SERIES: Foreign Policy Paper Series | Number 17 of 35 « Previous | Next »

Fueling the "Balance": A Defense Energy Strategy Primer


The U.S. Department of Defense is the world’s single largest consumer of energy, using more energy in the course of its daily operations than any other private or public organization, as well as more than 100 nations. There may be no aspect of American defense planning that is as important, and yet little understood and acted upon, as our defense energy security strategy. Increasing our energy efficiency is often framed as an environmental issue, when it has actually become a core national security concern for America in the 21st century.

Access to reliable and affordable energy resources is absolutely fundamental to the operations and readiness of the U.S. military. In recent years, rising costs, variability in supply, and a host of challenging technical and environmental objectives have elevated the issue of energy security for our armed forces. The challenges are particularly acute for petroleum-based fuels. Their availability and cost now significantly impact military budgets, combat mission execution, institutional capabilities, and, by implication, our national security. Yet, as a recent board of retired military leaders declared, “The nation’s current energy posture is a serious and urgent threat to national security.”1

After years of dithering, we must resolve the looming issue of energy security and its implications on the readiness of the U.S. military. The path to continued readiness requires reducing the overall amount of energy that the Department of Defense (DoD) uses and increasingly turning to alternative energy sources to meet fuel needs.

The energy issue is a matter of such strategic importance that it should be established as one of the target areas in the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the document that determines the Pentagon’s overall vision of strategy, programs, and resources every four years. With the next QDR due to Congress in early 2010, a closing window of opportunity must not be missed. The focus of the current QDR effort so far has been on how to bring “balance” back to the force as it faces a changing world of globalized threats. This is obviously valuable. But, it is important to acknowledge that the energy nexus is of such importance that it cannot be deferred again at the strategic level. We cannot effectively meet the goals to “preserve and enhance the force” without also facing directly the systemic challenges that threaten to undermine it from below. A force that is “rebalanced” to better deal with “hybrid” threats will still be highly vulnerable if the energy issue is ignored.

This is not just a matter of recognizing the energy and climate issue on the threats side of the ledger. In order to drive actual programming and yield resources, a defined and realistic target finally needs to be enunciated for the DoD in the energy usage realm. The DoD should set a clear and measurable target to reduce the baseline total consumption of energy in the Department of Defense by 20 percent by 2025 and to be a net-zero energy consumer at its bases and facilities by 2030.2

Underlying this effort are two complementary objectives. First, a significant percentage of the overall reduction in baseline energy will come from the department converting from petroleum to alternative forms of energy and increasing efficiency of use. Moving the DoD away from reliance on petroleum will also ultimately address the long-standing irony of fueling our defense establishment from a system that threatens our nation’s security. As such, our military can help “lead the way” for the nation by reducing its petroleum dependency.

Second, this effort can be accomplished without reduction of military capability in the resulting force. Indeed, pursuing lower energy consumption and petroleum dependency will ultimately increase the combat and sustainment capabilities of the DoD. Lower energy consumption and especially reduced reliance on petroleum-based products will give our military forces greater freedom of maneuver and reduced lines of communication across the entire spectrum of warfare from Expeditionary Operations to Disaster Relief and Humanitarian Operations. As a recent Pentagon report noted, “Energy is the key enabler of US military combat power.”3 The results will be practical, straightforward advantages achieved in a more efficient and economical manner.

In sum, the issues of energy, its links to national security, and most importantly, defined action at the department- wide level, have been deferred for too long. We must better manage defense energy security by implementing steps to increase energy efficiency and substituting alternative forms of energy to meet the military’s fuel needs. What is needed is the establishment of clear leadership on energy issues, the institution of sound management, technology research, and procurement practices, and the provision of DoD with the resources it needs to improve its energy security.

SERIES: Foreign Policy Paper Series | Number 17