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Greener Battlefields Would Be Safer for Troops

Allied troops would be much safer if they could cut the petroleum tether, according to a chorus of military leaders and planners.
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The experience of Lt. Gen. Richard Zilmer, who in 2006 became the commander of the coalition forces in the Al Anbar province of Iraq, exemplifies the changing strategy of fighting insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Before coming to Iraq, Zilmer focused on the importance of space-related warfighting technologies and capabilities. In Iraq, his concerns were often a little more down to earth — his command's dependence on oil. Seventy percent of all convoys carried liquid fossil fuels, and attacks on convoys, the general learned, account for about half of all the casualties. Generators consumed more of the fuel brought in than did combat vehicles and air support.

So the Marine became a staunch supporter of energy efficiency and renewables, like solar and wind, to reduce the demand for oil at forward bases such as those in Al Anbar. In turn, he urged efforts to "reduce the frequency of logistics convoys on the road," the general wrote to the Pentagon in a top-priority note, and thereby lessening the danger "to our Marines, soldiers and sailors." A 2009 Department of the Army study reported one allied casualty in Afghanistan for every 24 convoys.

On the other hand, Zilmer warned, without "a self-sustainable energy solution, the military will continue to accrue preventable, serious and grave casualties and have the potential to jeopardize mission success." (Or "unleash us from the tether of fuel," as another Marine general, James T. Mattis, has been quoted during the Iraq invasion.)

Zilmer opened the eyes of those in charge of acquisitions and technology in the Department of Defense to the challenge field commanders and soldiers face in moving fuel from supply sites to forward bases in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Pipelines can't be used, and combat activity is widely dispersed in both theaters.

In these new conflicts, fuel consumption has increased tenfold from previous engagements, exacerbating the tough logistics problem. Getting all that gasoline to demand points — a Marine combat brigade uses a half million gallons of fuel a day — not only makes convoys easy targets to road-side bombings and ambushes, but they also face many grave dangers traversing poor roads in harsh terrain.

That fuel is the Achilles heel of the war efforts has been made especially salient by attacks on NATO fuel trucks in Pakistan.

"I would say with the recent issues on the Pakistani border, our logistics tail and our convoys are becoming bigger and bigger issues," Katherine Hammack, the new assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment, said earlier this month. "I believe our soldiers are well aware of the issues and are looking for ways they can use energy wiser."

But you don't need militants to create a crisis. Under such conditions, traffic accidents happen more frequently, bringing about the destruction of people and equipment. Just in June 2008, for example, coalition forces lost 44 fuel tankers and 220,000 gallons of fuel. In addition, the military must divert combat forces both on land and in the air from battle to protect the convoys as they travel. Providing such cover costs the Department of Defense 15 times or more than the actual purchase price of the fuel itself.

For the above reasons, the Department of Defense's Acquisitions and Technology Group argues that the military can no longer regard energy as a cheap and reliably supplied commodity as it has had in times past. A true accounting has to include all the factors previously mentioned.

The Pentagon calls the new concept the "fully burdened cost of fuel." A study recently commissioned by the Department of Defense (PDF here) suggests by reckoning the "fully burdened cost of fuel" in both blood and money, alternative sources of power, including energy efficiency, "rank on par with the business case for development of even more effective offensive weapons, sophisticated fuel transport tankers, mine resistant armored vehicles and net-centric technologies."

The report, produced by Deloitte LLP, could mimic an environmentalist's talking points, including discussions of "a more sustainable planet" (but perhaps minus the suggestion of nuclear power). "Game-changing strategies for reducing this casualty rate ... include widespread and aggressive conservation techniques; the use of renewable resources, in particular, solar and wind energy within the theater; renewable carbon-based fuels generated in theater, such as algae, biomass, and other alternative fuels; the use of highly efficient electric vehicles; nuclear fission; hot/cold fusion; fuel cell technology, and other innovations currently being experimented within labs around the world."

In 2006, the top brass at the Pentagon denied Zilmer's request for solar panels and wind turbines. The reason given was that the technologies were not mature enough. The Defense Science Board berated the decision in its March 2008 report "More Fight — Less Fuel." That report, in turn, referenced another Pentagon report, "More Capable Warfighting Through Reduced Fuel Burden," from 2001.

One reporter asked, "How much time — and how many more lost lives — before the top brass at the Pentagon responds seriously to pleas for efficiency and energy self-sufficiency?"

While there are lots of examples of energy conservation and renewables stateside, the first significant response in a combat zone came with the investment of almost $100 million for insulating thousands of tents in the two war zones. Before, air conditioners in summer and heaters in winter powered by generators controlled the climate inside the tents used as barracks, dining halls and offices. Now they spray foam so it covers the exterior of the tents like shaving cream. Foaming the tents saves the military $2 million a day in avoided energy costs. This translates into a payback of less than two months. It saves 100,000 gallons of fuel per day, taking 4,000 trucks off the road each year. The success of the program in Iraq has led to similar projects in Afghanistan, where supply routes pose a far greater challenge.

Next on the battlefield came photovoltaic systems called "Ground Renewable Expeditionary Energy System," or GREENS, as the answer to Zilmer's rejected request for a sustainable solution to the ever-growing need for electricity in remote, hard-to-reach areas where much of the fighting goes on.

A Humvee can rush a unit out to the battlefield. The panels fold out of frames that look like metal suitcases. Then the Marines plug in the wires from the modules to their electronics. No need for liquid fuel as there's no dearth of sunshine. When the sun sets, power comes from stored sunlight in batteries. Last year, the Marines saw the scorching desert sun as just another of many obstacles. Today, they see it as their most reliable fuel source to power field equipment.

The military has pursued renewable in other ways, too, such as bringing solar power to Falljah's civilians or algae-based biodiesel to Afghanistan.

Brig. Gen. Steven Anderson, the former director of operations and logistics, couldn't be happier. No need to talk about global warming or peak oil, according to the retired general. "The most compelling reason to do [these things]," in Anderson's opinion, "is [they] save lives. It takes drivers off the road."