Trouble at The Pump

The Pentagon foresees a two-front threat to national security: global instability spurred by climate change and a crippling dependence on oil.

America's economic dependence on foreign oil isn't exactly news. Nor is the idea that such dependence undermines our national security. President Dwight D. Eisenhower worried in the 1950s that if the nation imported more than 20 percent of its oil, it would face an untenable risk. Five decades and three oil price-induced recessions later, with oil imports now at more than 60 percent, the risk is greater than ever. But it's being viewed with a new level of urgency at the Pentagon-not because military planners are worried about the price of oil (in planning and acquisition, the Defense Department treats oil as if it were a free commodity), nor because of any high-minded concerns about the environmental consequences of fossil-fuel consumption.

The Pentagon is pursuing alternative fuels for the same reason it pioneered racial integration and developed the Internet-mission effectiveness is on the line. And just as the Defense Department led transformation of the racial and technological landscape of the United States in the last century, the decisions it makes regarding petroleum use unquestionably will shape the way other federal agencies and ultimately the country operate in this century.

It's impossible to overstate the challenge facing Defense. It is the single-largest consumer of petroleum in the world. Oil fuels the world economy; specifically, it fuels every weapons system operated by the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. If the Pentagon is serious about addressing oil dependency, virtually everything about Defense operations is at stake: from the way the services buy and use materiel and weapons to the way they evaluate and promote the personnel who make those decisions. All will have to change. But the imperative for change has become so compelling that Defense ultimately must succeed, says Terry J. Pudas, director of the Defense Department's Office of Force Transformation.

"If we're not at the tipping point, we're close," says Pudas. "I think that in the last year to year and a half, the amount of activity focused on this subject has grown enormously. My job is to be dissatisfied and impatient" with what's being done. Two recent studies, including one commissioned by Pudas' office, have galvanized support for developing a comprehensive Defense energy policy that moves the department away from oil dependency. Oil addiction is seen to undermine national security in a number of critical ways:

  • Intensive energy requirements limit the military's options on the battlefield and drive up operating costs and casualty rates.
  • Dependence on imported oil distorts and weakens U.S. foreign policy.
  • The increasing worldwide demand for fossil fuels is contributing to global climate change, which will further destabilize politically and economically precarious regions that could require U.S. military intervention.
  • Climate change likely will curtail military basing options in the United States and overseas.

The two studies-"Transforming the Way DoD Looks at Energy: An Approach to Establishing an Energy Strategy" produced by LMI Government Consulting for the Office of Force Transformation, and "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change" by a distinguished panel of retired senior military officers for the CNA Corp.-conclude that oil dependence and climate change are related and pose growing security risks for the United States.

Battlefield Expedience

"You used to hear senior commanders say, 'Look, we're not built to be efficient. We're built to be effective,' " Pudas says. But now, energy inefficiency is hurting combat effectiveness. Nowhere has this been more evident than in Iraq. Last summer, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, then the commanding general of the Multi-National Force-West, operating in the volatile Anbar Province, submitted to the Pentagon an urgent request for solar panels and wind turbines to be used at remote bases that depend on fuel-powered generators to produce enough electricity to power command-and-control functions, life-support services and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets.

"The constant threat of improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled gren-ades and small-arms fire attacks along known ground lines of communications and the necessity to traverse them to reach our outlying bases, places our Marines, soldiers and sailors in harm's way each time we send out a convoy," he wrote. By using renewable energy systems at far-flung bases, the Marines could ensure more reliable communications, improving battlefield operations; reduce the number of supply convoys and combat troops providing protection, allowing troops to be used elsewhere on the battlefield; provide key life support functions that help sustain Marines' combat effectiveness; and save money by reducing the need for petroleum.

And if those reasons aren't compelling enough, "Without this solution . . . continued casualty accumulation exhibits potential to jeopardize mission success," Zilmer noted. In other words, more troops would be killed and maimed as they protect and deliver fuel for the troops. And there's a lot to protect: About 80 percent of the materiel hauled on the battlefield is fuel. According to the LMI study, the Defense Department uses about 57,000 barrels of oil a day in Iraq and Af-ghanistan, about 16 gallons per soldier per day. Use is up considerably from 2005, when the consumption rate was nine gallons per soldier; and up exponentially from the rate of four gallons per soldier per day during the first Persian Gulf War.

Increasingly, U.S. military strategy requires that forces be deployed in remote locations to counter and deter a range of potential threats, a trend that only intensifies the energy demands of the military. "To carry out these activities, the U.S. military will have to be even more energy intense, locate in more regions of the world, employ new technologies and manage a more complex logistics system. Considering the trend in operational fuel consumption and future capability needs, this 'new' force employment construct will likely demand more energy/fuel in the deployed setting. Simply put, more miles will be traveled, both by combat units and the supply units that sustain them, which will result in increased energy consumption" and costs, the LMI study found.

"I don't think there's a silver bullet-it will be a combination of things," Pudas says of potential solutions for addressing what the report writers determined was an "unsustainable" demand for energy in military operations. One element will be finding technologies that enable conservation without compromising missions. Pudas notes that Defense recently has made enormous strides in husbanding energy at military facilities, largely because effective incentives, reporting requirements and consumption metrics developed to drive the conservation. Between 1985 and 2005, Defense reduced energy consumption at military installations by nearly 30 percent; what's more, the Air Force is the single-largest purchaser of renewable energy in the United States.

Pudas contends that the same principles could be applied to mobility energy consumption, the military term for energy that is tied to weapons systems and battlefield operations. But it won't happen without first developing better methods for accurately measuring and projecting the true energy costs-including fuel-related logistics-of existing weapons, as well as future weapons that might run on alternative fuels. Today, fuel consumption is not factored into decisions about weapons purchases.

Even a relatively modest reduction in mobility fuel consumption could reap significant benefits for the services, the LMI study found: "A 3 percent reduction per year until 2015 could result in savings of $43 billion by 2030 based on Energy Information Administration reference case price projections. . . . In view of the long period required to develop and populate the force with new concepts and capabilities, DoD should begin now to shape the force for an uncertain energy future."

Climate Instability and Security

That uncertainty stems from more than just doubts about the availability or affordability of petroleum. It stems as much from the effects of the explosion in use of fossil fuels, which most scientists believe is contributing to significant changes in Earth's climate-changes that have security implications for the military.

Former Army chief of staff retired Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan is an unlikely advocate for action on global warming, but that's essentially what he has become as chairman of the military advisory board that conducted the climate change study for CNA, a nonprofit research organization in Alexandria, Va., that includes the Center for Naval Analyses. As he noted when he released the report to the public in mid-April, "We are not your traditional environmentalists."

More than a couple of the 11 retired three- and four-star generals and admirals described themselves as "skeptics" about global warming before joining the board. Nonetheless, all board members endorsed the final report, "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change," and its recommendations that the implications of climate change be fully integrated into national security and national defense strategies; that the U.S. commit to a stronger role in stabilizing climate change and helping less-developed nations manage climate change; that Defense adopt technologies that improve combat power through energy efficiency; and that Defense catalog the impact of rising sea levels and extreme weather events on U.S. military installations.

Despite "spirited discussions," retired Vice Adm. Richard H. Truly, a former space shuttle commander and NASA administrator, said the board "coalesced around a single set of findings and recommendations because everywhere in the world we looked, and the longer we examined the possibilities, we kept arriving at the same conclusion-that the potential impacts of climate change inevitably exacerbate societal stresses, which in turn have potentially severe security consequences. This is particularly true in some of the regions of the world where the margin for survival is already thin, borders are uncontrolled and societies are extremely stressed. It's hard to see how these regions can avoid becoming breeding grounds for further trouble." Climate change will produce more droughts and flooding, which will foster mass migrations of people seeking food and safety and competing for scarce resources; it will destabilize fragile governments and institutions, particularly in Africa and parts of Asia, and create stress in even the most robust societies such as the United States, the military panel concluded. For example, climate models predict prolonged declines in rainfall in Mexico and Latin America, which could exacerbate illegal immigration-already a major challenge-along the southwest border.

"Some of our most critical infrastructure for trade, energy and defense is located on our coasts," Truly told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May during a hearing devoted to the national security implications of climate change. For the military, rising sea levels would hit close to home: "Some of our strategic military installations are located on low-lying islands, such as Diego Garcia, which is a critical base of support for our Middle East operations. . . . When the Niger Delta floods, so will other rivers such as the Nile, the Ganges and the Mississippi, for example. This could present overwhelming security challenges for our military in widely dispersed areas of the world," Truly said. "We believe that climate change, national security and energy dependence are a related set of global challenges."

Energy and Intelligence

A leading proponent of transforming U.S. energy policy is Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a conservative Republican representing Maryland's 6th District and a former federal research scientist who is sometimes at odds with his party on energy issues. He voted against the 2005 Energy Policy Act because, in his view, it fell short of seriously addressing dependence on foreign oil and promoting alternative energy sources. Bartlett has given more than 28 floor speeches in Congress aimed at raising awareness about the potentially debilitating nature of the country's dependence on oil and related challenges such as climate change.

"You can't turn on your television without seeing there's an increase in the intensity of storms," says Bartlett. "There's nobody who denies we don't have some climate change. There are fires in one place and floods in another. Ten years ago we didn't have this kind of news."

While he says he's pleased there is growing concern about the issue on Capitol Hill and among the public, he's not satisfied that enough is happening to effectively develop alternative and renewable energy sources. "Is there as much [attention] on this as there should be? No, not by a long shot."

He believes real breakthroughs in finding alternative energy sources likely will come from the military because the armed services will be compelled to find solutions to what could become a life-and-death problem on the battlefield. "It is obvious that our military would be very limited if it did not have [petroleum-based fuels] available in real time," says Bartlett.

"They are very aware of that. A couple of days of no delivery of oil and we're in a world of hurt."

The link between climate change, oil dependency and national security received a significant boost with the CNA report, Bartlett says. The fact that 11 retired senior military commanders with a range of expertise and international experience studied the issue and concluded that climate change isn't just an environmental matter prompted both houses of Congress to introduce legislation that would require the Director of National Intelligence to produce an estimate on the security impact of global warming.

Bartlett was the only Republican co-sponsor of the House legislation but bipartisan support for a similar measure in the Senate, along with a letter supporting the measure from Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, suggested the requirement would likely become law. Not everyone believes climate change is a national security issue. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., opposes including the effects of climate change in the intelligence estimate. "My objection is not about the validity of global climate change. I am concerned about whether it is an intelligence issue," Hoekstra wrote in a May 10 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. "Does it require analysts to make assessments using classified information that can only be acquired from sensitive human sources and billion-dollar spy satellites? Does it take holding a high-level security clearance and reviewing information in high-security, classified offices to write assessments about the environment?"

The retired generals and admirals who produced the climate change report seemed to believe so. All endorsed the recommendation that the intelligence community incorporate climate consequences into the estimate, and they have publicly supported the legislation in both houses.

Retired Adm. Joseph W. Prueher, former commander in chief of U.S. Pacific Command and former ambassador to China under two presidents, said focusing on climate change is not a distraction from more pressing security issues. Our current energy supply is "finite, foreign and fickle," Prueher told members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in May. "Continued pursuit of overseas energy supplies, and our addiction to them, cause a great loss of leverage in the international arena. Ironically, a focus on climate change may actually help us on this count. Key elements of the solution set for climate change are the same ones we would use to gain energy sovereignty."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec