Energy security has become a strategic as well as an operational imperative for U.S. national security. As tensions continue to escalate with Iran over the Strait of Hormuz, it has become increasingly clear that the U.S. military urgently requires new approaches and innovative technologies to improve fuel efficiency, increase endurance, enhance operational flexibility and support a forward presence for allied forces while reducing the vulnerability inherent in a long supply-line tether.
Assured access to reliable and sustainable supplies of energy is central to the military’s ability to meet operational requirements globally, whether keeping the seas safe of pirates off the coast of Africa, providing humanitarian assistance in the wake of natural disasters in the Pacific or supporting counterterrorism missions in the Middle East.
From both a strategic and an operational perspective, the call to action is clear. Rapid employment of energy-efficient technologies and smarter systems will be required to transform the military’s energy-security posture while meeting the increasing electric power demands of combat. As outlined in an Oct. 18 speech by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Without improving our energy security, we are not merely standing still as a military or as a nation, we are falling behind.”
Extremely volatile oil prices and the high cost of providing the persistent maritime presence required to ensure access to foreign fuel supplies present significant challenges for deployed U.S. forces. Between 2003 and 2009, the global oil market experienced its greatest volatility in decades. Oil prices reached a high of more than $147 per barrel in July 2008, averaged the second-highest level on record in 2011 and consistently broke the $100 per barrel barrier throughout the first half of 2012.
Continued volatility in fuel prices exacerbates the fiscal challenges faced by the Defense Department, which spends $20 billion for 135 million barrels of fuel consumed annually — making it the largest industrial energy consumer in the world.
Recent economic studies sponsored by Princeton University’s Oil, Energy and the Middle East program have estimated the costs of force projection in the Persian Gulf, including the cost for the U.S. Navy to maintain a carrier battle group in the region, at nearly $7 trillion over the next 30 years — approximately half of the current U.S. national debt.
In fact, operations in the gulf region represent only a fraction of the burden of maintaining energy security, as our military provides a persistent presence far beyond the Middle East, supporting global oil trade and maritime commerce for millions of barrels consumed each day.
To keep pace with the evolution of energy as a national security issue, more emphasis will be needed on operational energy efficiency, including providing the Defense Department additional resources for operational energy plans and programs. Recent progress, including an agreement from the department’s Joint Requirements Oversight Council to selectively apply energy efficiency as a key performance parameter, will not be sufficient to provide energy security for the current U.S. force structure. Aggressive policies mandating energy-efficiency considerations, consistent with mission needs, will need to be established.
In addition, operational energy requirements will need to be embedded into the full spectrum of acquisition-policy instructions and balanced with mission-capabilities requirements.
Energy-security challenges must drive transformation throughout the Defense Department. Our military forces must be able to quickly incorporate new mission capabilities that require increased electric-power demand. The challenges of technology development and system integration increase with the need to reduce fuel consumption, balance mission requirements and increase available electrical power.
Nonetheless, innovative, energy-efficient technologies will have to be adopted to transform our military’s energy posture. While energy-efficiency gains, often referred to as the fifth fuel, provide a fundamental first step, department-wide transformation will also require the adoption of renewable energy sources.
Beginning with the clear vision of an energy-secure force and cultural changes adopted by operational commanders, our military is beginning to embrace energy as a strategic resource. The Defense Department will need to extend strategic technology partnerships throughout the federal government and academia, as well as with allied nations, including agreements with the newly established Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy within the U.S. Department of Energy.
Finally, aggressive legislative, acquisition and operational energy-security mandates will need to be enforced to support the Defense Department’s broader transformational objectives.
Jeffrey M. Voth, president of Herren Associates, Washington, where he leads a team of consultants advising the federal government on issues of national security, energy and environment, health care and critical information technology infrastructure.