Innovation Files has moved! For ITIF's quick takes, quips, and commentary on the latest in tech policy, go to

DOD Puts the Focus on Operational Energy


Over the past several years, it’s become clear that the Department of Defense’s fossil fuel use represents a strategic vulnerability, and that greater efficiency and fuel alternatives are needed. Earlier this week, DOD took a solid step forward by releasing its long-awaited Operational Energy Strategy. The strategy is fairly light on details—those will come with the implementation plan expected later this year—but it hits many of the right notes. DOD has been doing quite a bit in recent years on energy alternatives (see our recent reportfor more), and having an overall operational strategy could give these efforts a level of focus and coordination. Even more importantly, it could accelerate clean technology development.


DOD is the single largest energy consumer on the planet, and “operational energy”— energy used for military operations including training, combat, and battlefield support—accounts for 75 percent of it. The consequences of this consumption are vast, even beyond the standard economic and foreign policy concerns over foreign oil reliance. For one, petroleum price volatility can drain financial resources away from other important military uses like training and vehicle maintenance. And emissions-driven climate change has also become a strategic concern, as outlined in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. But some of the most serious consequences happen on the battlefield: moving these fuels require significant resources and vulnerable supply lines that restrict warfighting capabilities and lead directly to casualties. From 2003 to 2007, more than 3,000 troops and contractors were killed or wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan due to fuel and water resupply convoy attacks. General Petraeus put the matter succinctly in a recent memo:

This operational energy is the lifeblood of our warfighting capabilities and a key enabler of Coalition operations in Afghanistan. However, high fuel use imposes risks to each of us. In fact, nearly 80% of ground supply movements are composed of fuel, and we have lost many lives delivering fuel to bases around Afghanistan. Moreover, moving and protecting this energy diverts forces away from combat operations. A force that makes better use of fuel will have increased agility, improved resilience against disruption, and more capacity for engaging Afghan partners, particularly at the tactical edge.

The battlefield upside for improving DOD’s energy usage is clear. But what’s equally clear is the potential upside for clean energy overall. As we outlined in our Lean, Mean and Clean report, DOD has historically played an important role in driving innovative new technologies and sectors, including GPS, computers, and the Internet. It does this in a few ways: by directly supporting R&D, by providing a test bed that proves new technologies work, and by providing an early early market to drive scale-up and accelerate cost declines, often faster than the market alone could achieve. For example, the military both funded development work in early microchips and, later, provided a major early market for those microships during the Minuteman program. Even later, as the computer industry developed, DOD accounted for half the software market through the 1980s while funding up to half of all academic computer science R&D. We wouldn’t have the modern industry today without these fundamental building blocks. And DOD is already filling many of these roles today in energy through, for example, the Installation Energyinitiative, which is testing an array of advanced technologies for efficiency, alternative power, and energy management.


The thing to remember about these efforts is that DOD has never set out to create new industries or apply its resources to commercial product development. Rather, DOD sought out new technologies that would provide some sort of strategic or operational edge, as when the Air Force aggressively pursued jet engine development. The subsequent industry spillovers grew out of this mission-focused work. DOD’s efforts to address their energy vulnerabilities could have similar impacts for the emerging clean energy industry – particularly if Congress ensures the availability of adequate resources to perform this transition, promotes cross-agency collaboration like the ongoing partnership between DOD and ARPA-E, and keeps the door shut on questionable fossil-based alternatives that will only accelerate emissions.


The energy strategy takes a three-pronged approach to improve energy use:

Greater Fuel Efficiency.The amount of fuel consumed per soldier per day during military operations has more than quadrupled over the past several decades. In 2010, DOD’s petroleum consumption stood at 5 billion gallons at a cost of $13.2 billion, a figure driven by increasing crude oil prices. Improving efficiency means reducing these resource and logistical burdens, and will require improved energy consumption monitoring and data collection, new smart technologies, and basic operational changes that save energy without compromising force strength.


Diversified Energy Sources: DOD has experimented quite a bitwith fuel alternatives, and hopes to develop sources that could be produced in forward areas, thus increasing force flexibility and mitigating supply lines. But finding adequate alternatives is harder than simply going out and purchasing ethanol, and requires continued research and testing. The other piece of energy diversity is about reliability, achieved through greater independence from the civilian grid for fixed installations.


Elevating Energy in Planning.Historically, defense decisions have been made without full consideration of all energy costs and benefits, as cheap energy was an assumption. The perils of ignoring these costs have become clear in recent decades, and prompted a recent shift towards use of the “fully burdened cost of fuel,” which includes transportation and delivery costs in addition to fuel purchase price. The strategy further promotes this tack as an important element of future planning choices and analysis.


The implementation plan, which will put some meat on these bones, is expected within 90 days.

Photo: An F/A-18 Super Hornet strike fighter jet powered by a 50/50 biofuel blend takes off from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, MD. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Kelly Schindler

Print Friendly, PDF & Email