Members of the Louisiana National Guard’s 256th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team conducted search and rescue operations near Carville, Louisiana after Hurricane Isaac made landfall earlier this week. The National Guard units used high-water vehicles to evacuate residents stranded in floodwaters.
Photo: Courtesy of the Louisiana National Guard.
The Associated Press’s epitaph for one of America’s most memorable pioneers appropriately captures Neil Armstrong’s place in history.
For several generations of Americans, the pioneering spirit and adventurism that helped carry Neil Armstrong to the moon also characterize a period of American history when our collective imagination seemed boundless. With outstretched fingers Americans reached for the stars and in less than a decade went from just terrestrial beings to lunar explorers. It is a period of American history that, sadly, seems almost unimaginable today as we increasingly look away from space.
In remembering Armstrong, we have an opportunity to reflect not only on one of America’s greatest accomplishments, but also to re-imagine America’s role in space and to search the stars for new opportunities for advancement.
The United States has enduring interests in space, from maintaining remote sensing satellites that help scientists understand and track environmental change, to networks of communications satellites that serve as the connective tissue of an increasingly globalized world. And though federal space programs continue to be squeezed in this fiscally constrained environment – and by all accounts we are increasingly pressed to confront challenges here at home, on Earth – we should spend some time thinking about America’s role in space, and how the United States can wield this cosmic domain to further its interests.
To help spur some reflection on U.S. interests in space, I’m reaching back to a piece my colleague Christine Parthemore and I wrote last year exploring the decline of Earth monitoring satellites and its consequences for U.S. national security: Blinded: The Decline of U.S. Earth Monitoring Capabilities and Its Consequences for National Security.
You can expect more from me in the weeks ahead on how U.S. policymakers should be thinking about using space to confront a range of unconventional challenges.
Photo: Neil Armstrong’s walk on the lunar surface. Courtesy of NASA.
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Henry Blake recently conducted a 3,500 nautical mile trip from Puget Sound to Juneau, Alaska on a 50-50 blend of conventional petroleum and algae-based alternative fuel.
According to Defense News, the demonstration was driven in part by the Coast Guard’s need to understand how well its platforms operate on alternative fuels, given that officials anticipate that the military may be increasingly using blends of synthetic fuels in the future. “The Blake evaluation could be especially important, since the vessel’s mission encompasses so many variables. For example, the cutter moves at full throttle through open water, but also maneuvers at slow speeds for buoy tending duties,” Defense News reported.
Coast Guard officials will compare their performance data with the Navy’s demonstration data to look for any differences. “All the other tests that have been done by the Navy have seen no discernible difference, and we fully expect this to be the same thing,” Sam Alvord, energy fuel section chief for the Coast Guard’s office of energy management, told Defense News. “There were no leaks, no uneven wear, nothing that would raise any eyebrows. It was very short and sweet.”
Photo: The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Henry Blake travels through the Puget Sound on August 22, 2011.
The New York Times published a report this morning differentiating between the underlying issues driving competition in the East and South China Seas.
As readers of this blog know well, concerns over access to natural resources are an important driver of competition in the South China Sea. States ringing the sea are competing for territorial claims to potentially rich reserves of oil, natural gas and other mineral deposits.
But in the East China Sea, other issues are in play. The New York Times reminds us: “Unlike in the South China Sea, where the frictions center on competition for natural resources, the East Asian island disputes are more about history, rooted in lingering — and easily ignited — anger over Japan’s brutal dominance decades ago.”
The latest dispute over the uninhabited island group near Taiwan – known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China – began in earnest earlier this year when Tokyo’s Governor Shintaro Ishiara announced that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government was negotiating with private landowners to purchase the islands by the end of 2012. “Under pressure not to look weak in advance of elections, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda quickly said the central government would buy the islands instead,” The New York Times reports. “That set off a tit-for-tat between activists from both countries.”
In July, the Obama administration barred Iraq’s Elaf Islamic Bank from doing business with the U.S. banking system due to alleged ties to illegal financial transactions with Iran that threaten to undermine the effectiveness of Western sanctions against Tehran’s illicit nuclear program, according to The New York Times.
“The little-known bank singled out by the United States, the Elaf Islamic Bank, is only part of a network of financial institutions and oil-smuggling operations that, according to current and former American and Iraqi government officials and experts on the Iraqi banking sector, has provided Iran with a crucial flow of dollars at a time when sanctions are squeezing its economy,” The New York Times reported on Sunday.
Iraq and Iran have steadily increased economic ties since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, with trade estimated at around $11 billion a year, according to The New York Times report. “Just last week, an Iraqi delegation that includes the deputy prime minister and top officials from the ministries of finance and trade and the central bank met in Tehran with their Iranian counterparts for talks about further increasing economic ties.”
While the United States and other countries in the Western Hemisphere are poised to become major energy producers over the next decade, the shift in global energy production from the Middle East to the Americas will be gradual and stability in the Persian Gulf will remain import to U.S. energy security.
Higher average temperatures in the United States continue to take a toll on U.S. energy infrastructure, raising concerns about the impact of long-term climate trends and U.S. energy security.
In June, the journal Nature Climate Change published a study that found that energy production from thermoelectric power plants (such as nuclear power stations) could become increasingly constrained as a result of climate change, largely from higher average temperatures warming rivers and other water resources that these facilities rely on for cooling. “During recent warm, dry summers in 2003, 2006 and 2009 several thermoelectric power plants in Europe were forced to reduce production, because of restricted availability of cooling water,” the study found. “In the US a similar event in 2007–2008 caused several power plants to reduce production, or shut down for several days owing to a lack of surface water for cooling and environmental restrictions on thermal discharges.”
That trend is continuing, according to a recent report in The New York Times. On Monday, the Times reported that a nuclear reactor at the Millstone nuclear plant in Waterford, Connecticut was shut down because that water in Long Island Sound was too warm to cool one of the reactors. “Under the reactor’s safety rules, the cooling water can be no higher than 75 degrees. On Sunday afternoon, the water’s temperature soared to 76.7 degrees, prompting the operator, Dominion Power, to order the shutdown of the 880-megawatt reactor,” according to the report.
While the potential reserves of oil and natural gas are important drivers of Beijing’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea, access to the sea's energy resources is not the only issue behind China’s outsized claim to the area. According to a Sunday report in The New York Times, China's upcoming leadership transition may also be shaping Beijing’s behavior in the region.
“The leadership in Beijing appears to have fastened on to the South China Sea as a way of showing its domestic audience that China is now a regional power, able to get its way in an area it has long considered rightfully its own,” The New York Times reported. “Some analysts view the stepped-up actions as a diversion from the coming once-a-decade leadership transition, letting the government show strength at a potentially vulnerable moment.”
Of course, Beijing’s concerns about domestic politics and access to energy resources are not mutually exclusive. After all, China’s interest in the potential oil and natural gas in the South China Sea is in part driven by concerns over its vulnerability elsewhere, particularly the Strait of Malacca, through which up to 80 percent of China’s Persian Gulf and African oil imports travels. A closure of the strait could have an immediate impact on the Chinese economy and domestic stability. “[I]f the Malacca Strait were closed for just one day, the disruption in energy supplies might cause social unrest in China, according to a well-placed officer of the People’s Liberation Army,” wrote Patrick M. Cronin and Robert D. Kaplan in a January 2012 CNAS study, Cooperation from Strength: The United States, China and the South China Sea.
On Monday, the Departments of Defense and Interior formalized a partnership to develop renewable energy at or near DOD facilities aimed in part at strengthening the military’s resiliency to disruptions in the electric grid.
“Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar have signed a memorandum of understanding [MOU] that encourages appropriate development of renewable energy projects on public lands set aside for defense-related purposes and other onshore and offshore areas near military installations,” American Forces Press Service reported on Monday. “Each of the military services has committed to deploy 1 gigawatt of renewable energy on or near its installations by 2025.”
The DOD-Interior MOU comes on the heels of a warning by a top U.S. government official about the vulnerability of the U.S. electric grid. Last month at the Aspen Security Forum, Paul Stockton, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs, cautioned that the U.S. electric grid is vulnerable to disruption, particularly from a terrorists attack that could cause a “long term, large scale outage.”
Defense officials are acutely aware of this vulnerability and the implications for DOD’s readiness. The Department of Defense relies on many domestic installations to serve as command and control centers for critical operations abroad, such as drone missions in Afghanistan. “And to make those operations function, we depend on the electric grid,” Stockton said.
Developing renewable energy projects on DOD facilities can help mitigate this vulnerability by helping the military rely less on the civilian electric grid. The effort – known as “islanding” – is intended to insulate DOD facilities from a disruption to the civilian electric grid by generating enough power on base to sustain critical functions for an indefinite period of time.
The state-run China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) is becoming an increasingly important element in Beijing’s South China Sea energy strategy.
According to The Times of India, CNOOC recently made a $15 billion bid to acquire Canada’s Nexen Inc., a company with deep expertise in offshore drilling that Beijing would like to tap into in order to exploit potential oil and natural gas resources in the South China Sea.
Beijing’s drive to develop advanced offshore drilling capability is seen in many ways as a cornerstone of its strategy to exploit the potential energy reserves beneath the South China Sea. According to some Chinese media reports, an estimated 70 percent of oil and natural gas reserves lie in deep-water reserves, at depths of over 300 meters. To date, however, China’s energy companies have lacked the technical capability to exploit these reserves, often drilling in shallower waters. In particular, CNOOC’s expertise in advanced offshore drilling has fallen behind other privately-held international oil companies that can drill to depths beyond 10,000 meters.
But that could all be changing. In May, CNOOC began operating China’s first-ever deep-water drilling rig that some observers say could prepare China to begin drilling to depths of between 10,000 and 12,000 meters, possibly eclipsing the record set in 2009 by the Deepwater Horizon rig that drilled to 10,683 meters. And CNOOC’s bid for Nexen Inc. may help the state-run company acquire additional technological expertise that it needs to successfully exploit the South China Sea’s deep sea resources.