Fueling the “Balance”: A Defense Energy Strategy Primer

Jerry Warner and Peter W. Singer


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.