September 28, 2010

Murder-Boarding Our New Energy Report: Day 1

As promised yesterday, today and through the week I’m going to highlight some of the comments and critiques we received from CNAS and non-CNAS reviewers of our new report, “Fueling the Future Force: Preparing the Department of Defense for a Post-Petroleum Era.”

I’m going to begin with a very smart suggestion by a trailblazer in considering DOD’s energy future, Jim Morin, an Associate at Hogan Lovells and retired Army infantry officer. In May 2010, he authored one of the first major blueprints for DOD’s energy future to emerge in the think tank world: “Cutting the Tether: Enhancing the U.S. Military’s Energy Performance.”

Here’s what Jim suggested to us for “Fueling the Future Force”:

Among many “sustains,” the first suggested “improve” that strikes me is the 2040 target date.  While wholly reasonable in light of major system acquisition timelines, it just sounds very distant to much of the wide-ranging audience. Just as a few examples, 2040 is past the retirement date for almost all currently serving military officers, 25 years past the most distant exit event for a typical venture capital fund and at least 26 years past the re-election date for any member of Congress.

This was an excellent point. Over the past few years we’ve seen several rounds of personnel turnover in energy and resource positions. It is an important consideration. He continued:

A clearer way to express the same imperative to this goal is to argue that the DOD needs to stop purchasing non-flex fuel – or petroleum-only – equipment within the next 5 years.  That will get some attention because that means internal corporate R&D budgets for next year ought to include some fuel or fuel consumption related research. A five year horizon means that federal managers had better fit this new paradigm into the next POM and the JROC will have even more urgency in their work on fuel efficiency KPPs.  Substantively, this tack would state your same conclusion, but instead of starting with 2040 and working backwards, start with 2015 and work forwards, concluding with the same timeline with a full transition in 2040.

This made us really pause to reconsider the goal we had established in this paper: ensuring that DOD can fully operate without petroleum by 2040. Jim went further than any reviewer in questioning the goal we suggested and offering a viable alternative. In the end, I thought that a 5-year goal was too easy to dismiss for political reasons, so we held our paper to a long-term goal.

However, as Jim states, the two are not incompatible. It does raise the question of which DOD assets absolutely need petroleum-based fuels and for which drop-in chemically-equivalent fuels would not work. Do any of our DOD readers know of any examples? Beyond fuels, I’d bet some petroleum-based lubricants fall into this category. I can tell you a lot more about nukes and missiles than tanks and ships, so I’m sure there is an array of applications that I’m not thinking of that would be affected by the standard Jim proposes.

Jim’s suggestion would create a useful exercise in identifying which assets are going to be the most difficult to manage through an energy transition – a key step in ensuring that DOD can operate in a post-petroleum era. It’s a great idea, and I’d suggest that DOD decision makers strongly consider his recommendation.