Over the past several years, the U.S. Navy's leadership has incorporated a key concept: energy-smart practices that foster greater tactical, operational and strategic effectiveness.
Improved fuel efficiency at sea, in the air and on the ground increases capability and reduces reliance on logistic support. That logistic support (fuel convoys on the ground and tankers at sea or in the air) creates tactical and operational vulnerabilities. Reliance on a single fuel type (petroleum-based energy) fosters strategic risks, including the need to dedicate forces to protect oil supplies and a vulnerability to price shocks, such as those that occurred in 2008, when the Navy's and the nation's fuel bills skyrocketed and oil prices topped $140 barrel.
This realization is fostering cultural, fiscal policy and force structure shifts in the Navy that will improve war-fighting capabilities.
The secretary of the Navy's push to accelerate the move toward smarter approaches to energy built on the chief of naval operations' formation of an energy task force, and moves by the Marine Corps, which focused on more efficient base infrastructure and examination of energy challenges in the operating arena.
In October 2009, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus laid out five objectives:
å Create energy-smart acquisition practices to assure cost-effective, energy-efficient platforms and improve energy efficiency in the Navy's industrial base.
å Demonstration of a Green Strike Group in 2012 with a Great Green Fleet deployment by 2016.
å A 50 percent cut in petroleum use in the Navy's commercial vehicle fleet.
å At least half of shore-based energy requirements from alternative sources by 2020.
å At least half of all Navy energy consumption from alternative sources by 2020.
The secretary laid out serious and ambitious goals. However, "green" - whether the Green Hornet or the Great Green Fleet - has received undue attention. Greening is actually a corollary to undertaking energy-smart measures rather than the core objective.
USS Makin Island, the Navy's newest amphibious ship, is a poster child in many ways. Nicknamed "Prius of the Seas," the ship has a hybrid gas turbine-electric drive system that is about 17 percent more fuel efficient than the traditional engine system. Yes, the ship emits less carbon and saves money by burning less fuel. Most important, however, the hybrid system delivers greater capability.
A simple question: If offered command of a ship with a 6,000-nautical-mile range or an essentially identical ship with a 7,000-nautical-mile range, which would you want to command? Endurance is the capability that hybrid drive brings to the war fighter.
Greater endurance buys more than tactical advantage. A reduced logistics tail means fewer resources to move fuel and defend those fuel lines; improved tooth-to-tail ratios; and less vulnerable supply lines. This creates a resource opportunity: We could have the same tooth at a lower cost, or we can move resources from buying fuel logistics tail into a more robust tooth.
Energy-smart practices will create strategic advantages, such as stronger resiliency to disturbances in the energy system (including inoculating the services from price shocks) and less reliance on imported fuels.
If reliance on oil products falls, the imperative for maintaining substantial forces in oil-rich regions also could fall, enabling a changed national strategy for global force structure. And just as endurance reduces vulnerabilities to enemy action, reducing U.S. dependence on imported oil will inoculate the nation from enemy moves to cut off fuel supplies, whether through embargo or direct action.
There is a corollary set of benefits. The secretary of the Navy has highlighted how the service has been a leader in moving technology into practice. From sail to coal and coal to oil, the U.S. Navy has been a leader of change.
The Navy's increasing focus on energy-smart practices offers a real potential for catalyzing change in the general economy.
The Navy, for example, is making efforts to develop biofuels (such as from algae) to displace traditional fossil fuels. While those fuels cost significantly more than traditional liquid fuels, their price is dropping rapidly. Before the end of the decade, the Navy should be able to purchase those fuels at a price comparable to today's fossil fuels, providing the Navy, and perhaps the national economy, resiliency in the face of future oil price shocks.
Of course, energy-smart practices reduce pollution. These is an important benefit, but it is only a corollary benefit. To re-emphasize, when it comes to energy, the motto is simple: It starts with operational capability.
Adam Siegel is a director in the Economic Consulting business segment of FTI Consulting, Baltimore, where he focuses on energy security, profitability and sustainability. These views are those of the author's alone and not of FTI.