April 13, 2011

Lessons from Libya: DOD’s Long-term Energy Strategy Needs International Plan of Action

The U.S. and NATO military mission in Libya offers an
important lesson for the Department of Defense as the U.S. military continues
its development, testing, evaluation and implementation of alternative energy
fuels: DOD needs to engage U.S. allies on setting fuel standards that guarantee

Last week, Sweden’s English news outlet The Local reported that Swedish JAS Gripen aircraft were grounded
in Sicily and unable to participate in the U.N. No-Fly mission in Libya because
the aircraft did not have access to the necessary fuel. According to the
report, “The eight fighter jets are located in the US part of the Sigonella
airbase on Sicily and the only
fuel available it that which [sic] is used for US navy aircraft.

The fuel used by U.S. Navy aircraft – Jet Propellant 5 (JP5)
– has different technical specifications from the Jet A1 fuel that the Swedish
Gripen requires. “Certain additives and some equipment are needed to change JP5
to Jet A1 in a controlled manner,” Lieutenant Colonel Mats Brindsjö, head of
the Swedish Air Operation Center, told The
. “This equipment is not as yet in place down there and in the time
being we are trying to buy the fuel from a place off the base.”

The lack of interoperable fuel is an additional challenge to
military fuel logistics. But as the Libya mission demonstrates, it is a
challenge that already exists and could become more acute as the U.S. military
moves away from reliance on traditional petroleum fuels and adopts new
renewable biofuels. The U.S. military is continually testing and evaluating new
biofuels with hydrocarbon equivalents to JP5 and JP8 (the fuel used in most U.S.
Air Force aircraft) that it can safely mix and blend into existing jet fuel and
be used by its aircraft fleet. Meanwhile, the National Laboratories and other
biotechnicians continue to make great leaps in renewable fuel production that
could perhaps eventually replace fossil fuels in U.S. military aircraft.  The challenge, as the incident in Sicily
portends, is developing fuel that can be accessed through the global supply
chain that the U.S. military relies on. (The U.S. military refuels at different
locations around the world and would need access to these renewable fuels in
these locations if DOD’s long-term energy strategy is going to be successful on
the scale that it needs it to be.) The solution is to develop an international
plan of action that engages our allies on alternative energy development.

In their September 2010 report, Fueling the Future Force:
Preparing the Department of Defense for a Post-Petroleum Era
, Christine
Parthemore and John Nagl offer a framework for this type of international
engagement. “At a minimum, this should include information sharing on
alternative energy research and development,” they wrote. “It should also
include cooperation with international partners on fuel testing and evaluation
and setting fuel standards that guarantee interoperability.” They argue that
standardization should be a process familiar to DOD, “which already sets joint
standards with allies by, for example, standardizing the use of 9mm NATO
cartridges by all member countries.”    In the long term, working with U.S. allies on
energy technology sharing could have the “positive effect of signaling to
international suppliers (both countries and private companies) that DOD will
favor procurement of non-petroleum fuels when possible.”

The bottom line is that the Department of Defense needs to
incorporate into its long-term energy plan a strategy for standardizing fuel
with U.S. allies. In an era of fiscal austerity in which the United States is
likely to increasingly leverage its relationships with U.S. allies to have them
play a more prominent role in international military missions, interoperability
in combined missions will be critical, and we cannot wait. If Libya is any
lesson, it is a challenge that already exists and could become more pressing as
the U.S. military leaps ahead in development and implementation of
non-petroleum fuels.

Photo: Swedish
JAS-39 Gripen. Courtesy of Flickr user Nathan150.