Lean, Green Fighting Machine

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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.

The pride of the Navy is no longer the iconic Nimitz-class nuclear-powered floating airfield or the deadly Aegis missile destroyer with gas-turbine engines that suck 34 gallons of fuel a minute. Now it’s the nimble, multipurpose amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island, an electric hybrid that can carry an entire Marine expeditionary unit while using 60 percent less fossil fuel than its predecessors. Meanwhile, spurred on by glowing reports from India Company, the Marine Corps is equipping other units with the ExFOB and testing a new round of green battle gear at its desert training facility in Twentynine Palms, California, including a renewable-energy water-purification system.

The Army is pursuing an aggressive “net zero” goal for its permanent bases worldwide, balancing production and consumption of energy, water, and waste so that they total out to zero. Plans have been approved for dozens of solar-power installations at bases around the world, and testing is ongoing for combat technologies such as an electric hybrid dune buggy for special forces, mobile factories that turn battle-zone waste into renewable fuel, and portable hybrid generators and smart “microgrids” that provide instant green power for outposts.

The Air Force, the military’s biggest oil hog, is certifying fighters, bombers, and cargo jets to run on a mix that’s 50 percent lower-carbon renewable biofuels. Once-cutting-edge stealth engineering is now old hat; the sexy new topic in aviation tech is fuel-producing algae. Tanks and jeeps–along with the 164,000 other noncombat vehicles that service military bases–are next in line for biofuels and hybridization.

Military officials are quick to make clear that this effort has nothing to do with political correctness, saving endangered species, or even slowing the global warming caused by the military’s 300,000-barrels-a-day oil habit. “It’s about cost. It’s about national security. And it’s about the burden in blood,” says Bill Browning, a member of the Defense Science Board’s energy task force (now disbanded) and a founder of the environmental consulting group Terrapin Bright Green. He points to a simple, terrible statistic concerning Iraq and Afghanistan: “Half the casualties in these conflicts have been fuel-convoy related.”

In 2007 one out of every 24 fuel convoys in Afghanistan, and one out of 38 in Iraq, led to a military fatality, according to an Army study examining the link between casualties and energy. The 6,000 fuel convoys that year imposed such a huge cost in lives, manpower, and money that the Pentagon could no longer ignore it, Browning says.

In addition to mortality statistics are some grim budgetary realities. Getting fuel to combat troops in Afghanistan costs between $25 and $50 a gallon, and sometimes as much as $400. Says Tom Hicks, the Navy’s first deputy assistant secretary for energy: “We’ve realized that the best barrel of oil is the one we don’t use.”

Hicks’ boss, Navy secretary Ray Mabus, is among the most vocal of the military’s energy hawks. The former Mississippi governor publicly decries oil dependence for making our country and military “far too vulnerable.” Mabus promises a “great green fleet” powered by renewable energy, starting with a carrier strike group to be demonstrated in 2012 and a Navy-wide conversion to 50 percent oil-free energy on land, at sea, and in the air by 2020, with a mix of solar, wind, geothermal, biofuel, and nuclear power. This is a tall order, given that between the Navy and the Marines under his command, Mabus’ empire includes 290 ships; 3,700 jets, planes, and helicopters; 50,000 vehicles; and more than 72,500 buildings.

How can Mabus get away with such a commitment in a bad economy and with a fractured Congress threatening to pull the plug on environmental and energy initiatives? Simple: Just as President Barack Obama pushed renewables while avoiding the word climate in his 2011 State of the Union address, Mabus and other defense leaders downplay any connection between a sustainably powered military and fighting climate change.

Sharon Burke, the new director of defense operational energy plans and programs–the closest thing to an energy czar that the Pentagon has ever had–used this strategy when she was confronted during her confirmation hearings last fall by climate change doubter-in-chief Senator James Inhofe. Burke shrugged off his suggestion that she was making carbon reduction her priority, saying that her charge was to “improve the military’s energy security” and make sure that the Pentagon factors in the true cost of energy for its equipment, purchases, and operations. But she acknowledged, “They are linked together. . . . If we do it right, that will be one of the results, cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. But that’s not the role of this job.”

It turned out that talking about how a terrorist strike far smaller than 9/11 could cripple America’s power grid, and detailing the budget-busting specter of $400-a-gallon fuel for military Humvees that get as little as four miles per gallon, provided framing that even die-hard congressional climate skeptics couldn’t dismiss. Green power, the energy hawks insist, makes the military stronger. No less an authority than Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says, “Energy security needs to be one of the first things we think about, before we deploy another soldier, before we build another ship or plane, and before we buy or fill another rucksack.”

The traditional attitude about energy at the Defense Department, Mullen admits, has been “Burn it if you got it.” So its embrace of sustainability represents “a severe challenge,” says Christine Parthemore, a fellow at the Center for New American Security. But, Parthemore points out, this is no more daunting than the Navy’s evolution from sail to coal to oil to nuclear. Along the way, she says, the military helped lead worldwide energy changes by seeding and building markets for new technology–something the Pentagon appears to be trying to do once more, this time for solar, biofuel, and other alternative energy sources.

Edward Humes (www.edwardhumes.com) is the author of Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution (Harper Business, 2011). Excerpted from Sierra (July-Aug. 2011), the bimonthly environmental magazine produced by the Sierra Club. This story funded by the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign. www.sierraclub.org/sierra

Have something to say? Send a letter to editor@utne.com. This article first appeared in the January-February 2012 issue of Utne Reader.

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