New Mission for U.S. Military: Breaking its Dependence on Oil

As head of a new energy office at the Pentagon, Sharon Burke is charged with finding ways for the U.S. armed forces to cut its dangerous reliance on oil. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, she talks about what new technologies are being tested and why the military considers energy use a key strategic issue in the field.

When it comes to energy consumption, no single part of the U.S. government comes close to the Department of Defense. Military operations account for about 80 percent of the federal government’s total energy use; last year, the energy budget for the U.S. armed forces reached $13.4 billion.

Pentagon leaders say this staggering reliance on fossil fuels is not just expensive. It’s a threat to U.S. troops, they note, as supplying an increasingly energy-hungry army exposes fuel supply lines to attack and makes frontline troops more vulnerable to energy disruptions. For these and other reasons, U.S. Marine Corps General Jim Mattis has said, “Unleash us from the tether of fuel.”

To strengthen the military’s energy security, Congress created the Division of Operational Energy Plans and Programs, and earlier this year Sharon Burke was sworn in as its first director. Burke, 44, the former vice president of the Center for New American Security — a nonpartisan research group based in Washington, D.C. — and a member of two previous U.S. administrations, has been charged with assessing the Defense Department’s energy use on the battlefield. She is seeking ways to cut costs and save lives through conservation measures and the development of renewable energy innovations that can be adapted for use in military operations.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, conducted by Washington-based journalist Louis Peck, Burke describes the rationale behind the creation of her new office, the types of technologies being tested by the military, and the challenges she faces — cultural as well as technological — in implementing them on the battlefield. “There’s a wide recognition, especially when you talk to younger folks who have been deployed, that the way we’re doing business is hurting us,” Burke says.

Yale Environment 360: What factors went into the decision to create the office you now head, and why have these issues become such a priority for the Defense Department?

Sharon Burke: The Department of Defense is a significant user of energy. Of federal energy use, DOD accounts for 80 percent or so. As a total user of energy in the U.S. economy, it’s closer to 1 percent — but still, that’s significant for a single institution. It’s a huge amount of energy. Seventy percent of the energy the department consumes is in what we call operational energy use — the energy that we use to conduct our core business, which is military operations. The operational energy bill in 2009 was just shy of $9.4 billion, so the total energy bill last year was $13.4 billion, which counts fixed facilities.

e360: That $13.4 billion figure is for the entire Defense Department?

“It has become clear in Iraq and in Afghanistan that the amount of fuel we consume is a liability.”

Burke: That’s correct. And so, last year, 70 percent of the cost and 75 percent of the amount was for operations. That’s almost 121 million barrels of oil equivalent. That’s a huge amount of fuel consumed for military operations. And what has become increasingly clear is that it’s not just a financial cost; it hurts our military capability and our military effectiveness. When you consume that much oil, you have to move that much oil around. And it means your force is very dependent on receiving that much oil in order to operate. So, it has become very clear in Iraq and in Afghanistan that the amount of fuel we consume is a liability — it’s a challenge for us as a force, and it hurts our capabilities.

As a department, we haven’t looked at this as a separate issue. There was no place to figure out how to get your arms around this — there was no office, there was no official, there was no budget line, there was no clear way to deal with this. And that was why Congress created the office in the 2009 defense authorization bill. They felt the department did not have the means for addressing the challenges — both in terms of the damage to our effectiveness and the cost in human terms, because we’re moving a lot of people around in convoys that are in the battlefield, and the convoys are getting hit.

Sometimes people wonder, “Is this a green agenda?” It’s not that it’s not, but the impetus really came from our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, the iconic quote came from [Marine Corps] General Jim Mattis — now the head of the U.S. Central Command — who said back in 2003, “Unleash us from the tether of fuel.” That came directly from his experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, where we saw that our fuel supplies were both tying us down and making us vulnerable. But getting from identifying the problem to solving it was unfamiliar territory for the department.

e360: Discuss some of green technology that you’re seeking to deploy in the field or that are under consideration and/or testing.

Burke: There are two different kinds of technologies that are very interesting. One involves “Why do we have this problem?” Energy supplies have often been targets in times of war. You go back to World War II, and the supply lines were a strategic and a tactical target for all players — the Germans, the Japanese, and for us. What’s different now is that our forces are much more energy intensive than they ever have been before. What’s creating that demand is technology, to some degree. We have, at a unit level and at an individual level, far more energy-consuming gear than we’ve ever had before. So there’s demand-side work that we can do and should do, and there’s the supply side.

What’s different now is our forces are much more energy intensive than they ever have been before.”

In terms of what has been tried so far, one of the big consumers on the battlefield is shelters. The shelters that are typically in the [military] theater are tents, or they are built structures where often the standards are a little out of date. And they are not very energy-efficient. So there has been a lot of testing and evaluation, looking at what we can do better there. The Army has actually sprayed foam insulation on the outside of tents in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Those get about a 50-percent cut in their energy consumption. It’s not necessarily optimal, because then the tent is not mobile any more — and you have to dispose of it. However, for tents you had in place, it was a good solution. We took [fuel] trucks off the road with that.

We’re also now testing insulated tents. The Marine Corps right now, in [Afghanistan’s] Helmand Province, actually has a unit that is in combat with one of these insulated tents with a solar fly to see how it works. It’s just like you were camping with a tent, and you put a fly over your tent. This has a fly that’s just like a skin, like an awning over the top of the tent. And you have both an insulation layer from the awning, and there are also solar panels in the awning itself that collect some energy.

e360: What else are you currently testing in a battlefield situation?

Burke: For gear that needs batteries or electricity, it’s coming from a generator. So there are thousands and thousands of generators on the battlefield. Some are good; some are not so efficient. There’s a lot of work going on… from a more efficient generator itself, to micro-grids, and doing load management that includes inputs from alternative energies. All those things are being tested, and some of the more efficient generators have been put out in the field.

e360: Traditionally, when the auto industry has sought to improve fuel efficiency for consumer vehicles, it often has done so by adjusting size. I suspect that a sub-compact tank is not in the cards. Are there ways to retrofit current vehicles to become more fuel-efficient, or is it more of a long-term issue of redesign?

Burke: We’re doing both. For my office, our two goals are to, one, get rapid fueling solutions to current operations; and, two, to affect how we develop the future military force. For example, the Army has said it needs a new joint light tactical vehicle and a new ground combat vehicle. And their fuel demand is going to be considered in how they build those things. There are things you can do if you’re starting [with] lighter materials, like a blast bucket design that is energy-efficient and that also helps with managing undercarriage blasts. So, when we’re starting from soup to nuts, there are a lot of options with more efficient engines, with materials, with designs.

e360: What about the retrofitting component?

Burke: There is actually a lab that is devoted to this, an Army lab called the Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center — TARDEC. They’ve done some retrofits with vehicles that are in theater. That’s an area I’m very interested in expanding. As equipment comes back to be refurbished, we’d like to include energy-efficiency improvements in that refurbishment.

e360: Given the current focus domestically on electric vehicles as a means of helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is there a way to utilize them on the battlefield?

Burke: Again, there’s a range of research and development going on. The Navy has actually had a demonstration of hybrid electric propulsion for ships that was a successful test, and now the question goes into further development.

“A lot of things need further development because they have to be able to stand up to the conditions of combat.”

For some of the ground vehicle tests, the needs of these vehicles have to take into account what you’re going to use it for. If [a vehicle] is going to spend a lot of time on what we call “silent watch” — where it’s not actually rolling, it’s just sitting there — you may not get the efficiency gains from a hybrid. So you have to make sure that you understand how you’re going to use the equipment. And, for the military, performance is always going to be a very important goal. When you’re talking about battlefield performance, you have to make sure that it can do what it needs to do.

e360: The DOD’s recent Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan refers to several initiatives under your jurisdiction. One is the so-called Net Zero project, which foresees the possibility that all energy needed by a military encampment would be generated on site. How far are we from achieving that?

Burke: I don’t think my crystal ball is any better than yours, but we have done technology demonstrations that are aimed at that.

e360: What are some of the other technologies that would factor into such an effort?

Burke: There is interest in practical waste energy, which is still a ways off. Also, another one of the important issues is going to be energy-storage technology — batteries — for a full range of capabilities in a forward operating base. That will be really key to having more independent, self-sustaining bases.

For generation, we’re looking across the full range of supply like everybody else is: solar, geothermal, tactical wind. We’ve investigated biofuels, biodiesel, fuel cells — everything. A lot of things need further development — because they have to be able to stand up to the conditions of combat. We can’t take a risk that something’s going to fail while someone’s in combat.

e360: Navy Secretary Ray Mabus was quoted in a New York Times article earlier this fall as saying that, by 2020, the Navy has a goal of drawing 50 percent of its energy [for installations] from renewable sources. Is there a similar goal across the entire Defense Department?

Burke: No, there isn’t — not yet. My office is responsible for producing a strategy for the department on operational energy. There are some goals on the installation side on greenhouse gas emission targets — 34 percent [reduction by 2020].

e360: At this point, though, you haven’t worked out goals on the operational energy side?

Burke: Not yet. One of the first things we need to do is get better data on operational energy use. Because, again, traditionally, the department has not collected data on this — so we have very general numbers about how much fuel is moving into theater. It’s very hard to manage what you can’t measure. Also, you have to be careful about the question you ask and the answer you want.

“By solving our own problems, I think we will be able to have a crossover application in the civil sector.”

For example, if you look at the numbers, they can hide some really important truths. Our energy use in theater right now is probably 70 percent for Air Force. So you’d say right away, “Well, you’ve got to put all your focus on the Air Force, because that’s your big consumer.” And that’s certainly true. But you have to remember why we’re there — we’re fighting a war on the ground. So the 30 percent being used by the ground force is about their capability in the actual firefight. They can’t be there without the Air Force; the Air Force is moving in all their equipment. But that 30 percent is critical to our military operations. So, if you just went on the numbers, and you set our metrics by that, you might miss where you’re going to affect the point of our spear.

I just recently visited Transportation Command, which handles all of the military’s mobility. One of the most significant energy savings they’ve made — and they’ve made all kinds of technological investments from software to retrofits of the hardware — has been changing the way they actually operate. They changed their routes, they use ships and planes instead of just planes — and they got significant fuel savings.

e360: Secretary Mabus noted that the cost of transporting fuel to remote locations can sometimes turn a $3-gallon of gas into as much as a $400-gallon of gas. Is there any goal at this point for reducing those kinds of staggering costs?

Burke: Our first goal always has to be improving our military capability. It’s why we’re there… It won’t be very meaningful to the military commanders who are in the middle of a war if we say, “We’re going to cut your costs.” That, I believe, is an outcome of our success — that we will cut costs.

The $400 number is for an extreme scenario. A lot of those costs come in the cost of moving the fuel and protecting it — putting combat forces on protecting the fuel. If we can get more efficient generators and more efficient tents, we will take convoys off the road — and that will bring the costs down.

e360: If a documentary were being made about your program, one might be tempted to subtitle it “G.I. Joe Meets Earth Day.” In other words, in addition to the technological challenges you’re facing, you’re also facing a cultural challenge in selling use of green technology to the military.

Burke: I think, in the department, the documentary is “G.I. Joe Moves Into The 21st Century.” There’s a wide recognition, especially when you talk to younger folks who have been deployed, that the way we’re doing business is hurting us, is making it difficult for us to conduct our capabilities — and that it’s putting people’s lives at risk unnecessarily. When you approach the issue that way, we get a lot of support.

That’s not to say there aren’t barriers and there aren’t challenges. But I think it’s less because people perceive us as “green” or irrelevant to their mission — but more that they’ve got so many other things going. When you’re talking to a commander who’s out on a patrol base in Afghanistan, and their number one priority is going to be who’s shooting at them and how they execute the mission, it’s a question of convincing them that this actually helps them execute their mission better. And so it’s not that I think people reject it because they think we’re “enviros,” but because they need to know how it’s relevant to what they’re doing.

I once was talking to a young guy who had been a military policeman on a supply line in Iraq, and I asked him if he had any feeling about our dependence on oil. He was probably only 20 years old. And he kind of smiled and said, “You only have to watch a fuel truck blow up once to appreciate the irony of your situation.” So, they get it.

e360: Just as the push to get to the moon in the 1960s triggered research that led to major advances in electronics in the consumer marketplace, do you expect your efforts with regard to green technology — and those of the department as a whole — will have an impact on the consumer market, particularly given DOD’s size and purchasing power?

Burke: The department has a long history of innovation for defense purposes that crosses over into the civil sector. I think there’s room for that in the energy space, too — that the military is beginning to define its requirements in this area, and what it needs to be different. And by solving our own problems, I think we will be able to have a crossover application in the civil sector.