sustainable access to petroleum is not guaranteed. And with DOD’s outsized dependence on petroleum to fuel the force (accounting for approximately 80 percent of total energy use), this is a long-term challenge for the U.S. military. You could argue that a scenario where DOD cannot get access to enough of the fuel it needs is a low probability one – but low probability or not, the stakes are high if DOD fails to prepare and the scenario manifests in 2040 or 2050.

      Because the United States is developing aircraft, ships and vehicles today that will be in service for many decades, the U.S. military will require alternative biofuels that are chemically equivalent to the JP-5 and JP-8 that the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force use to power their ships and aircraft. The biofuels that are being developed today could be the ones commercially available by mid-century (if not sooner). DOD has a role to play in ensuring that those fuels are designed with the specifications of military platforms in mind so that the fuel can serve as a drop-in replacement to JP-5 or JP-8.  Not just any chemical equivalent will do: military fuels are designed specifically to minimize the contrail coming off the tail of an aircraft and with other key performances in mind.

      Standardizing the biofuel being produced today to meet military specifications when its needed decades from now will preserve the nation’s warfighting ability by ensuring that the U.S. military has access fuel it can rely on to conduct its missions. The challenge may be decades away – but it is one that will take decades of preparation to adapt to. 

      • By Scott Pugh CAPT, USN (ret) on June 8, 2012 at 9:32 am

        Thanks for your story Will and for working in an area so important to the future of our country.

        I agree with much of what you’ve said but your comment  “biofuels do offer warfighting advantages in the future” is an unprovable assumption based on many uncertain variables. Alternative liquid fuels for civilian use will absolutely be needed in the not so distant  future when we will have  a growing population of 350 million Americans living mostly in suburbia. The fuel we already buy today is usually E15. But even though DOD is the single largest fuel user (mostly for airlift where many of the returning flights are nearly empty) it only accounts for about 1% of US oil use and that percentage is likely to fall as civilian use increases and military use decreases. So even in a future where biofuels are more affordable the tiny fraction of US oil that DOD uses will still be available to the miliary. All of DOD’s annual petroleum requirements can currently be met using the output of just one offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and there are over 1000 operating there now. DOD’s energy efficiency and security initiatives should be based first and foremost on improving its military warfighting effectivenss and a close second priority should be reducing avoidable risk to front line miliary personnel. Jump starting a civilian marketplace for biofuels shouldn’t divert any limited DOD resources from those top two energy priorities. Why should DOD be buying expensive aviation biofuels when United, American, Southwest and Delta aren’t? Why should any Navy warships be running on biofuel blends when Maersk and the Military Sealift Command aren’t? Why wouldn’t it make more sense for DOD to wait to see if the nation actually develops a viable market for competitively priced equivalently performing biofuels and then take advantage of them once they are proven and affordable? How would you like to be the military commander of a FOB in a remote desert and get told that the solar panels and energy storage system you asked for won’t be delivered because the money needed to buy them was spent instead on biofuels that cost several times more than JP-8 but did nothing to improve mission effectiveness?

        Keep up the great work.

        • By Allan on June 29, 2012 at 1:04 pm


          I couldn’t agree more, and thanks for your service.  I think you accurately distinguished the difference between energy efficiency that saves lives (reducing consumption in the field in Afghanistan) and energy efficiency for efficiency’s sake.  I can’t help but think that the top brass is conflating these two issues and trying to address both of them at once.

          The idea that somehow the U.S. military wouldn’t be able to get fuel is ludicrous.  A serious “Please don’t drive on the weekends” from the president in the event conservation is necessary would save more than enough fuel to support all of our military operations.  

          It’s not clear to me how politicized this policy is.  Is this a politically convenient way to fund alternative fuel without raising the ire of Congress?  The only group this could conceivably benefit in the long term are civilian fuel prices, because in a real supply constrained environment, it’s going to be civilians that have to cut back not our fighter pilots.

      • By Paul Bellus on August 16, 2012 at 7:46 pm


        I am researching the current college debate topic and I am interested in existing restrictions to solar or wind energy production on US military bases in Afghanistan.  It seems that the military could just deploy these renewable sources at will.  So, what type of restrictions exist prohibiting the deployment of alternative energy sources on US bases in Afghanistan.  The military recognizes the loss of life associated with fuel convoys and the force multiplier of freeing up troops so why not place PVCs on FOBs and military installations now?

  2. By notKit P on June 7, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    Well said Scott!  Can you address concerns about keeping the sea lanes open?


    I find it hard to believe that there are ‘increasing’ concerns.  When I got out of the Navy, ‘we’ worried about the Soviet fleet and the hostages in Iran.  Since then we have twice demonstrated our abilities handling in ‘conflicts in the Persian Gulf’ which required projecting power to the other side of the globe.  


    More than 80 ships use nuclear propulsion which more than makes up for any offset in demand for oil than would result from biofuels transported from the US.  The use of nuclear propulsion provides a huge strategic advantage for putting ships on station and keeping them there.  


    I am a big advocate of biofuels but that is not a core skill of or needed by DOD.

    • By Will Rogers on June 8, 2012 at 8:31 am

      Thanks for your comment and service to the Navy.


      I agree with you that nuclear propulsion has been a game changer for the Navy. Today it accounts for 25 percent of the Navy’s total energy use. But there are limits to the benefits of nuclear propulsion for the Navy and the other services, especially when one considers that nuclear energy cannot displace the demand for petroleum from aircraft, which are by and large the most significant consumer of petroleum.


      The U.S. Air Force, for example, consumes more than 60 percent of all DOD’s petroleum, with about 80 percent going to flight operations. There’s no non-liquid way out of this dependence. The best solution is to prepare the Air Force and the other services to fuel their aircraft on biofuels that can meet the performance standards of JP-5 and JP-8 fuel. But DOD has to play a role in developing those biofuels so that they meet the military’s specifications. 

  3. By Scott Groves on June 8, 2012 at 10:03 am

    Let’s try a different tactic. Let’s defend America from American shores. If there is a war to fight here, we can send military vehicles down to the local gas station to fill up for under four dollars a gallon. Using current technology, we can live without being dependent upon foreign oil. We need to change our thinking from supporting the business of war to supporting the business of living healthier, sustainable lives.

  4. By notKit P on June 8, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    Camelina in the PNW is an oil seed crop that can provide a second harvest for farmers who grow dry land winter what. Farmers use lots of diesel fuel but the consequences are of a batch of poor quality is much less than for aircraft.


    While I am a big advocate of the practical uses of renewable energy, DOD is just engaging in silly public relations grandstanding. Something have not changed since Carter was POTUS.

  5. By Breath on the Wind on June 8, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    A great article, Will, that brings together many of the essential elements of this issue.   There are several, perhaps important, points that are not covered.  

    First is that the nature of shortages does not have to be 30 or 40 years into the future.  Spot shortages can occur at any time in a volatile market.  While domestic or international production may be enough to cover military needs it is worthless if it is not available due to embargo, natural or man-made disaster.  Material and equipment supply is one aspect of this scenario but training, and planning with alternatives adds another element to the logistics of energy.  

    While the DOD may only use a small part of the total liquid energy resources consumed here, they are the biggest single purchaser.  More than this the decisions made by the DOD can have an effect on fleet practice in the US.  Because DOD fuel prices are fixed for an entire year costs are generally higher than would be available on the spot market.   Some measure of the present discussion is based on this largest consumer exploring alternatives and has nothing to do with either strategic or environmental considerations.   It is just a matter of following the money

  6. By Ralph on June 17, 2012 at 1:37 am

    Controlling a rebellious US population will be much easier with instant solar PV energy resources. Not allowing the average citizen to afford their own rooftop units while spending their tax money on military installations is pure genius.  What effect does a neutron bomb have on solar?    Good, no sense in having to rebuild everything from scratch like we did Hiroshima. Does oil become contaminated from radiation?  Good. Foods made from oil and oil extracts will be worth 10,000 times their present value. Problem is, the mid-east will still be the focus of religious wars.  oh well….

  7. By Walt on June 18, 2012 at 1:20 am

    I did some research on the following company, and it appears their early funding of over $2 million in R&D came from the DOD.  This looks like a promising solution for nextgen fuels and a company that definitely has their connections to DOD funding.


    US-based chemical company Incitor Incorporated raised $1.5m in funding as part of a Series A Investment round led by Cottonwood Technology Fund (CTF).


    The company will use the money to commercialise its patent-pending low-temperature chemical process.


    “Dr. John Elling, Incitor CEO, said the company is pleased to share the vision of a renewable fuel and chemical future with Cottonwood.”

    The chemical process breaks down biomass from agricultural, solid, woody or algal waste to produce commodity petrochemical replacements, specialty bio-based chemicals and a third-generation biofuel called Alestron, which is compatible with both gasoline and diesel.


    Incitor is also expanding its process to a 15,000-30,000 gallon a year demonstration facility.


    David Blivin, CTF managing director, said Cottonwood believes Incitor’s low cost chemistry brings new economics to the biofuels and biochemicals industries.


    “In addition, their inclusion of alcohols (methanol and ethanol) in their synthetic process creates interesting opportunities to create higher value products from ethanol and natural gas,” Blivin said.


    “We couldn’t be more excited in supporting Incitor’s management in bringing their technology to market.”


    The company’s technology is intended to produce biofuel at about $2/gallon and minimise the manufacturing cost of industrial chemicals, such as proprionates, levulinates and formates by around 80%.


    Dr. John Elling, Incitor CEO, said the company is pleased to share the vision of a renewable fuel and chemical future with Cottonwood.


    “Cottonwood’s support will enable Incitor to rapidly commercialise its unique biofuel and biochemical production processes,” Elling said.


    CTF is an early-stage technology commercialisation fund which aims to cultivate the entrepreneurial community of the Paso del Norte region in Texas, US.

Register or log in now to save your comments and get priority moderation!