THE BLOG
10/20/2014 06:13 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2014

The Value of Energy to Our Warfighters

Amid Blue Angels airshows and Navy Seals leaping from helicopters last week at San Francisco's annual Fleet Week, the biggest news may be the commissioning of the Navy's newest ship, the USS America. An amphibious assault ship, the USS America will carry a Marine expeditionary unit into battle with V-22 Ospreys supported by F-35B Lighting Aircraft and AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters. But what propels the ship is as remarkable as the devastation it can unleash: The USS America is the Navy's second ship to be propelled with a hybrid electric drive, saving significant quantities of fuel and money for a resource-strained military.

Saving fuel may sound pedestrian, but energy is a critical enabler for all military operations. As Rear Admiral Kevin Slates, the head of Navy's Energy and Environmental Readiness Division, explained to me "ships like USS America gain impressive combat capability through electric auxiliary propulsion systems." In other words, imagine a ship like the America off the coast of a warzone, launching strikes against militants or docked in a disaster-stricken port to provide urgent disaster relief. A ship with more efficient engines can stay in operation longer before having to head back to the open seas to refuel. Using less fuel enhances the America's operational flexibility and endurance.

The USS America is the latest evidence that our military sees the connection between energy and effectiveness. For decades, weapons systems and platforms were developed without serious consideration of their energy costs. As Colonel James Caley, the director of the Marine Corps Expeditionary Energy Office, put it, "The weapons systems we now use have more armor, more communications capabilities and more computing capabilities and it's all at a price of more energy." That price was extremely high as our military learned hard lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Talk to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and you'll hear the stories of their time deployed. Many were pulled from their primary mission -- in some cases as often as daily -- to defend large convoys of trucks bringing them the fuel they used to power their vehicles, communications equipment and generators. Those convoys were huge tactical vulnerabilities on the battlefield, plagued by insurgent IED attacks and ambushes. Driving a fuel truck in Iraq or Afghanistan was probably the most dangerous job in the military given that the routes were predictable and the targets were slow-moving. The numbers are staggering: From 2003-2007 alone, more than 3,000 casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan occurred on fuel resupply missions.

The military has turned to renewable energy to help reduce the risks of fuel supply missions and to lighten the burden on our troops in other ways, too. Tactical solar panels have replaced inefficient diesel generators, and solar panels on vests and packs are used to recharge equipment in the field. This shift has also increased the range, endurance and agility of our soldiers and Marines. Troops charging their radios and GPS systems from the solar panels on their chests can stay out longer, and if that reduces the 14 pounds of batteries the average troop carries on a three-day patrol, they can move faster.

The nexus of energy and effectiveness extends far beyond forward operating bases or our troops on the ground. That's why the Navy is reducing the energy demands of its ships by investing in advanced hull coatings, stern flaps and LED lighting. And they aren't alone -- the Air Force is working to develop advanced engine technology to increase fuel efficiency.

These are critically important investments. We have seen already how a heavy, energy-intensive force will be vulnerable to IEDs and ambushes, but we must prepare for a wide range of adversaries, from vicious insurgencies to near-peer competitors, all of which recognize the strategic value of targeting our military's logistics chain.

As the Department of Defense details in its just-released Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, changes to the environment will affect the missions our military is called on to perform and further disrupt access to the fuel streams those missions require. These consequences are already clear, given that our military is increasingly called upon for humanitarian assistance and disaster response, as more frequent and severe extreme weather events hit vulnerable populations.

Our military can reduce the risk from all these threats by using energy smarter. The investments our military is making in energy security and efficiency are important first steps, but the nascent energy revolution in Pentagon faces its share of political detractors inside the beltway. Fundamental change in the way we power our military will require institutionalizing and incorporating the value of energy at every level of planning, acquisition, training and execution.