May 1, 2008  

The fuel gauge of national security

Military doctrine favors the indirect and unexpected path to decisive results, hence the prevalence of the flanking maneuver. As we are reminded nearly daily, the seemingly intractable problem of U.S. dependence on foreign oil is a pre-eminent national security threat and should warrant such a tangential military solution. Just as the military provides for the common defense, it is incumbent on Pentagon leadership to explore how the military might yield such an asymmetric solution to flank and outwit our country’s broader reliance on petroleum.

Since the arrival of 2008, the implications of our “addiction” to oil have been palpably underscored by at least four major events. First, oil made history by hitting the $100-a-barrel milestone on Jan. 2. Second, and just three days later, Iranian gunboats harassed U.S. Navy warships in the Straits of Hormuz, without incident, but with considerable fanfare. Third, on Jan. 8, the Government Accountability Office warned that energy commodity tankers, 25 percent of which flow through the Straits of Hormuz, were vulnerable to terrorist attack. Finally, not one week later, President Bush was in Riyadh seeking lower oil prices from the Saudis and OPEC, without success.

The events of January highlight a national security cycle that is now fully closed and rapidly tightening. The pattern has been evolving for nearly a century as Western powers, reliant upon Middle Eastern oil to power their warships and economies, developed a persisting interest in the region. That interest evolved into a major presence and, fueled by past resentment and a war in Afghanistan, drove the eventual creation of al-Qaida to expel the “infidels” from the holy land. The ensuing war against al-Qaida has increased America’s footprint in the Middle East, concerns of instability are growing and oil prices are on the rise. As Saudi revenues grow, more money is funneled to Wahhabi madrasas, another generation is taught to resist the West and the cycle of deterioration continues, clearly underscoring an imperative for change. Conservatively stated, our reliance on Middle Eastern oil has severely distorted and crippled our foreign policy options abroad. More squarely, oil has become a catalyst for terrorism.

Discussions on the severe national security consequences stemming from the U.S. “addiction” to petroleum are well trodden. A 2006 Council on Foreign Relations study concluded that “the lack of sustained attention to energy issues is undercutting U.S. foreign policy and national security.” Going back 50 years, President Eisenhower cautioned that importing more than 20 percent of our oil would severely undermine U.S. security. Attention is now beginning to focus on a less discussed vulnerability: the natural but ironic predicament that our national security apparatus is as addicted to oil as our country is.

Of the 84-plus million barrels of oil consumed globally each day, more than half is moved to market by ships, most of which pass through one of the ocean’s major strategic chokepoints. All such waterways are special nodes of global power, but the Iranians reminded us again that certain straits, particularly those of Hormuz and Malacca, play a critically strategic role because one-third of the world’s oil consumption flows through these two narrows daily. This channeling, coupled with diminishing excess supply, elevates the likelihood that future conflicts will be over energy resources and might occur in such locations. And the U.S. warships that patrol strategic chokepoints are fully dependent on the resource they might be expected to safeguard. In fact, with few exceptions, the U.S. military is powered, fueled and transported by petroleum-derived commodities. A significant oil disruption not only threatens our national economic security, it endangers the national security machinery itself.

At first glance, the military’s slice of demand may not be the intuitive place to focus effort. The military’s use of oil constitutes about 2 percent of total U.S. oil consumption, or about the same as a major U.S. airline. And if there is one sector of consumption where we should gladly pay a premium for high-octane liquid fuel, it is our national security apparatus. So it is fair to argue that attention is best placed on the civilian side of usage, where 98 percent of demand lies. There are many near-term solutions that promise to make a dent in this 98 percent, on the demand and supply sides. Plug-in hybrids, sustainable bio-fuels, broad-based conservation efforts and general “greenness” are gaining considerable political traction. But none offers a long-term silver bullet, and each has limitations. In addition to pulling consumption toward “ready” technologies, work must be done in parallel to advance high-risk and transformative solutions. And one of the most successful models for doing so is the military wing of research and development. Focusing on the 2 percent of military consumption is important not only because it safeguards the flow, and mitigates risk, to the 98 percent. The exploration of new sources of energy for our military fighting machinery will directly sustain future defense readiness and buttress military power and, more significantly, will indirectly catalyze a revolution in civilian transportation technology and innovation.


Most transportation energy sources can be divided into four basic groups (see table): those that convert chemical bonds into heat (carbon) or electricity (hydrogen) and those that convert mass into heat (nuclear) or electricity (solar). The first group has historically dominated locomotion requirements for reasons of stability of storage, ease of transport and low cost. And among the carbon fuels, we are nearly exclusively reliant on oil for transportation due to an unmatched energy density, even with abysmal efficiencies of 10 percent to 20 percent. For instance, fuel oil has roughly 24 thousand British Thermal Units (kBTU) per pound, whereas “good” coal and ethanol are half that, and wood has one quarter of oil’s rich density of energy. Yet isolated hydrogen, as a fuel, has roughly two to three times the energy density of oil. Nuclear fuel, accounting for the spent material created, has an “energy equivalence” of about 500,000 kBTU per pound. And if you could bottle sunlight, in the form of protons (which technically have no mass), it would have the equivalence of about 100 trillion kBTU per pound.

So outside of the carbon grouping, oil is actually relatively heavy. But for most of the last century, it was cheap and plentiful, so like the rest of society, we built our military infrastructure, and many of the associated strategies, around oil. The Air Force’s B-2 bomber carries three to four times as much fuel, by weight, as it does bombs. A 2001 study by the Defense Science Board (DSB) concluded that fuel now constitutes 70 percent of the weight of moving our Army into battle.


Oil’s grip on our military is exemplified by the simple fact that we use it for all applications, even where there is a wide divergence of engineering requirements and alternatives are available. And this has been the case for nearly 80 years. The Navy’s most modern warship, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, is powered by the same basic engine as Air Force One and the Air Force’s C-5 transport. A popular photo in Army circles is an M1 Abrams tank firing its gun in midair after “jumping” a hill at high speed. In pursuit of weight savings and acceleration, the Pentagon revolutionized the M1 to be the only tank in the world powered by a gas turbine jet engine, yet our flying main battle tank has such poor gas mileage that it has to be trucked to the front lines. Unlike a normal diesel, these engines burn nearly the same amount of fuel at idle as they do at 30 miles per hour, thus their fuel consumption is generally measured by gallons per hour instead of miles per gallon, or gallons per mile in the case of the M1. This thirst for fuel is sometimes cited as the reason that the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division raced into Iraq in 2003 — to make optimal use of the precious fuel they were carrying.

In pursuit of performance, our modern fighter aircraft burn fuel at such a high rate and have such a short endurance that they would be useless without a capability for aerial refueling. In February, the Pentagon announced a $40 billion contract, one of the largest in history, with Northrop Grumman and EADS for the next generation of airborne tankers, as aerial refueling is now another indispensable element in our oil supply lines. The airborne tankers, like most aircraft, are designed so they can take off fully loaded, but they must be significantly lighter to land. So when a tanker does not refuel enough fighters during a mission, it must adjust weight (dump fuel) prior to landing. This design is so pervasive that most modern aircraft are built with a capability for fuel dumping. Even modern warships burn oil at such high rates that they are dependent on frequent refueling, either in port or while underway by the trusty oiler. Because our warships are essentially tethered to a port or an oiler, a good captain pays more attention to the gas gauge than the armory levels.

A military that operates normally by throwing fuel away and designs systems for speed over fuel efficiency reveals an infrastructure and a strategy built around oil as if it were a fundamental constant. Yet the military is realizing we can no longer take this lifeblood for granted, particularly when there are lives are on the line to feed our oil hungry services. A 2006 memo from U.S. leadership in Iraq to the Pentagon requested that alternative sources of energy be identified to power the American presence in Iraq. The oil expenditures in Iraq, per soldier, are 16 times what they were in World War II. The entire U.S. footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan is essentially powered by diesel-fueled generators, requiring 9 gallons of fuel per soldier per day. The war in Iraq alone requires 40,000 barrels of oil per day. The coalition bases rely on a constant supply of fuel trucked in by military convoys which are vulnerable to attacks given the long hours on the road. The memo argued that without assistance, U.S. forces would “remain unnecessarily exposed” and would “continue to accrue preventable … serious and grave casualties.”

Attention to these vulnerabilities has been mounting since before the invasion of Iraq. The 2001 DSB report found that “although significant war fighting, logistics and cost benefits occur when weapons systems are made more fuel-efficient, these benefits are not valued or emphasized.” The report made key recommendations to re-emphasize the importance of fuel efficiency that were not fully implemented by the Pentagon. With fuel costs up 47 percent in the last year, memos requesting alternative energy from Iraq and a persistent beating of the national security drum, there are signs that the calls for reform are becoming heard. A February 2008 DSB report on energy strategy applauds several Pentagon initiatives in the last two years to bring energy usage into the mainstream and shed the cultural dogma, as stated by the chair of the 2001 report and a former head of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, that “fuel efficiency is for sissies.” Principally, the most recent DSB report finds that the Pentagon has taken steps, not yet fully institutionalized, to make fuel efficiency a “key performance parameter” and to establish a “fully burdened cost of fuel” for acquisition programs. In March, the Air Force hosted a major conference on Energy Security for the 21st Century, illuminating many of the dark corners of cutting-edge technologies and research. These are encouraging steps forward. It is now time to convert this awareness to action.


Oil’s rise in status to become a strategic military commodity occurred when the British Royal Navy made the risky and unlikely shift from coal to oil as the fuel of choice for its warships in the years leading up to World War I. While oil offered some conveniences and had twice the energy density, England had an abundance of coal and no domestic oil supply. Lord Selborne, the First Lord of the British Admiralty, protested in 1904 that “the substitution of oil for coal is impossible, because oil does not exist in this world in sufficient quantities. It must be reckoned only as a most valuable adjunct.” Nonetheless, Winston Churchill took the leap and decided in 1912 that the Queen Elizabeth-class battleships would burn oil exclusively and soon thereafter converted the entire Royal Navy. The birth of the Anglo-Persian Oil Co., a joint British-Iranian venture, guaranteed the Brits a reliable supply of oil after they had committed their fleet to a resource they did not possess. Today’s British Petroleum is the legacy of this decision, as is the Western presence in the Middle East

By World War II, liquid fuels had replaced coal as the secret lifeblood of battle. In 1944, Gen. George Patton’s Third Army was speeding across southern France in his race to be the first commander to Germany. Patton eventually outpaced his supply lines and his tanks literally ran out of gas, stalled on the battlefield. His solution was the ethanol he found in the tanks of captured German tanks — an energy innovation born out of military necessity. Before the war, Hitler’s military ambitions had been criticized because Germany had little indigenous petroleum. Undeterred, Hitler had begun assembling a large industrial complex to manufacture synthetic petroleum from Germany’s abundant coal supplies. Hitler’s secret, the Fischer-Tropsch process, was developed by the oil-deprived Germans in the 1920s to convert coal into liquid fuel (CTL) and this basic process is the basis for all CTL efforts today.

Churchill’s visionary decision to shift the entire British Navy to oil flew in the face of convention wisdom but was a key factor in the outcome of the Great War. In a similar attempt nearly 100 years later, Congress has sought to force the Pentagon’s hand in adopting greater use of nuclear power for U.S. warships. The 2007 Defense Authorization Act pushed the Navy to power all surface combatants with the same nuclear methods that currently power all submarines and carriers. The rationale was multifaceted but was essentially a cost-savings measure, “given the recent increase in the cost of crude oil, which cannot realistically be expected to improve over the long term.” The Navy’s rationale of staying the course with oil has been similarly driven primarily by cost. A 2007 study by the Navy Nuclear Reactors office, conducted in response to the nudge by Congress, estimated the cost break-even point for converting our amphibious fleet to nuclear power to be $70 a barrel and the break-even point to convert the cruisers and destroyers at $180 per barrel. Yet oil prices, and therefore costs, show a firm defiance to reliable projection. The most recent official U.S. government outlook on oil prices projected $72 for a barrel of crude in 2030. With oil now hovering around $100 per barrel, we see not only the newfound volatility in a previously stable market but also our inability to accurately project future prices, even in the short run. Even without the realization of “peak oil” in the next decade, it is conceivable that we soon might be well past the financial break-even point for nuclear powered cruisers — considerably sooner than it would take to design and transition the fleet even if a decision to do so was made tomorrow. The conversion of subs and carriers to nuclear power took decades. The Navy’s combat submarine force became entirely nuclear powered in 1990 and the carrier force did not become entirely nuclear powered until just this year. The British Navy rapidly and riskily embraced oil, and the U.S. Navy has been slow to let go.

Then-Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, before Hurricane Katrina, cautioned that policy should not interfere with the market and instead should allow elevated prices and naturally reduced demand to drive increased innovation in alternative energy markets. In 2006, after Katrina and facing sharp increases in prices, Greenspan testified before Congress that “the buffer between supply and demand is much too small to absorb shutdowns of even a small part of the world’s production. … Oil users judge they need to be prepared for the possibility that at some point a raid will succeed, with a devastating impact on supply.” And the price of oil has increased more than $30 a barrel since that speech. The ability of market forces to force an adjustment of demand and spur technological innovation is now eclipsed by market volatility and supply vulnerability. The growing national security consequences of our dependence underscore the imperative for action.

Oil’s ascendancy to a strategic commodity was through the military; the military should also be the source of its demise. The British Navy’s shift from coal to oil and the U.S. Navy’s pioneering research in nuclear power suggest that military requirements and innovation are well-poised to push difficult or innovative solutions. For starters, U.S. warships are one of the few places where nuclear power might reduce the transportation sector’s dependence on liquid fuels. Thus the maritime sector has the luxury of being poised for transformation to alternative methods if and when oil spikes to prices considered inconceivable today. Similarly, land-based transportation is arguably close to viable jumping points to new foundational technologies, possibly through electric or hydrogen power. It is significantly less clear what non-liquid or non-carbon technology the airline industry might choose. While there are alternatives on the horizon for shipping and wheeled transportation, there is no resource so optimized in ease of storage and power density as good old petroleum. And given that jet fuel constitutes the Defense Department’s largest single energy expenditure, improvements in this field would not only close the widest gap in civil transportation requirement, they would simultaneously make the largest improvement in defense propulsion vulnerabilities.

At the International Maritime Propulsion Conference in May, scientists and researchers will debate the viability of crude oil alternatives and will likely conclude that CTL processes offer the most feasible short-term solution. Similar studies in Europe have concluded that hydrogen and biofuels are unlikely short-term successors. Hydrogen is an energy storage option, not a source, and current generation biofuels are competing with food supplies — the principal reason that a gallon of milk still costs more than a gallon of gasoline. While CTL is cost-effective now, the process of liquefying coal requires significant amounts of water and produces significant carbon emissions, two sensitive areas that need to be addressed hand-in-hand with energy needs, not at the expense of one another. Climate change and associated political pressures mean that proposed solutions must increasingly utilize a comprehensive well-to-wheel analysis, not only in terms of cost, but also in terms of environmental consequences. National security has always held the trump card over environmental factors, and this is unlikely to change, but the bar for playing this hand is rising. As we begin to capture more of the hidden costs of energy, cheap solutions will become harder to find, further emphasizing the need for expanded research.

In military consumption of oil, aircraft account for 73 percent, ground vehicles 15 percent, ships 8 percent and ground installations 4 percent. So while there has been significant attention to conserving energy on military installations and converting warships to nuclear power, these two together account for less than one-fifth of aviation’s thirst for oil. The Air Force has aggressively explored the use of biofuels in the B-52 bomber and other aircraft with recent success, yet it is not clear that biofuels could be a long-term path to reduced vulnerability for aviation. In 2006, the U.S. airline industry consumed about 20 billion gallons of fuel, yet the U.S. produces slightly more than 4 billion gallons of ethanol annually, and that level of production is beginning to be problematic, as evidenced by the rising price of corn and milk. At the levels of intractability we face, real solutions must be not only scaleable, but utilize the strictest “full cost burden” methods of accounting.

None of this has gone unnoticed by the Pentagon. In 2006, before the prodding by Congress, the Defense Department sponsored several symposiums to look at reducing the dependence. The Energy Conversation, a nonprofit consortium of private and public sector entities, was born out of close collaboration with the Pentagon to connect the “best ideas, innovations, resources and people — all of which will be needed to create a sustainable energy future.” Attempting to lead from the front, the Pentagon has begun to reduce its consumption of oil, now down to about 300,000 barrels a day. The bad news is that costs are clearly skyrocketing. At current prices, the Pentagon will spend more than $8 billion this year on oil. But cost savings and incremental reductions in military consumption are not the real opportunity here. Rather, a renewed and expanded investment in military energy research and development will catalyze methods and improvements that would become diffused throughout industry. This pattern has played out many times before.

There have been many tangible benefits to society from a long history of technological exploration and innovation by the military. Now taken for granted for their civilian uses, radar, microwaves, the Internet and GPS were initially sponsored and funded by military research. Most relevant here, military requirements have also been key drivers of energy innovation. Perhaps the most significant and widely underreported example of military requirements forcing energy innovation was the Navy’s pioneering research in the use of nuclear power before the advent of the Manhattan Project. In 1937, Rear Adm. Stanford Hooper, as director of the Navy’s Technical Division, explored the concept of nuclear energy at Johns Hopkins University’s physics department, ultimately resulting in a Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) meeting with physicist Enrico Fermi in 1939 and the launching of the Navy’s nuclear energy research, not to build a bomb, but to power a submarine. The NRL made considerable progress in the key challenge of uranium isotope separation, and the Navy’s methods were ultimately adopted by the Manhattan Project. After World War II, Capt. Hyman Rickover, a Navy electrical engineer, realized the importance of uranium to harness the atom to drive submarines, culminating in the first nuclear-powered vehicle, the Nautilus, launched in 1955. Today, retired Navy nuclear power officers now operate a good majority of the 103 operating nuclear power plants in the U.S.

The most famous arm of military R&D is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. This small group of scientists brought the country stealth technology and the Internet. Congress passed a bill in fall 2007 to create a new energy research agency in DARPA’s image called the Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy (ARPA-E), with the goal of reducing foreign oil imports, improving efficiency and reducing emissions. The concept of ARPA-E is a well-intended step forward, but implementation has been stalled by debates over structure and funding. In the interim, a parallel strategy for improved innovation toward energy security is not only to pursue R&D through “DARPA-like” agencies but through DARPA itself, particularly given the military’s own intractable addiction to oil. Federal funding for classic military research entities, to include others such as NRL, the home of nuclear power, should be significantly expanded and re-prioritized around high-risk basic science and applied energy research. President Eisenhower created DARPA 51 years ago after U.S. R&D failures were illuminated by the Sputnik debacle. He sought to create a “unifying force” for military R&D that would eliminate stovepipes and improve collaboration. The success and efficacy of his vision has also derived from the fact that the military’s implementation arm is attached to the same body as the R&D arm, so that the research feeds a ready and waiting industry in an efficient model. Commercialization challenges can be resolved under the pressures of military requirements, thereby reducing the eventual barriers to market.

Given the rhetoric about energy security today, the energy research budget of the U.S. government is still modest, about $3.5 billion annually compared with $8.8 billion for missile-defense research in fiscal 2009. And by any normalized metric, by gross domestic product or per capita, the U.S. spends less on energy research than either Japan or the European Union. The administration’s continued expansion of the budget for the Office of Science Research at the Energy Department should be applauded, yet the defense research agencies should see a similar first-tier priority of investment, specifically targeted at energy innovation for the supply and demand sides of the energy consumption equation. Additionally, the Pentagon must streamline programs that offer grants to private innovators for the development of demonstration prototypes. The barriers to entry for small and enterprising energy-related scientists need to be reduced.

Not only is it in the financial and tactical interest of the U.S. to shift the military away from a majority reliance on oil, it is now in the greater strategic interest of the country that the military’s extensive technological research enterprises focus on the development of alternatives. Our instruments of national power that safeguard the flow of energy resources should not themselves be powered by those same resources. The strategic risk of doing so is now rising with the fiscal expense. And as with other enterprises and initiatives, the military’s investment in energy innovation will result in more than military hardware advances — such innovation will accelerate invaluable development and commercialization by the private sector. Given the current political environmental consensus growing with regard to climate change, viable replacements for transportation power will require the dual C’s: low cost and low carbon.

The country’s reliance on oil is troubling simply from the economics of diminishing growth in supply and increasing demand. Introducing the aggravating reliance on belligerent states and the threat of a disruption in global supply raises the issue to a critical status. Contemplation of the tactical and strategic national security implications of an oil-based military further escalates the imperative to a crisis level. Funding for military R&D has always been an investment in national security just as investment and dedication in innovation has always been a mainstay of global power. With energy security and national security now so inextricably entwined, investment in military energy R&D must be redoubled, with the reasonable expectation that the immediate and tactical public benefits of such a flanking maneuver against our oil dependence will be followed by a strategic shift to tangible and lasting energy security.

Cmdr. Jeffrey W. Eggers is an active-duty naval officer serving on the Joint Staff. He recently completed a tour as a director for combating terrorism at the National Security Council. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Navy or the Defense Department.