December 06, 2011

On the Cost of DOD Energy in Afghanistan

This morning, The
Wall Street Journal
rightly reported that the
United States faces considerable costs with fueling its forces in Afghanistan,
both in blood and treasure
. The military is vulnerable to attacks
against supply convoys that cross from Pakistan into Afghanistan, for example.
The Department of Defense recently estimated that attacks against fuel convoys
have caused thousands
of causalities in Iraq and Afghanistan, including service members, contractors
and civilians
; exact figures are difficult to come by. Meanwhile, every one dollar
increase in the price per barrel of oil costs the Department of Defense about an
additional $130 million dollars on its energy bill

Having a conversation about the critical energy security
challenges the military faces is important, especially in this fiscal
environment where potential cuts could be made to programs that bolster the
military’s ability to redress its energy vulnerability. But it is important to
get the facts straight, if for nothing else because we need an accurate
baseline to measure progress against.

The Wall Street
reported this morning – in its headline and body copy – that fueling
the force “costs
a lot of money – up to $400 a gallon, by military estimates
.” This “$400 a
gallon” figure is thrown around quite often when DOD energy security comes up,
and I understand why: it’s a striking amount to pay for fuel and it is illustrative.
But in my conversations with DOD energy experts, this price is rarely paid and
more or less reflects the worst case scenarios; situations, for example, where
fuel bladders have to be flown by helicopter or a C-130 to remote outpost that
have to be refueled in flight in order to make their delivery. And even this
example may not accurately convey the worst case scenarios that defense
logisticians are dealing with when the price of fuel grows this high.

The Marine Corp deployed a team to Afghanistan in 2009 – the
Marine Energy Assessment Team, or MEAT – to assess the average price paid by DOD
for fuel in Afghanistan. According to their findings, DOD’s Defense Energy
Support Center paid $2.19 per gallon for fuel (the strategic level cost, or the
price paid at home). When the fuel was delivered to the operational level – a
forward operating base – in Afghanistan, the price per gallon grew to $6.39 a
gallon. It was then estimated that it cost $11.70 per gallon at the tactical
edge – to those military units deployed outside the wire, presumably at remote
outposts. (See
page 10 in the MEAT’s Afghanistan Assessment Outbrief for these figures
.) Although
these figures represent the month of August 2009, it is difficult to imagine
that the costs have changed dramatically since then; and very unlikely that the
costs approached an average of $400 a gallon, unless there was a dramatic situation
like the one described above.  

The point is not at all to demonize or admonish those who
use the $400 a gallon figure to describe DOD’s energy security challenges. The
fact is it costs a lot – in blood and treasure – to fuel the force; the $400 a
gallon headline crystallizes the capital costs, at least. But don’t be confused
by the headlines – the military is not paying on average $400 a gallon for
fuel. If policymakers, logisticians and energy experts are going to tackle the energy
challenges the military faces, we need accurate figures to measure progress and
we need to all be working from the same numbers. The MEAT’s assessment offers a
better place to start from. And defense energy experts will need to regularly
update these figures in order to continually measure realistic progress.       

A U.S. Army soldier attaches a 4,000-pound collapsible fuel bladder to the
bottom of a helicopter in preparation for an aerial resupply mission at Forward
Operating Base Sharana in Paktika province, Afghanistan, on August 7, 2010. Courtesy
of Sgt. Brent C. Powell and the U.S. Army.