June 15, 2011

Battlefield Energy Plan Aims To Spark Major Changes In The Pentagon

In the most significant step the Defense Department has yet taken to address its substantial thirst for energy, the Pentagon yesterday released its first strategy (pdf) for changing the way it uses energy on the battlefield.

The plan will be fleshed out with more details in the next three months, including the goals and timelines that motivate the Pentagon's bureaucracy. They will target three main areas: reducing consumption on the battlefield, transitioning to alternative energy sources and building more energy-efficient vehicles and weapons systems.

The cost -- both in dollars and in lives -- of fueling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been a frequent theme among top defense officials, from President Obama down.

"The less [energy] we need, the more operationally resilient we will be," Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn said at a briefing. "We will increase military effectiveness while lowering our costs."

Each of the military services has undertaken its own efforts, with the Marines deploying units to Afghanistan with solar power equipment, the Navy and Air Force certifying their fleets on biofuels and the Army concentrating on reducing energy, water and waste at its installations.

The new report comes out of the Pentagon's Operational Energy office, which was established by Congress with the 2009 defense spending bill to coordinate among the services. The office's director, Assistant Secretary of Defense Sharon Burke, has sweeping authority, including the right to certify -- or decertify -- the more than $700 billion defense budget.

Burke said yesterday that all options are on the table as the Pentagon -- which last year spent $15 billion on energy, according to Lynn -- looks to transform its energy needs.

"The department will incorporate operational energy security into all stages of strategic planning and force development -- from campaign planning to requirements to acquisitions," Burke said yesterday. "This will help the U.S. better prepare our forces for these defense and energy trends and lower our sustainment costs."

Rethinking energy in the way the Pentagon does business

The new strategy redefines energy as a "military capability" -- Pentagon lingo that gives it a role in top military strategies. That is a major change for a bureaucracy that has long assumed fuel will be available when, where and in the quantities it wants.

"The strategy made clear that we need to think about energy on par with the other elements that we think about -- energy needs to be as integral of an element as lethality and mobility," said Will Rogers, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security's "Natural Security" program. "It's an element that cuts across U.S. strategy, rather than treating energy as a secondary element."

Yesterday, Lynn and Burke were careful to position energy within the broader defense trends Pentagon chiefs are watching.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has faced adversaries that use what the security experts call "asymmetric tactics" -- rather than confronting U.S. forces head-on, they aim at soft targets, most notably U.S. fuel convoys.

This, Lynn said yesterday, has made troops' long logistical trail a deep vulnerability. Since the start of the war in Afghanistan, he said, more than 3,000 U.S. troops and contractors have been killed or injured protecting convoys, 80 percent of which were transporting truck fuel.

The nature of warfare is also changing from short, decisive battles to longer, more drawn-out engagements, Lynn said.

"As conflicts become longer in duration and more expeditionary in nature, the amount of fuel that it takes to keep forces in the field has become a significant vulnerability," the deputy defense chief said.

All of this is set against a backdrop of rising fuel prices, declining supplies and increasingly volatile markets.

"The department's current energy consumption patterns are inconsistent with national strategic goals to build American strength and a stable international order," the strategy says.

The need for better data

The first set of goals will not include metrics like percent reductions, Burke said, because her office does not yet know enough about how energy is being used.

Specific energy data have proved a major hurdle for the Operational Energy office. Although Burke said that the military keeps good data on energy purchases -- where it is being sold and moved -- it does not have consistent data on how it is being used.

Anecdotally, she said, generators seem to be the largest sink. One commander, she said yesterday, told her that 80 percent of his delivered fuel was poured into generators, even though his base operated fuel-thirsty armored vehicles.

Collecting better data will be a clear priority in the implementation plan, the strategy indicates. For that, Burke will be tapping the services to implement a uniform way of collecting and reporting data -- no small challenge -- as well as contractors, who are often the ones working most closely with equipment.

"You can't manage what you can't measure," Burke said yesterday. "We want a better sense of where to target our efforts."

Immediate impacts

Although targets and timelines attached to the strategy are not due for three months, Burke and Lynn said they expect to see some immediate energy gains on the battlefield.

In a memo dated June 7, Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, set up an energy office to help commanders cut their use and make energy-smart choices.

"I expect commanders to take ownership of unit fuel demand," Petraeus said, adding that his new team will help them measure and manage consumption and make better choices about power and water generation, structures on their bases, the way they use vehicles, and where to bring in alternative energy options online.

Petraeus also tasked commanders with making sure their personnel understand how the way they use energy affects their combat capabilities.

Meanwhile, Burke's office has been working with DOD contracting authorities to implement new requirements for companies providing logistical support to the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whereas some contracts previously allowed companies to simply bill DOD for the energy they used -- giving them no incentive to make cuts -- the new policy, which goes into effect today, will create new incentives for contractors to be more energy efficient and to measure use.

"Some of these things will have a payback in just months," Burke said.

Not all praise

While the strategy has drawn praise from clean energy groups, some of those who follow the issue most closely within the Pentagon are less glowing.

Retired Brig. Gen. Steven Anderson, who served as the military's top logistician in Iraq during the 2006-2007 troop surge, called the strategy a "major disappointment."

Anderson, who has become a vocal advocate for energy efficiency since retiring from the Army, said the report contained nothing that is not already widely agreed upon within DOD and was disappointed that it did not come from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

"It signals to me that nothing significant is going to happen," Anderson said. "This shows that it's pretty much business as usual, that they don't have a sense of urgency for the issues. They want to handle it in the traditional sense -- in the watered-down, bureaucratic, process-oriented way that will not bring about effective change."

Anderson, who now works for a company that sells spray-foam insulation for military tents, has been calling for a top-down mandate akin to the one Gates made in 2007 that brought Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, to Iraq and Afghanistan. The vehicles are significantly more resistant to the roadside bombs troops have been facing in the past 10 years of war than the vehicles the military was currently using. But the military brass who held the Pentagon's purse strings were more concerned with planning for the next war and were reluctant to spend their budgets on a vehicle that they did not think would fit the next conflict.

Gates was astounded that troops were being lost when something so simple could prevent it, and exerted his leadership -- ordering crash production of the vehicle, making it a national priority to buy the ballistic steel used in the MRAPs and securing extra money from Congress for the program.

"You know how the MRAP program was started? With a two-page memo signed by Secretary Gates," Anderson said. "It's just as compelling now, only this time, instead of spending $25 billion, which we did for the MRAP program -- which is all good, it saved hundreds of lives -- now we're saving billions."

The Pentagon says that is not a fair comparison, and that the Operational Energy office has more than just one problem to solve.

"It's a little bit different of a situation," said DOD spokeswoman Air Force Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan. "This is establishing a long-term strategy."

While many say yesterday's strategy sends an important signal about changes within DOD, they emphasize that only time will tell whether it will actually produce change.

"It's a great first step in terms of starting to answer the question 'How are we going to fuel the future force?'" said Rogers, the Center for a New American Security researcher. "But we won't be able to determine how effective it is until we're able to see how much the Pentagon is able to enact."

In the meantime, the Pentagon may be getting some help from Congress. A number of energy measures have been slipped into the House-passed defense spending bill for next year, and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who released a defense energy bill last week, has said he plans to introduce similar measures into the Senate version being hammered out by the Senate Armed Services Committee this week (E&E Daily, June 9).