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Military Must Reduce Its Use of Fossil Fuels

By Ian Graham
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON, Oct. 19, 2010 – The Defense Department’s current reliance on expensive, difficult–to-transport and finite fossil fuels affects cost-reduction efforts as well as war-fighting operations, a senior Pentagon official said.

“Certainly, for current operations and for the future, one of the things we're really focused on is reducing demand, [which is] reducing our consumption, because no matter what kind of energy we're using, the amount of energy we're using causes us problems in practice -- particularly in the kinds of fights we're fighting today where so much of our logistics train is in the battlefield,” Sharon Burke, director of the department’s operational energy plans and programs, said in a recent “DoDLive” Bloggers roundtable.

Operational energy is the energy used to move, train and sustain weapons, forces and equipment for military operations, said Burke, who discussed the Pentagon’s plans to reduce and reform operational energy consumption.

In her recently created position, Burke’s job, she said, is to look into current operational energy usage and find ways to lower total fossil fuel consumption, and to work toward incorporating alternative and renewable energy sources into the fighting force.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, she noted, have said that failure to find new, sustainable energy sources will soon pose a threat to national security.

As military installations have worked to become more “green” over the past few years by incorporating alternative power sources and electric vehicles, Burke said, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have renewed interest in reducing fossil fuel usage for military operations.

For example, recent insurgent attacks on NATO fuel convoys near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border have reinforced the military’s concern that alternatives to using fossil fuels must be developed, she said.

“I think the recent NATO supply convoy attacks really got people's attention and brought home to people what the risks are, and what … a worst-case scenario is,” Burke said. “And I think it also illustrated the range of possibility here -- that if we improve the way we use energy on the battlefield -- and of course, 70 percent of the energy the department uses is operational energy -- it'll allow us to shift some resources from tail to tooth.”

The first order of business, she said, is curbing the demand for fossil-based fuels. At a recent DOD-sponsored energy forum, Mullen described the “old” military mentality when it came to fuel as “burn it if you got it.” Burke said that mentality has to be changed before any real operational reform can happen.

For example, Burke said, use of biofuel-blended JP-8 jet fuel will be part of the solution because of its prevalence in war zones. However, she added, the solution is wider ranging.

“Whether we're putting it [jet or diesel fuel] in generators to turn it into electricity to power computers and communications gear, or whether we're putting it into vehicles, almost all the fuel we use on the battlefield is petroleum-based,” she said. “So we have to focus on it. But no matter what kind of energy it is, we have to find a way to use less.”

Burke said a big part of her office’s role is to seek innovative ideas for battlefield-ready products. Marine Corps units, she said, have started deploying with solar-powered generators. Meanwhile, she added, the Army is implementing use of better-insulated tents and water-recycling technology to save energy, and the Air Force has worked for many years to incorporate alternative and renewable fuel sources into their operations.

Burke said she wants to ensure the services don’t lose any vital tools as they pare down fuel consumption. It’s important to get usage levels -- and therefore, costs -- down, she said, but not as important as providing enhanced capability to troops in the field, which new energy technology can do.

“We’re certainly mindful and responsive to the larger energy security situation for the whole nation, but our job is the national security mission of this department,” Burke said. “How does energy and the future for energy make that possible, or make that more complicated? Our job is to look at that. Our job is to improve defense capabilities.”

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