The Oil and the Glory

Isn’t reducing soldier casualties a military priority?

A RAND Institute researcher has stirred up the green-energy edifice with a report concluding that clean fuels have little military value, and that the U.S. service branches are wasting millions of dollars by trying to replace their consumption of fossil fuels. The author, James Bartis, says agricultural products such as camelina will never produce much ...

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A RAND Institute researcher has stirred up the green-energy edifice with a report concluding that clean fuels have little military value, and that the U.S. service branches are wasting millions of dollars by trying to replace their consumption of fossil fuels. The author, James Bartis, says agricultural products such as camelina will never produce much fuel, and that algae may but not for another decade or 15 years. The takeaway, says Bartis — find out if there is a national strategic reason to get off oil, but don’t look for it in the military.

That raised the hackles of the biofuels industry. The Algal Biomass Organization called the report “flawed.” Tom Hicks, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy, asserted that Bartis didn’t do the usual good RAND job, reports DoD Buzz.

There is a problem with Bartis’s report, but not that it’s inaccurate — it isn’t, which I figured out in a phone conversation with him last evening. The problem is that the folks who ordered up the report — Congress — asked an incomplete question. The result? Bartis’s report is misleading by omission. His report focuses solely on non-fossil fuels, as Congress requested in a 2009 appropriations bill, and leaves out alternative energy such as solar and fuel cells. But the U.S. Army and DARPA, the super-secret military invention lab, have been developing the latter two for a surpassing military strategic goal — to reduce the number of soldiers killed and maimed by roadside bombs while they guard serpentine fuel convoys into Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We were asked to look at liquid fuels,” Bartis told me. “But if you need electricity,” and it were cost-effective, “photo-voltaics would be a good option.”

The subtext is a fistful of heavyweight reports issued over the last three or so years that have identified fossil fuel consumption and climate change as major strategic military issues for the United States. Two consecutive reports by former senior military officers, released by the Center for Naval Analyses , called climate change a strategic threat to the United States, and urged a reduction in the U.S. reliance on foreign fuel. Deloitte produced a report stating that every forward operating base in Afghanistan requires a minimum of 300 gallons of diesel daily, and that a typical Marine combat brigade uses 500,000 gallons of fuel per day.

Then, a 2009 report by the Army Environmental Policy Institute produced a formula that calculates the number of soldier casualties expectable from the use of huge volumes of fuel in the battlezone: 1 casualty — either an injury or death — for every 24 convoys. In terms of fuel, 2.1 million barrels of fuel were trucked into Afghanistan in 2007 in 897 convoys, in which there were 38 casualties, Army-Technology.com reported.  A lot of that fuel is not for Abrams talks or jets, but to run generators for air-conditioned and lighted tents, and the use of laptops. The report calculated that a 10 percent reduction in fuel consumption over a five-year period could lead to 35 fewer fuel-related resupply casualties.

Partly as a result, the Army set a goal of reducing its fuel and supply shipments to 5,000-troop brigades from once every few days to just once a month. As a whole, the Pentagon appropriated some $300 million to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.

Some of the fuel reduction has been carried out through common-sense approaches such as insulating tents so they don’t need as much air conditioning. As I wrote in a piece a couple of years ago, DARPA — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — is funding its own slew of edgy technologies including highly efficient solar voltaic devices.

Bartis might appear to be contradicting these reports, but in fact he isn’t. He simply laid out what we all know — that biofuels may never be more economical than oil, and many of them will probably never be produced in commercial volumes.

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