ASCF Report | 4.1.14
By Alan W. Dowd

Earth Day comes each April, and the U.S. Air Force is celebrating Earth Day 2014 under the banner, “Conserve Today—Secure Tomorrow.” Focusing on “sustainability,” USAF says it is “committed to reducing energy demands at its installations and increasing the availability of renewable energy sources.”

At first blush, that sounds like a good idea. Given that the Defense Department is the nation’s largest consumer of energy—the U.S. military consumes the equivalent of 330,000 barrels of oil a day—more efficient use of energy by the Armed Forces makes sense. Indeed, if conservation efforts by the military can lower costs, decrease dependency on a global oil market still beholden to the likes of Venezuela’s petrocrats, Libya’s militias and Russia’s kleptocrats, and keep the military operating at optimum levels, then such efforts serve the national interest.

Regrettably, many of the military’s green initiatives—most forced upon the Pentagon by agenda-minded policymakers—do not meet that test.

The Good, the Bad and the Costly

The examples of the “greening” of the military are seemingly everywhere. Some of them reflect smart policy and sound economics.

USAF, for instance, has cut fuel consumption by 12 percent in recent years by converting to newer, higher-efficiency engines in some platforms.

The Navy is incorporating high-efficiency, hybrid-electric propulsion systems into some of its ships. Not unlike a hybrid car, the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island relies on electric power at lower speeds—ships like Makin Island spend 75 percent of their underway time traveling at 12 knots or less—and fossil-fuel energy at higher speeds.

DoD is replacing the fluorescent lighting in parts of the Pentagon with LED lights, yielding a 22-percent energy reduction.

DoD plans to convert its fleet of 50,000 commercial vehicles to electric cars and hybrids. The Army has set a goal to lease some 4,000 neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs) for on-base use to conduct security patrols, transport passengers and carry out delivery services.

This greening of the military extends far beyond low-energy light bulbs, high-efficiency jet engines, hybrid amphibs and electric cars, however. It appears that some policymakers are using the Armed Forces to promote an environmental agenda, create a market for alternative fuels where none exists and test enviro-economic theories.

“I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy,” the president declared in 2012, announcing his decision to dragoon DoD into the effort by ordering it to “make one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history.” Specifically, the president wants DoD “to deploy three gigawatts of renewable energy—including solar, wind, biomass and geothermal—on Army, Navy and Air Force installations by 2025.”

Thus, the Air Force is exploring the use of synthetic fuels in its aircraft. Already, B-52s, C-17s, B-1Bs and F-22s have tested or are in line to test synthetic fuel alternatives and blends. A 2012 demonstration of jets powered by synthetic fuels cost USAF $59 a gallon, staggeringly higher than the $3.60 per gallon USAF was paying at the time for conventional petroleum fuels.

That’s not the only example of biofuel sticker shock. Reuters reports that the Pentagon purchased 20,055 gallons of algae-based biofuel at a cost of $424 per gallon.

The so-called “Green Warrior Convoy” concept is testing fuel cells, hybrids, battery technologies and alternative fuels on Army combat vehicles. The Army is working with industry to develop diesel-hybrid trucks that consume less fuel and (not coincidentally) are thousands of pounds lighter than their predecessors—not a comforting thought in a world of IEDs and rumbling Russian tanks.

Worse, the Army is using so-called “earth-friendly ammunition” in certain training venues—and even engaging in what might be called “green training” from time to time: At Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, environmental activists pressured state officials to block the Army from deploying fog oil during nighttime training—and to limit daytime use of fog oil to short 15-minute increments.

Some Navy officials dream of a “Great Green Fleet.” Toward that end, the Navy conducted a green-fleet demonstration during Pacific Ocean exercises in July 2012. The five-ship flotilla included nuclear-powered ships, vessels powered by renewable diesel blended with marine diesel and aircraft powered by renewable jet fuel. (The Navy even has a cleverly named “Green Hornet” in development—an F/A-18 that flies on bio-fuel.)

The problem is biofuel blends are more corrosive than traditional fuels, leading to increased costs for maintenance, repair and replacement of Navy vessels. And as with USAF, the Navy’s blended biofuels—at $26 per gallon—are far more expensive than conventional fuels.

A 2011 Pentagon report concluded that replacing just half the military’s conventional fuels with alternative fuels would add between $800 million and $2.2 billion per year in fuel costs.

“There is no direct benefit to the Department of Defense or the services from using alternative fuels rather than petroleum-derived fuels,” a RAND study concludes. Yet Aviation Week reports that the Obama administration ordered the Navy to spend $510 million of its increasingly-constrained budget “to help private industry partners develop a viable alternative energy market capable of producing cost-competitive marine and jet fuels.”

This reflects a profound misunderstanding of markets. At 330,000 barrels a day, the Pentagon represents 0.38 percent of global oil demand—not nearly enough to signal the market to develop new supply streams.

Arguing that “using defense dollars to subsidize new-energy technologies is not the Navy’s responsibility,” Sen. John McCain calls the military’s biofuel purchases “politically-driven demonstrations.” And he’s right. One of McCain’s main concerns is that diverting resources to costly green experiments negatively impacts “the readiness and safety of our sailors and Marines.” Which is true: every dollar spent on these pet projects is a dollar not spent on training, maintenance or construction.

National Power

None of this is to suggest that the military shouldn’t make adjustments to its energy consumption, but rather that those adjustments should be sensible and smart. The purpose of America’s Armed Forces is to defend America’s interests, deter America’s enemies and win America’s wars—not to serve as the R&D arm of a green agenda.

This use of DoD as a green-energy guinea pig ignores two important realities: First, thanks to sequestration, the military doesn’t have the resources to fund these experiments. After all, Washington has lopped off nearly a trillion dollars in projected military spending.

Second, the U.S. is awash in energy resources. Total domestic supply has grown from 8.3 million barrels per day in 2007 to 11.2 million last year; there are some 3 trillion barrels of oil in America’s Rocky Mountain states; and the U.S. will be the world’s leading oil producer by 2017 and a net oil exporter by 2030. As Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey observes, an energy-independent America “has the potential to change the security environment around the world.” He calls on policymakers to view “energy as an instrument of national power.”

In other words, America is not some shriveling shell of its former self thirsting for fossil-fuel alternatives. To the contrary, it is a resource-rich superpower. And its military needs to focus on defense and deterrence—not the latest fads in environmental theory. After all, our enemies don’t fight with green ammo, don’t wage war in 15-minute increments and won’t beat their swords into plowshares because our military is converting to biofuels.

*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.