The Fuse

Sharon Burke: How DOD is Cutting Oil Consumption to Create a Better Military

by Leslie Hayward | September 14, 2015

The Honorable Sharon Burke served the Obama administration as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy.

HAYWARD: Tell us about being the first ever Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs. What was this role, and what led to its creation?

Burke: My position was created by Congress in the 2009 defense authorization. President Obama wanted the position to reflect his goals on energy security and national security. There were a few reasons both Congress and the President wanted the office created: First, the price of oil was high, which is catastrophic for the Department of Defense (DOD). Their fuel bill at the time was $15 billion a year and going up, so that was one concern. But the bigger issue was coming from troops in the field, whose fuel convoys and supply lines in the fight were getting hit.

Not only was this creating many unwanted casualties, but it was forcing DOD to put combat forces on fuel convoys to protect them, instead of stationing them in the battlefield. There were requests from Iraq and Afghanistan to lighten the burden of fuel to try and reduce this vulnerability.

Members of Congress were responsive, and they also understood that it’s not helpful to set arbitrary targets in war fighting. The decision, which [former Arizona Representative] Gabby Giffords helped lead, was to create a self-regulating office in DOD that would try and change how the military used fuel while improving performance.

They care about the battlefield. None of this is about “feel-good” or “going green” for the sake of it.

Importantly, I want to emphasize that the reason the military was originally interested in oil reduction technologies was because of the performance gains. The military isn’t going to cut fuel use because it looks good on paper: They care about the battlefield. None of this is about “feel-good” or “going green” for the sake of it.

Oil supply and oil trade impacts the military in so many ways. There are operations—the military needs oil to accomplish its tactical goals. There is the burden of patrolling global oil supply lines and choke points. There’s also the money from domestic oil demand, and trade in oil that directly support oil producing countries that likely don’t share America’s strategic values. Which goals were you focused on?

DOD is ultimately a business, and energy is a variable cost. Like any business, it’s essential to keep your costs down—so that was one of the first priorities.

However, what DOD does is not like any other business. It’s warfighting—in which energy is both a liability and an opportunity. Reducing liabilities was another major focus.

Other efforts focused on our strategic concerns regarding chokepoints, and analyzing how chokepoints and supply flows change missions.

Finally, DOD bases depend on the commercial grids overseas. Our bases in Korea and Japan have variable grids and they’re not always reliable—brownouts in Korea in particular have been a problem at times, for example. There’s backup through diesel generators, but we examined alternative energy technologies for resilience. That’s really the key: Finding ways to reduce oil demand while improving resilience and performance.

However, there’s an important distinction to be made when it comes to domestic energy security. With countries like Russia and Iran, for which oil revenues bolster their military operations, there is some concern. At the same time, some of our closest military allies are oil producers, so vilifying all oil producing nations is not part of the Pentagon’s agenda. More generally, though, improving domestic energy security is a critical priority—it’s just not the business of DOD.

Let’s step back for a moment and discuss the dramatic instances in history when oil was an impairment to the goals of the military. What are some of the more profound examples?

World War II is a very profound example: In some ways I think people have forgotten what it’s like to be in a war like that, because logistically we have been able to dominate battles in recent decades. But in WWII, oil was everything. General Patton ran out of fuel pressing toward the Siegried Line on the way into Germany. The United States embargoed the Japanese, preventing them from getting fuel… they ran out by the end of the war. There was a race for territory in North Africa and the Middle East where the Germans, Italians and Americans were fighting for access to oil supplies. At a strategic level and in a theater of operations level—fuel had a lot to do with the conduct of that war.

World War II is a good example of looking back at the way fuel affects a fight: It affects how you fight, why you fight, and it impacts your targets. We targeted German and Japanese fuel installations and they targeted ours. It offers a lesson in how those situations might play out in the future or present, and oil will always be a huge factor.

In the current military, is there a lot of political will to move away from this vulnerability, or at least lessen it?

I think there’s an awareness that the military needs to diversify its sources and cut its vulnerability to fuel supply disruption. There are many ways to achieve that end, and it will depend heavily on the circumstances.

How has the military changed its planning processes to reflect the fact that reducing oil consumption is a strategic goal?

The department started looking at how to include energy performance and vulnerability into the procurement process. How do you incorporate that as a performance parameter? How do you put a value on lessening your vulnerability to attack? They began incorporating those considerations early, as an element of contract terms. Once energy performance is incorporated into a contract, then it matters in the bidding process. In the new tanker aircraft, energy performance was explicitly included in the request for proposals for the first time. In the past, sometimes there are other words the military could use, like range, but I think that’s the first time it was explicitly about energy performance from the very beginning.

Given the pace of recent technological innovations, are we at a turning point for military energy use?

These innovations can do more than sever our dependence on a problematic supply line—they give us more range, endurance, and ultimately a better performing piece of equipment.

There are some truly exciting possibilities for certain systems in the military. The military is experimenting with a lot of unmanned systems, and very quickly we are seeing fuel cells, new kinds of batteries, solar panels, and other experimentation in propulsion. These innovations can do more than sever our dependence on a problematic supply line—they give us more range, endurance, and ultimately a better performing piece of equipment.

Tell us more about the performance benefits of fuel cell and solar powered drones.

DARPA currently has a program for a solar drone. It can stay up for months at a time, it’s utterly silent, and it’s harder to detect because it doesn’t have a heat signature. One of the naval research labs is working on small solar drones that move in swarms.

Again, it’s the issue of performance. In this case, we get equipment, which is better than what we had before. It’s the same mentality that enabled nuclear powered submarines to come about—something that could stay stealthy for a long time, that could be undetected, and had pulse power.

What are some of the other exciting technologies that reduce oil use while providing a performance benefit?

General James Conway, former Commandant of the Marine Corps, initiated an expeditionary energy program that resulted in seven successful programs of record, or equipment that anyone in the military can now order. He began the program after examining the costs of fuel consumption for the Marine Corps and observing that, due to the amount of fuel that was being moved to the battlefield and the force required to protect it, that the Marine Corps was no longer truly expeditionary (though fuel isn’t the only guilty party in how heavy some of our forces have become). So he began a program to lighten the energy load for battlefield Marines, which is expanding to look at vehicles, ships, and aircraft.

From this program, they developed the following:

GREENS: A solar-hybrid stationary power system. GREENS combines a battery, diesel generator and solar panel and a rudimentary micro-grid to provide power to deployed forces.

SPACES: Flexible solar panels that can recharge the batteries that a forward-deployed soldier needs on a deployment. Some long patrols carry large batteries because of all their gear—which is absolutely critical for expeditionary deployments. SPACES enables them to carry fewer batteries because they can recharge as they move.

SWIPES: A power manager for Marines and soldiers out on patrol. Modern Marines and soldiers carry a great deal of equipment, such as a radio, gun scope, hand held devices and other things that require batteries. They all have different plugs and power sources. SWIPES is a single power source for everything that uses energy efficiently and minimizes the number of batteries. Soldiers and Marines now are also benefitting from conformal batteries integrated directly into the Kevlar of their armor.

Sounds like batteries are incredibly important for expeditionary units in the military. Is the military working with the private sector to leverage the arms race for better batteries?

There are a number of partnerships with the Department of Energy. DOD and DOE have a research partnership with industry Detroit called TARDEC (the Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center) and they have various research partnerships on batteries.

How is the military reimagining fuel consumption in vehicles?

It always comes down to the mission for the vehicle. Many are armored vehicles that are going into fire, so it’s not a question of “can we make this as efficient as a Prius,” but there is interest in lessening the amount of oil that needs to be transported to your deployment, thus lessening your vulnerability.

The Army and the Marine Corps have considered some hybrid-electric vehicles with performance benefits. Hybrid-electric vehicles offer much faster acceleration and better control of the power to the wheel. This Marine Corps is working on some rugged electric all-terrain vehicles, which would be making many little trips, and there is a lightweight electric ground combat vehicle being explored by the Army.

You’ve given us many examples of exciting alternative technologies that are benefitting the military. The conservative community typically has strong support for the military, but is sometimes quite skeptical of renewable or alternative fuel. What were your experiences with this disconnect?

We were there to improve military performance—not to improve the nation’s overall energy security, as important as that is.

Once, I had a Marine tell me that what we were trying to do was just a fad of the Obama Administration. But we were there to improve military performance—not to improve the nation’s overall energy security, as important as that is. Over time, when they saw that it was about performance, range, and endurance, and about making a better military, not about “going green,” people were really supportive. Once the Army, in particular, understood that this was about their ability to support forces, they were supportive and we had a lot of collaboration.

What are other ways we can continue to sever this reliance in the future?

In the Asia-Pacific theater, where much of our future lies, we must move a lot of fuel a very long way. Countries, and even non-countries, are going to have precision weapons, and the ability to hit our supply line. We have to cut that vulnerability in the long term.

There are things the military can do, regarding both supplies and suppliers. If renewable energy works for your forward bases, that’s a strategic and tactical burden off your shoulders. One opportunity would be to partner with the Philippines to develop biofuels in their country. That’s a win-win, because they are a fuel-poor country, so the burden of oil is tremendous. If you can produce a liquid fuel from their domestic resources, like solid waste or other biomass, and meet their own needs and also be a fueling spot for U.S. forces, it would be a great thing. It brings us closer to an ally, it provides a potential strategic gain, and it helps this ally in a way that is significant. As we move forward, I hope the department continues to look for these kind of win-win solutions.