Budget Cuts & DOD Energy

We’d be remiss (and possibly lose all cred as think-tankers) if we didn’t ponder what the debt crisis and upcoming budget cuts meant for the issues of focus for this blog. To be honest, I’ve thought a lot more about what the dawning era of cuts, cuts, and more cuts means for U.S. security broadly, the domestic economy, and American power and influence than I’ve thought about what it means for resources issues. So, it's time for us to dig in.

Let’s start with DOD energy, a long-time CNAS favorite. The men and women running the energy shops in OSD and the services have leaped the department ahead in terms of ensuring energy supplies for operating while minimizing the security and foreign policy side-effects and externalities involved. But I’m definitely concerned that we will see cuts in this area, given that so many in the House voted to exempt DOD from EISA's Section 526, and that several members have voiced concern over DOD getting its buildings LEED certified and investing in renewable energy for CONUS bases. (On the other hand, the Hill retains great advocates for DOD’s energy work, such as Congresswoman Giffords and Senator Udall, and their teams have devised many creative ways to ensure energy progress while hopefully reducing long-term costs.)

While I'm confident that DOD's energy work will keep moving forward (especially as they continue making the cost-savings case for their investments), it's worth thinking critically about DOD's energy future 5, 10 years down the road - lest it get axed without regard to warfighting needs or other serious concerns. OSD’s current operational energy office, mandated by Congress, is doing yeoman’s work to reduce fuel use where our forces are currently deployed, primarily in Afghanistan, to save lives and reduce costs. It has created and is building out DOD’s first energy strategy, and organizing joint and interagency coordination. This work needs to move ahead for several more years as is I believe, but if its personnel continue to do good work, the needed functions and personnel in the office may change over time. Furthermore, operational and installations energy remain separated in a way that may not fit DOD's energy future optimally.

In our report last September, Fueling the Future Force (pdf), John Nagl and I recommended that once combat operations in Afghanistan are drawn down – and once the operational energy office has sufficient time to work its magic – DOD should consider streamlining an energy office into components for strategy, assets, and external relations, maintaining a strong leader in charge. We argued:

Within OSD and the services, responsibility is generally split between those managing energy for military installations and those managing operational energy. This is in part a legacy divide: Positions governing operational energy in OSD and the services have only been stood up as  dedicated offices over the past few years, while offices governing energy use at military bases have long been part of the DOD organizational structure. However, the separation of energy along these lines is a false distinction; the training and equipping carried out at domestic military installations is geared toward operational utility. The only truly static component of installations is the buildings themselves, whereas the people using energy and how they use it fluctuate regularly and depend on operational requirements. Indeed, the definitions of operational and non-operational energy are not well delineated in related laws or Congressional requirements.

Once a long-term DOD energy strategy is in place, the DOD should assess its related organizational and personnel structures. This assessment should involve an evaluation of personnel needs, and in particular what positions are filled by political appointees versus civil service officers versus  contractors, while being cognizant of the work that the military services themselves conduct. Since the separation of installation and operational energy reflects DOD’s energy past more than its energy future, it should seek in the years ahead to merge energy management at the OSD level to a coherent body under the leadership of one individual. The Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps could continue to manage their own unique energy bureaucracies as their leaders deem best.

Considering a DOD energy reorganization, especially how to bridge the operational/installation divide, for after the major drawdown in Afghanistan may be a way of planning cuts over the long term – like on a decadal timeline – that allows the good work being done now to move forward. Cuts are coming, and many on the Hill are aiming to keep energy work on the chopping block. It's worth a preemptive public debate over what the Pentagon's long-term energy org chart needs to look like before arbitrary budget reductions detract from serious security needs.