Lean, Green Fighting Machine

The U.S. military no longer wants to trade blood for oil


| January-February 2012



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Image by Flickr user: US Army Africa / Creative Commons

The Marines of India Company harbored grave doubts about the experimental solar-power gear they were ordered to tote from their beachside base at Camp Pendleton to the grimmest, toughest war zone of Afghanistan. They were more interested in armor to protect them while they patrolled the “Fish Tank,” a booby trap–laden settlement next to their base, than in thin-film photovoltaics that might protect the planet from their carbon bootprint. After all, India Company encountered up to 15 roadside bombs a day, and individual platoon casualty rates had run as high as 25 percent killed or wounded. In a place where a single false step could cost your legs, or worse, tree hugging didn’t seem like much of a survival skill

“I was a skeptic,” Gunnery Sergeant Willy Carrion says, in comments passed on from Afghanistan by military officials. “As Marines, we do not always like change. I expected [the solar gear] to be a burden.”

But then they put it to the test. The portable solar generators and battery packs that powered the Marines’ lights, radios, and computers day and night ran quietly, coolly, and cleanly, unlike the loud, jet fuel–sucking generators they normally used. Camp Jackson, India Company’s forward operating base, went from a noisy, easy target for insurgents roaming the night to a silent, stealthy, safer outpost. The 20 to 25 gallons of fuel it previously took to power a platoon each day suddenly lasted more than a week—which meant fewer fuel convoys, with their notoriously high casualty rates; fewer encounters with roadside improvised explosive devices; and fewer Marines assigned to convoy duty instead of their primary mission.

Portable solar chargers allowed Marine patrols to spend weeks away from their Camp Jackson stronghold in the Taliban-infested Sangin district of Helmand Province without lugging extra batteries for their radios and other devices. This is no small matter: A modern infantry soldier may have to carry five pounds of batteries a day in the field. The heavy load displaces ammunition and demands regular replenishment missions that are as dangerous as fuel convoys. Fold-up solar chargers eliminated all that, according to First Lieutenant Josef Patterson, an India Company platoon commander. One set of batteries for each device lasted three weeks. “If I do not have a radio, I’m lost,” Patterson explains. “So that was huge. I’m completely sold.”

India Company is now the greenest fighting unit in the U.S. military. Its battle-tested package of solar gadgets—collectively dubbed the ExFOB (Experimental Forward Operating Base)—has been a hit with the troops on the ground. Most of the fuel consumed in a combat zone powers electric generators, not vehicles, which makes solar a perfect alternative. The best evidence of this: Other units are clamoring for the same gear. India Company has become the model for a leaner, meaner, lower-carbon fighting force.

The Department of Defense uses more petroleum (and energy) than any other organization on the planet—$13 billion to $18 billion worth a year, depending on who does the math. That accounts for more than 80 percent of the federal government’s energy tab. But after years of resistance, India Company’s example is now Pentagon policy. The U.S. military, despite being stretched thin by eight years and a trillion-plus dollars spent in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya, is taking on another controversial, long-term mission: to defend America without depending on oil.