The likelihood of budget reductions, whether sequestration or something less devastating, has presented a challenge for the U.S. military’s energy programs. As part of the inevitable political jockeying, some legislators and commentators have suggested that recent military-policy changes constitute a “war on fossil fuel,” while others have celebrated recent developments by the military in solar-power generation, biofuels usage, and energy efficiency.
Some in this debate have expressed genuine concern for the underlying issues at stake, but others have been more interested in partisan point-scoring than in developing an energy strategy that best serves the military’s mission. Given the controversy over failed green-energy projects like Solyndra and sharp cuts in defense spending, the issue is obviously a sensitive one. But while a degree of politicization is inevitable, , the military needs an energy policy to fulfill its mission, and it should be kept as apolitical as possible. With our combat operations winding down and budgets being reduced, the military will inevitably consider scaling down some of its energy programs, but they should not gut them.
First, the energy technologies and policies most likely to work for the military will be those that maintain a relentless focus on the military’s core mission. Faddish projects need not apply, nor should prestige projects that are peripheral to basic national-security needs. Military leaders must realize that in a time of diminished budgets, some exploratory projects, even ones that may have been worthy in a more robust budget environment, are no longer viable.
One core strategic area still ripe for improvement involves reducing the military’s dependence on the electrical grid. The U.S.’s grid has significant vulnerabilities to technical breakdowns, weather-related disasters, and terrorism. Both enhancement of the existing grid and increased use of “distributed energy” solutions can significantly reduce these vulnerabilities. But it is not clear, for example, that the DOD goal of installing 3 gigawatts of renewable power on Army, Navy, and Air Force installations by 2025 is the best way to address this issue, especially in the absence of a specific and clear strategic aim. The focus should be on strategic needs, not arbitrary numerical targets.
Pushing the implementation of new technologies is another matter. There is potential strategic value in some initiatives, such as using biofuel for ships and aircraft (the Navy’s “Great Green Fleet”). But such efforts should proceed only if they can be attained at reasonable cost and scale, with a high likelihood of significant tactical benefits. The military instead should focus intensively on areas where it can use new energy technologies to cut costs.
Other worthwhile projects include the Navy’s admirable energy-efficiency initiatives afloat and ashore and the development items such as the Army’s rucksack-enhanced-portable-power system (REPPS), which has been used in Afghanistan. REPPS, by using renewable-energy technologies to allow longer patrols while lightening soldiers’ loads, gave our warfighters an operational and tactical advantage. There may be many technologies not yet cost-effective for civilian use that would offer great, real advantages for the warfighter, and this is the kind of technologies DOD has incubated in the past. Even in future years of constrained budgets, it should continue to do so.
Third, the military must consider energy-related process improvements, particularly reform of its procurement process. Procurement reform could mean significant cost savings and greater capability. Energy-related procurement reform means that the military must incorporate energy considerations into the budgeting and acquisition process. If long-term energy costs are not considered in procurement, the military will continue to purchase items with lower up-front costs but excessive recurring long-term energy costs. This is unacceptable in an era in which we need to get the maximum warfighting capability out of every dollar we spend.
Most important, a culture change must take place among national-security leaders. That change cannot happen just in specialist energy units. It must be part of the mindset of every sailor, soldier, airman, Marine, and Coast Guardsman as well as all civilian DOD employees. Only when a culture of energy awareness and efficiency truly exists at every level in DOD can we give our armed forces the full innovation and power they need and deserve.
— Admiral Gary Roughead served as 29th Chief of Naval Operations and is the Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, Jeremy Carl is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Director of Research for the Shultz-Stephenson Task Force on Energy Policy, Commander Manuel Hernandez was a National Security Affairs Fellow at the Hoover Institution from 2011 to 2012. He will be assigned as the Executive Officer/Commanding Officer of the guided-missile destroyer USS Spruance in 2013. They are the authors, of the recently released study Powering the Armed Forces.