The Military's Fuel Needs

WHAT WILL THE WORLD LOOK LIKE on the backside of Hubbert’s Peak? What you see depends upon where you stand. If you happen to stand in the Pentagon, the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense, the view is rather sobering. Well, what I mean to say is that if the view is not rather sobering, then whoever is doing the looking had better get their eyes checked.

The World’s Largest Fuel-Burning Entity

The U.S. government, as a whole, consumes not quite 2% of all the liquid fuel that the entire U.S. economy uses in a given year. That translates into about 440,000 barrels of oil per day, or slightly more than the entire output of the oil field at Prudhoe Bay, when the pipelines are not shut down due to corrosion. Multiply by 365 days per year, and the U.S. government burns up about 160 million barrels of oil per year, at a cost of something over $10 billion at recent price levels.

Of the total U.S. government liquid fuel use, about 97% of that is consumed by the Department of Defense, making that agency the world’s single largest fuel-burning entity. But even within the U.S. DOD, the respective services are themselves gargantuan users of liquid fuel. According to data supplied by the Defense Energy Support Center, the interservice breakdown for fuel use is as follows:

  • Department of the Air Force: 53%
  • Department of the Navy (including Marine Corps): 32%
  • Department of the Army: 12%

In recent testimony before the U.S. Congress, a DOD representative stated that “mobility”-type fuel, used in aircraft, ships, and vehicles, accounts for almost 75% of total DOD energy consumption. Thus fuel used to heat and power buildings and facilities accounts for about 25% of DOD energy usage. In terms of fuel types, jet fuel accounts for 58% of mobility fuel. (Jet fuel is used in aircraft and nonaircraft platforms, such as tanks, other ground vehicles, and power generators.) The balance of energy usage comes from marine diesel, electricity, fuel oil, gasoline, and other sources, such as nuclear, wind, and solar. Yes, the DOD is one of the largest single generators and users of renewable power in the U.S.

Walk the Line

Any way you look at it, the Air Force, Army, and the Navy and Marine Corps just plain use a lot of gas, or I should call it “mobility fuel.” You certainly know it when you see it, especially if you have ever walked the line along just about any U.S. military installation and taken a glance at the equipment. The Air Force is all about airlift and platforms that can deliver strike packages from the air. The Navy and Marine Corps are all about sealift and sea-delivered strike packages. And the Army is all about maneuvering and fighting, seizing and holding. And this is merely a bare-bones simplification of the respective service missions, which are quite broad, complex, and very much interrelated.

But the point on which I want to focus in this discussion is that the availability of liquid fuel is one of the fundamental assumptions at all levels of U.S. military activities. From the tactical level of fighting to the operational level of war, and from operations to the highest levels of strategic thinking, “burning gas” (whoops, I mean “mobility fuel”) is built into all U.S. doctrine. Energy, and in particular energy derived from liquid fuel, is at the heart and soul of the U.S. military power.

The Navy, for Example…

For example, let me illustrate this point. Let’s take a look at one service, the U.S. Navy, and its concept of operations. A recent and authoritative publication entitled Naval Operations Concept 2006, co-signed by both the chief of naval operations and the commandant of the Marine Corps, listed what it called “Strategic Missions” and “Naval Missions” of the Navy and Marine Corps. The Strategic Missions are:

  • Homeland defense
  • War on terror and irregular warfare
  • Conventional campaigns
  • Deterrence
  • Shaping and stability operations.

Each of these “strategic” missions could be the subject of many articles, if not many volumes. I have not the space in this article to describe the details of each mission, but I hope that you can see how each mission involves a vast scope of complex operations in order to carry it out. All of these missions require trained personnel and suitable equipment, such as ships, aircraft, ground vehicles, and other devices that are bolted to the floors of fixed installation or which orbit the Earth and look down from on high. And all of this equipment requires energy in order to move it into position and make it all work.

Subordinate to the Strategic Missions, but embodied within them from the standpoint of operations, are a series of what are called Naval Missions. These are, according to the recent Naval Operations Concept 2006 publication:

  • Forward naval presence
  • Crisis response
  • Expeditionary power projection
  • Maritime security operations
  • Sea control
  • Deterrence
  • Security cooperation
  • Civil-military operations
  • Counterinsurgency
  • Counterterrorism
  • Counterproliferation
  • Air and missile defense
  • Information operations.

Again, all of these “naval” missions could be the subject of many articles, if not many volumes. I cannot go into detail here, but each mission requires people and equipment to carry it out. And most surely, each and every mission requires energy sources to power the systems.

Where Are the Aircraft Carriers?

There is a famous saying within the halls of politics and political-military statecraft in and around Washington, D.C. It goes something like this: “When something bad happens in the world, the president of the United States turns to his advisers and asks, ‘Where are the aircraft carriers?'” The president might actually say “aircraft carriers.” But he could just as soon mean, “Where are the submarines?” or “Can I get strategic airlift into that area?” or “Do you have some Marines on a ship nearby?” or “What else can you give me to help shape the events?”

The “bad” thing to which the president refers might be a civil war in equatorial Africa, or a hot war in the Middle East, or a tsunami in Indonesia, or an earthquake in Iran or Pakistan. Whatever it is, the U.S. president has grown accustomed, over the past half century or so, to having the military flexibility to send in large ships, with embarked aircraft and trained combat or medical forces in close proximity, and to do it on a rapid basis. Or Mr. President has the ability to send long-range airlifters into a particular theater, there to disgorge people and equipment that can make a difference in a hurry.

But when you boil it all down and distill this “influencing and shaping” process to its very essence, this entire concept of operations is based on U.S. military equipment burning gas.

Don’t Run out of Gas

The strange thing is that in the keystone documents that define and control the elements of strategy of the U.S., you hardly ever see a reference to that “mobility fuel” as being the sine qua non of U.S. military power. Look, for example, in the National Security Strategy of the United States. Or look in the National Military Strategy of the United States. Or try the National Strategy for Maritime Security.

These important publications discuss big-picture operational and strategic issues, but provide essentially no guidance on one very fundamental concept. That is, “Don’t run out of gas.”

Some of That “Logistics” Stuff

Perhaps the point of not running out of gas is so fundamental that it is considered silly even to raise it in such ethereal policy documents. Within the political and military planning process at almost every level, “mobility fuel” is usually relegated to the nether world of “logistics.” That is, if our guys need fuel to drive their ships or airplanes, then the logistics people will get it and deliver it to where it is needed. After all, that is why we have logistics people, right?

One well-known comment on the subject came from U.S. Navy Adm. Ernest J. King (no relation to me, by the way). At one point during the Second World War, Adm. King said, “I do not know what the hell this ‘Logistics’ stuff is that everyone is talking about, but I want some of it.” Of course, Adm. King was just kidding around when he said that. Every military planner knows that supplies will make or break a campaign. “Modern” logistics had its start with the campaigns of Wallenstein in the 17th century. In the early 1800s, no less an authority than Napoleon said, “An army travels on its stomach.” Today, a modern army travels only as far as its supply lines will carry it. Run out of supplies, and you may as well be in Stalingrad or Dien Bien Phu, if not part of an encircled Egyptian army on the Sinai Peninsula.

Which brings us back to the concept of Hubbert’s Peak, or the “peak” in the volume of conventional oil that can be extracted on a daily basis from the crust of the Earth. U.S. military power, in all its forms, is distinctly a creation of a world in which large quantities of conventional oil were available, and relatively affordable. The U.S. military machine is built on and around cheap and available “mobility fuel,” and virtually its entire body of doctrine is founded on pre-Peak Oil thinking. If the world is at or fast approaching a state of Peak Oil, where does that leave us?

“Who Is in Charge?”

In a three-paragraph memo dated Dec. 14, 2005, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted to his deputy, Gordon England, that the DOD “should be doing all it can” to save energy. Rumsfeld then went on to ask whether the DOD was doing enough, asking: “Who in the department is in charge?”

Memo to Mr. Rumsfeld: “Sir, no one is really in charge.”

Nobody is in charge? That is not quite what they teach at the Harvard Business School. But perhaps a better way to look at it is that there is no single point within the DOD at which all wiring diagrams end, except for maybe one office currently occupied by a certain Donald Rumsfeld. So aside from the occupant of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, there is no one person to blame if things go wrong. Not, of course, that things ever go wrong in the field of energy supply, right? (Just kidding.)

The good news is, I believe, that there are actually a lot of people within the DOD who are doing different things about energy, but no one person or office monitors or controls things. Yes, it sounds counterintuitive, but maybe we should call it a “market” approach to solving energy problems. From the most advanced research and development laboratories to the troops in the field, people within the DOD are thinking about energy issues. And there is some very good thinking going on.

Out in the Fleet and Field

The Marine Corps commanding general in Anbar Province, Iraq, has recently placed a top-priority request for renewable energy systems to power fixed bases and installations in his area of responsibility. Currently, U.S. military operations in Anbar are dependent on long logistics lines, stretching back into Kuwait, over which large volumes of fuel must be hauled just to do such a mundane thing as power generators that keep the lights on and run the computers. The drivers, trucks, and, of course, the fuel, are all subject to attack along the lines of travel. The Marine Corps general wants to reduce the requirement for liquid fuel supplies, and has requested systems that are based on photovoltaic power generation, supplemented by easily installed wind systems, coupled to battery storage cells. These systems are in production, have already been deployed elsewhere in the world, and are available. This is one form of post-Peak Oil military thinking.

The U.S. Army is redesigning the ubiquitous Humvee. One of the key complaints about this versatile battlefield vehicle is that it consumes too much fuel. The Humvee has become an icon of the military services over the past two decades, since it replaced the World War II-era Jeep. But the Humvee gets as few as 4 miles per gallon in city driving and a paltry 8 miles per gallon on the highway. The Army wants to see a Humvee replacement that weighs 30-40% less and that uses proportionately less fuel.

The U.S. Air Force is qualifying new types of fuel derived from both natural gas and coal. On Sept, 19, 2006, a B-52 bomber actually flew with one engine mount using a newly produced liquid fuel derived entirely from natural gas. Due to the nature of the manufacturing process, the fuel contains virtually no sulfur and hardly any heavy metals, as opposed to jet fuel derived from refined petroleum. In ground-based testing, the engines that burned this new type of fuel did not experience any measurable loss of performance and required less maintenance. Another virtue of this synthetic fuel is that it has a storage life that is orders of magnitude longer than petroleum-derived fuels.

The U.S. Navy is experimenting with ship designs and construction techniques that are orders of magnitude more efficient than in years past. Naval architects and ship designers are working to build performance into ship systems, anticipating future oil costs in the range of $200 per barrel. Some novel ideas envision certain future classes of Navy ships using masts and sails, with the sails and the exterior of the hulls coated with photovoltaic cells. All of this is with the goal of reducing the requirement for liquid “mobility fuel.”

Ashore, both the Navy and the Air Force are among the largest generators and consumers of “green” energy, almost all of it derived from windmills. And all of this has been happening with no one really, as the expression goes, “in charge.”

“More Than Anyone Else”

There is an old criticism of the military, along the lines that “the generals always plan to fight the last war.” In my view, however, I think that it depends on the general, and it depends on the war. One could just as easily say that it is the bulk of politicians, the mainstream media, and the large body of the people who are the ones fixated on fighting that “last war.” Don’t be so hard on the people who are tasked with doing the hard work of making the U.S. national defense system work. It is actually quite a difficult job.

According to U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican member of Congress from Western Maryland, the U.S. military is “doing more than anyone else — in the government or around the country” to address a future in which energy supplies will be scarce and expensive. Rep. Bartlett adds, “I don’t think the country as a whole has any perception of the danger” of America’s reliance on foreign oil.

As I wrote at the beginning of this article, what you see depends on where you stand. For all of its vast size and energy usage, some of the most pioneering work in addressing the issue of Peak Oil is presently being conducted within the DOD. It is too much to say that we are witness to “Hubbert’s Defense Department.” But the resources of the DOD are vast, and this department of the U.S. government appears to be getting the message.

The question for the DOD is the same as the question for the U.S. broadly, and for the developed world generally. How fast can we adapt to a post-Peak Oil future? Can we change consumption habits faster than depletion leads to the declining availability of conventional oil? As I have said in other articles in Whiskey & Gunpowder, this is a race against time.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
October 12, 2006

P.S.: Will I see you at the Peak Oil conference in Boston, Oct. 25-27, 2006?

I want to take the opportunity to let you know that the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA (ASPO-USA) and Boston University (BU) will co-sponsor the 2006 World Oil Conference, Time for Action: A Midnight Ride for Peak Oil, on the BU campus, October 26-27, 2006.

The conference will bring together energy experts from around the world to discuss the likely timing, impacts, and intelligent responses to the growing Peak Oil challenge. As you probably know, virtually every sector of our society and economy will be affected by Peak Oil, from transportation, manufacturing, airfreight, and agriculture to homebuilding, city planning, and finance.

“What better place than Boston to hold A Midnight Ride for Peak Oil ?” asks Matthew Simmons, chair of ASPO-USA’s advisory board. “We are recruiting the best minds in the business — geologists, industry experts, academics, and environmentalists — to take up arms with scientific data to meet the historic challenge of Peak Oil.” Simmons is author of The Wall Street Journal -listed bestseller Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy. For conference details, please see:

In addition to Matthew Simmons and Robert Kaufmann, conference speakers will include numerous individuals wo are considered among the foremost scholars in the field of Peak Oil studies. The full list of speakers may be viewed at the Conference Website.

Conference topics include:

  • Oil and Gas Depletion (What’s the evidence on Peak Oil? What geologic, political, economic, and technical constraints limit oil production? Why is forecasting a date for Peak Oil an inexact science?)
  • Mitigation (What responses are available, and when can they be implemented?)
  • Alternative Energy (What unconventional petroleum and nonpetroleum energy sources are available, and can they fill the depletion gap?)
  • Economics (What economic challenges do decreasing energy supplies present?)
  • Transportation (What is the future direction of personal transportation, its limitations and prospects, and how should planners and fleet managers respond?)
  • Net Energy (What’s the meaning of energy return on energy invested — EROEI — and why is it critical to intelligent responses to the Peak Oil dilemma?)
  • Energy Security (Can we achieve energy security in a world of escalating competition for a finite resource?)
  • Government Policy (What is the direction of energy policy at the local, state, and federal levels? Do these policies need obvious tweaks, or a massive overhaul?)

Strategic Investment’s Dan Amoss and I are both planning to attend, and I hope that many of you who read Whiskey & Gunpowder will also be there.

Note: Agora Financial, LLC has no financial or other business relationship to ASPO-USA, Boston University, or the World Oil Conference. We are running this promotional piece as a public service, and because we believe that the conference offers our readers the opportunity to improve their understanding of the critical topic of Peak Oil.

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