November 1, 2010  

A post-petroleum era

To guarantee that we can fuel the armed forces for tomorrow’s challenges, the Defense Department must design a strategy now to ensure that it can operate all of its systems on nonpetroleum fuels by 2040.

DoD, which accounts for about 80 percent of U.S. federal energy consumption, must prepare now to make a smooth transition to a post-petroleum future. Petroleum may not remain affordable — or even reliably available — for the multidecade lifespans of U.S. defense systems. This marks DoD’s most serious energy vulnerability.

Transitioning to other energy sources is no small task. Up to 77 percent of the fuel used in the aircraft, ground vehicles, ships and weapons systems that DoD is purchasing is petroleum. Adding to the pressure of this outsized dependence on a single fuel, DoD relies on these assets for decades after initial design. Consider, for example, the 36 years between the first flight of the petroleum-reliant F-14 Tomcat and its retirement in 2006. Systems in design today could be serving in DoD’s arsenal into the 2040s, 2050s and beyond. Failure to thoroughly consider fuel availability and costs into these decades would therefore be a grave disservice to DoD’s future leaders and the nation’s future forces.

The Defense Department understands that its heavy petroleum dependence is a vulnerability, as witnessed by the important steps it has taken over the past few years.

The Navy appointed two-star officers to lead task forces on energy and climate change. The Air Force and Navy flight-tested camelina-based biofuel blends last year. The Air Force’s Air Mobility Command and the Office of the Secretary of Defense are working to increase energy efficiency and maximize fuel savings in existing platforms and for new acquisitions.

The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review presented instructions for integrating energy considerations into how DoD does business. Bases around the country are investing in solar, wind and geothermal projects.

These actions were triggered in part by requirements handed down by Congress or the White House. But recognition of the risks associated with the U.S. petroleum reliance has also grown markedly, to the point that many DoD civilian and military leaders are pushing for swifter action than the alternative energy measures mandated by legislation and regulation.


Supply lines have long served as targets for enemies, but the current wars have taught military analysts that the location and vulnerability of supply systems change as the character of warfare morphs.

The geostrategic risks of the world’s petroleum addiction are as well-profiled as they are endless, but a few are waving particularly bright warning flags to security analysts today. High prices, rising demand and lack of diversified supplies (94 percent of U.S. transportation fuel is petroleum-based) are a boon to major suppliers and reserve holders such as Iran and Venezuela. China’s renewed quest to secure access to natural resources is in turn expanding its influence rapidly around the globe. In Mexico, one of the top suppliers of petroleum to the U.S., pipelines serve as an increasingly attractive target for dangerous cartels to fund activities that stand to undermine the Mexican government and destabilize the region. And within the corridors of power in Washington, American foreign policy has itself been colored by its growing petroleum demand since the oil crises and subsequent declaration of the Carter doctrine in the 1970s.

Just as then-Lt. Gen. James Mattis requested that DoD “unleash us from the tether of fuel” for operations in Iraq in 2003, unleashing U.S. security policy and international affairs from its petroleum tether stands as a critical mission for this generation.

Supply and demand curves, though ever in flux, provide us with little added confidence in the longevity of the current system. Consider that the current global reserve-to-production ratio stands at less than 50 years — with Venezuela holding more than 100 years’ equivalent of those reserves at its current production rate. Trends of rising global temperatures further indicate that DoD’s petroleum dependence brings with it additional costs to global security.

The list of risks goes on. Luckily, we have alternatives. There is an array of reliable, renewable fuels that should be considered as alternatives to petroleum, including multiple generations of biofuels. DoD vocalizing its own imperative of diversifying its liquid fuel supplies beyond petroleum is the type of signal the market is looking for to invest in producing adequate supplies of alternative fuels — the fuels the armed forces will need in a post-petroleum future. The first step on the path toward alternative fuels displacing its petroleum consumption is for DoD to define a clear long-term energy strategy.


Every strategy must begin with a honed, well-conceived goal. DoD should set its overarching energy goal as managing a smooth transition beyond petroleum over the next 30 years.

Given the clear risks and concerning market indicators, it is not prudent to assume that petroleum will remain affordable or that supplies will be reliably available to the U.S. three decades hence. Planning today to diversify to other fuel sources is a conservative hedge against an uncertain but worrisome future. Three decades should also allow sufficient time for suppliers to scale production to provide cost-competitive supplies to displace DoD’s more than 130 million barrels of annual petroleum consumption — and for DoD to make requisite adjustments within its own bureaucratic and infrastructure systems.

Meeting this goal — which is steep, but achievable — will require creative thinking.

Wars in future decades will not look like today’s wars, and DoD will surely formulate new operational concepts and confront unpredictable threats. Mapping a path away from petroleum dependence must include creating a range of planning scenarios for the diverse ways in which DoD may be burning its fuel in 20, 30 and 40 years — with special attention to the future of military aviation, which accounted for 56 percent of DoD’s energy consumption as of 2008. DoD must also plan for contingencies in which its predictions and plans for moving beyond petroleum turn out to be wrong, including absolute shortages, abrupt major price spikes, alternative fuels that simply cannot scale up fast enough and major technological or environmental game-changers that fundamentally alter how DoD meets its energy needs.


Notably, many critical measures for DoD making a smooth transition off petroleum by 2040 lie beyond its jurisdiction. Congress and the White House will have a role in providing a clear legal and regulatory environment for the private sector to feel comfortable in appropriate energy investments. Public utility commissions must be sensitive to DoD’s energy goals. The private sector and academia must be cognizant of DoD’s unique energy needs — especially technical specifications for liquid fuels and the global nature of its operations — as they develop new energy technologies for the broader economy.

Transitioning away from petroleum dependence by 2040 will be difficult, but fortunately the U.S. defense sector has successfully made several energy transitions in its history, in particular in moving from coal to petroleum to nuclear power in its ships. In a similarly seismic shift, DoD rapidly increased its reliance on electronics, space assets and computer systems in modern warfare in ways that enhanced mission effectiveness. These experiences may offer lessons for DoD leveraging an energy transition to maximize its strategic flexibility and freedom of maneuver.

Making this transition will take decades. And it raises the question: What will a post-petroleum future look like for DoD?

If it begins now, it will be a future of greater energy supply security than DoD faces today. It will require efficiency gains and adoption of renewable drop-in fuels, or liquid fuels that are chemically equivalent to petroleum-based fuels and can therefore fuel existing platforms. A future of more diverse fuel supplies could bring benefits beyond just assuring sufficient supplies: If DoD can procure fuels from a portfolio of sources, such as fuels made from locally grown switchgrasses, algae, camelina or other crops, that diversity can help to keep prices competitive (especially as a hedge against weather or economic conditions reducing crop output in any given region) and deny suppliers leverage over the U.S. Making this transition could help DoD’s bottom line as well.

Moving beyond petroleum will allow DoD to lead in the development of innovative technology that can benefit the nation more broadly. It will signal to the world that the U.S. military is an innovative and adaptable force. Above all, reducing dependence on petroleum will help ensure the long-term ability of the military to carry out its assigned missions — and help ensure the security of the nation. AFJ

JOHN A. NAGL is president of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington, D.C. CHRISTINE PARTHEMORE is the Bacevich fellow at CNAS and editor of the CNAS Natural Security blog.