Cutting the Tether: Enhancing the U.S. Military’s Energy Performance

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“Unleash us from the tether of fuel.”



— Gen. James Mattis, former commander of the 1st Marine Division, during the drive to Baghdad, March 2003


Executive Summary

The Defense Department has embarked on an important set of reforms that focuses on the impact of our energy policies on our armed forces. However, while there is wide agreement on the objectives, and brilliant efforts have already led to some victories, successes are still few and far between. There are islands of excellence, but we are in need of a continent.

The need for action is clear. First and foremost, we need to reduce the vulnerabilities to our armed forces posed by 20th-century strategies regarding energy. A prime example is the high casualty levels suffered by troops guarding oil and water convoys.

Second, we need to reduce overall fuel cost and price volatility. For decades, the Pentagon has failed to accurately capture the cost of fuel. This failure has consequences for both our actual budget as well as our strategic posture.

Third, we must increase energy security. Our foreign policy and national security decisions too often are influenced or even driven by concerns about our fuel supply.

Fourth, we need to adapt and cope with climate change. The dangers of “climate refugees,” changing borders and aggravated social problems in the developing world present an active and increasing security threat for the U.S. and our allies, and perceived indifference will only diminish global respect for the U.S.

In this paper, we recommend that the Pentagon redouble its efforts on energy as part of a larger strategy to achieve a more efficient and effective security posture. This paper focuses on the concept of “energy performance,” which encompasses where the military gets its energy and how it uses it. We believe that maximizing energy performance will require, in large part, increasing the use of renewable energy, energy efficiency and more strategically favorable sources of energy. After a summary of the current costs and liabilities associated with the Pentagon’s energy posture — and some of the efforts already taken to strengthen it — this paper gives an explanation of several potential solutions going forward:

  • Reform the acquisitions process. The Pentagon should fully account for the cost of battlefield fuel in all purchasing and logistical decisions.
  • Improve in-theater energy performance. The military should implement new energy-performance technology at forward operating bases and other battlefield locations.
  • Boost clean energy and efficiency at all Defense Department installations. For domestic bases, in particular, decreasing dependence on fossil fuels and the public electricity grid removes potential liabilities.
  • Strengthen research and development and enhance commercialization of nascent clean energy technologies. By taking an active role as developer and customer, the Pentagon can help scale up clean tech innovations.

These efforts would ultimately save considerable taxpayer dollars, strengthen the resilience of U.S. forces and yield innovations that not only would enhance the military’s energy performance but also boost American competitiveness.

Download the full report.

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