But Where are the Solar-Powered ICBMs?

October 5th, 2005 - by admin

Haninah Levine / Center for Defense Information – 2005-10-05 23:38:09


“[Dependence on oil production] is starting to create a serious problem [for U.S. security] … We’ve always known it’s been a problem, but I think the situation has accelerated much faster than anyone of us would have realized … And, of course, this dependency affects our entire enterprise … I’m talking about all products that we use, from plastics to other things, that rely on petroleum in some way, shape or form.”
– Michael Francis, director of the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems program at Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Sept. 7, 2005.

“Most of our ships are oil driven. So what implication does that have if you are in charge of the next generation of ships and the generation of ships beyond that? What should we be doing when we take into consideration the price of oil?”
– Vice Adm. Paul Sullivan, commander of Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), Sept. 18, 2005.

WASHINGTON (September 29, 2005) — The need to reduce fossil fuel consumption, once an exclusive concern of the liberal left, has become a theme with broad appeal in American public life in recent years. More than anything else, the rising cost of oil has driven this change, though more fundamental concerns are also implicated: the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 raised questions about US ties to Middle Eastern oil producers, while the need to protect the environment is emerging as an imperative that Americans across party lines are willing to pay a price to obey. In all, the problem of America’s fossil fuel consumption is receiving more attention than at any point since the 1973 Middle Eastern oil crisis.

Since oil dependence is recognized today as a threat not only to the environment but to national security, one might expect the Department of Defense (DoD), the nation’s largest consumer of fuel and its most important sponsor of scientific research, to be leading the way in developing technology to reduce fossil fuel consumption.

DoD has publicized heavily its efforts to save energy and tap renewable energy resources at its facilities. Developing alternative fuel and power generation technology for the military, on the other hand, seems to be a low priority at the Department’s scientific research agencies.

Recently, however, the short-term disruptions to the overall US fuel supply caused by Hurricane Katrina have thrown the problem of the military’s fuel consumption into sharp relief. Since the hurricane and the ensuing spike in U.S. oil prices, several high-ranking military officials have been quoted in the press suggesting that the time may have come for the military to take seriously the current lack of alternatives to fossil fuels.

DOD Tasked to Reduce Oil Consumption
A series of laws and executive orders over the past decade have tasked the DoD, together with other large federal agencies, with reducing its consumption of non-renewable energy. Executive Order 13149 of April 21, 2000, for example, mandates a series of programs aimed at reducing petroleum consumption by the department’s fleet vehicles by 20 percent, while Congress’ military construction appropriations bill for FY 2002 called on DoD to assess the potential of US military installations to produce or procure energy from renewable sources.

More recently, dramatic large-scale failures of public electric grids have heightened concern about the “energy security” of defense installations, leading to greater interest in on-site renewable energy as a way to hedge against such disasters.

In response to these pressures, DoD has launched a much-publicized campaign to reduce energy consumption and increase use of renewable energy at its facilities. According to the department’s Annual Energy Management Report for FY 2004, overall consumption of renewable energy at its facilities increased by 18 percent from FY 2003 to FY 2004. Of the 25 terawatt-hours of electricity consumed at DoD facilities in FY 2004, 2 percent were bought from renewable energy sources.

Electricity generated on-site from renewable energy sources, while constituting less than one-twentieth of 1 percent of the total electricity consumed, still amounted to 10 gigawatt-hours – mostly from solar arrays, wind farms, and geothermal energy converters installed at remote army bases.

The modest expansion of renewable-energy use at DoD facilities extends beyond electricity use. While the department’s purchases of natural gas, propane, coal and steam for its facilities in FY 2004 totaled 83 billion British thermal units (Btu), it purchased some 1 billion Btu in renewable thermal energy, and produced another 1 billion Btu on-site.

Biodiesel at the Pentagon
Meanwhile, efforts to implement Executive Order 13149 and other similar orders have led to such high-publicity events as the installation of a B20 biodiesel pump at the Pentagon gas station in late 2004 (B20 biodiesel is a blend of 80 percent non-renewable diesel and 20 percent renewable vegetable oils).

While these small gains were made in introducing renewable energy into DoD’s energy supply, much more significant progress has been made in reducing overall energy consumption at its facilities. According to the Annual Energy Management Report, energy consumption per square foot at the department’s facilities in FY 2004 was 27 percent less than in FY 1985. The Army by itself has reduced its facilities’ consumption of fuel oil by over 92 percent since 1985, but this has been mostly achieved by conversion to natural gas, a cleaner but mostly non-renewable energy source.

With the Pentagon striving to bring its stateside and overseas facilities into the 21st century, one might expect that the military’s advanced research facilities would be abuzz with programs intended to reduce fossil fuel consumption on the battlefield. The Defense Sciences Office (DSO) of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) announces on its website that “U.S. military land-based operations of the future are intended to be self-sustaining and must minimize long logistics tails,” identifying the fuel supply as a significant part of these “tails.”

In the civilian marketplace, rising gasoline prices are already drawing fuel-efficient alternative-propulsion vehicles into the main stream, in spite of their higher prices. The market research and forecasting firm J.D. Power and Associates reports that hybrid-electric cars, which combine a gasoline motor and an electric motor to maximize fuel mileage, accounted for 0.5 percent of the American market in 2004, and are expected to account for 3.5 percent by 2012.

Little to Show
But remarkably, DSO and the military’s other advanced research agencies have little to show the public in the way of new tools for reducing the military’s fossil fuel consumption.

Decreasing fossil fuel consumption is not one of the 16 “Future Areas of Interest” listed by DSO. Out of over 60 major current projects touted on its website, only three relate directly to power generation. Two of these, known as “Steam Engine Electric Generator” and “Palm Power,” target greater power production from a smaller, more portable device, though the “Steam Engine Electric Generator” project also promises an incidental reduction in emissions.

The third of these projects carries the ambitious title “Mobile Integrated Sustainable Energy Recovery,” or MISER. This projects takes aim directly at the “long logistics tail” mentioned above, aiming to make military units in the field “well over 100 percent self-sufficien[t] for their generator fuel needs.”

The solution targeted by MISER – developing a plastic packaging material for military supplies which can be burned after use to generate electricity – is certainly innovative, but accomplishes nothing in the way of exploiting renewable energy sources.

DARPA’s February 2005 Strategic Plan, “Bridging the Gap,” reveals a similar lack of attention to the military’s burgeoning fuel consumption. Like the DSO website, the Strategic Plan does not list reducing fossil fuel dependence or alternative power generation and propulsion as a “Current Strategic Thrust” of the agency, and an examination of the document reveals virtually no projects in the field.

The Strategic Plan mentions the potential of fuel cells to “reduce the weight of batteries carried by reconnaissance units from more than 200 pounds to less than 20 pounds,” but not their fuel-efficiency benefits.

Hybrid-Electric Vehicles
One project which does have significant potential for making the U.S. military into the fuel-efficient fighting force that the future will demand is mentioned in passing in DARPA’s Strategic Plan. Among the projects listed in a sidebar on joint-funding initiatives between DARPA and the Marine Corps, “Bridging the Gap” names the Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Targeting Vehicle, a hybrid-electric vehicle.

The Strategic Plan reports that the deployment of two RSTVs to Iraq marks “the first time a hybrid electric vehicle will be used by our Armed Forces in a combat theater.” DARPA’s website offers no details on the nature of the vehicles’ operational role in Iraq or on future plans for the project, however, and DARPA did not respond to requests for more information on the project.

Like DARPA, the Army’s own vehicle design laboratory seems to display only a desultory interest in hybrid vehicles. The U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command’s (TACOM) National Automotive Center (NAC) boasts three projects under the heading of “Hybrid Propulsion Technologies.” Unfortunately, the information available on the website on these three projects appears to be badly out of date.

The first of these projects, a Hybrid Electric Technical Training Device designed in conjunction with United Defense, is described as being available for demonstration in October 2000 and having a future show date of February 2001, with no further information provided. The other two projects, the intriguingly-named Hybrid Electric Light Armored Vehicle and the Advanced Hybrid Electric Drive Technology Program (8×8), have listed future show dates of October 2002 and “TBD,” respectively.

Aside from the “Hybrid Propulsion Technologies” projects, the NAC site also lists a Fuel Cell Bus project, which was completed in 1988.

While it is certainly possible that other agencies within the Department of Defense are involved in research which may help reduce the military’s energy bill, the lack of publicity on this issue at the military’s premier research agencies indicates that even in the mid-term future, the U.S. military may still be unprepared for a major oil crisis.

Hurricane Was a Wake-up Call
There is reason to believe that the mini-crisis caused by Hurricane Katrina’s disruption of the nation’s oil infrastructure may have alerted some authorities within the military to the danger of a lackadaisical attitude towards fuel efficiency and alternative energy technology, however.

In the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina, Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England issued a statement calling on all members of the military to “seek and implement … prudent measures to save fuel.” The measures called for by England, including maximizing use of ground combat simulators, encouraging use of mass transportation, and deferring discretionary travel, were on the whole logistical rather than technological, however, and therefore did not directly address the long-term imperative for reform.

As the quotes which opened this article demonstrate, however, serious questions are being asked within the military about the long-term U.S. strategy for military fuel efficiency. Francis’ comments were made at a panel on “Sustaining Critical Technologies” at the 2005 Conference on International Defense Cooperation (ComDef), and were the result of what he described as a new realization of the constraints which petroleum supply shortages would place on the U.S. military. At the same panel, Charles Holland, deputy undersecretary of defense for science and technology, agreed that maturing the technology which would solve this problem would require a higher level of investment than had been seen until recently.

Sullivan’s comments came as less of an unexpected departure, given his background. Before coming to NAVSEA, Sullivan spent many years as a program manager for the military’s most famous alternative-fuel vehicles, nuclear submarines.

Sullivan has been linked in the past with discussions about an electric surface fleet, but unlike his most recent comments, past discussions of electrification appear to have focused less on controlling for an uncertain oil market than on performance advantages.

Meanwhile, an unusually good opportunity has come about for the military to start thinking about introducing hybrid-electric propulsion into its garages. Military planners are beginning to plan the next-generation vehicle that will replace the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, or Humvee, a vehicle first designed in the late 1970s which has become a combat workhorse in recent years.

Plans for a Hybrid-Humvee?
The most talked-about planned improvement to the Humvee is a significant upgrade to the vehicle’s armor-bearing capacity, an obvious need given the vehicle’s unexpectedly significant combat role in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The new vehicle will therefore probably require more horsepower than today’s hybrid-electric technology can supply. On the other hand, the Humvee’s poor fuel mileage – as low as 10 miles per gallon – has led at least one military official to speculate in public about the possibility of tapping hybrid power sources in the future. Outlining the Marine Corp’s requirements for the Combat Tactical Vehicle (CTV), the label being given to the Humvee’s replacement, Kevin McConnell, deputy director of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command’s Fires and Maneuver Integration Division, mentioned that the Corps was paying attention to advances in hybrid-electric propulsion, but noted that hybrids are unlikely to power the vehicle’s first generation, due to be fielded by FY 2011.

While McConnell’s assessment of the maturity of today’s technology is probably accurate, the Marine Corps, and the Department of Defense in general, can take several steps to ensure that the current review of the U.S. military’s vehicle needs will provide a spring-board to greater fuel economy in the future. First, the military might begin by designing the CTV in a way which would allow it to be retrofitted with a hybrid power plant at a future date. Beyond that, the announcement of the CTV’s requirements might include an offer of funding for projects aimed at improving the vehicle’s fuel mileage, even if the military does not expect a solution as radical as a mature hybrid-electric power plant to surface. Finally, the occasion can be used to introduce a program to make a hybrid vehicle, along the lines of the RSTV, the goal for the next cycle of vehicle design.

The public speculation by decision-makers such as McConnell, Sullivan and Francis about the need for a strategy for reducing the military’s oil consumption offers hope that the growing awareness of fossil fuel dependence as an environmental, logistical and strategic danger is finally spreading to the defense establishment. This awareness can naturally spread from the bottom up, beginning with officials responsible, like McConnell, for specific logistical tasks before it arrives at the centers of military planning.

Federal Spending on Renewables Plummets 11 Percent
For now, however, it appears that the trend in federal spending on innovative energy technology points the other way. A study recently published by scientists at the University of California Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory finds that federal spending on energy research and development (R&D) declined by 11 percent from FY 2004 to FY 2005 alone, and is likely to decline by as much as 18 percent by 2009.

McConnell’s hybrid-electric CTV will never appear unless the echelons of the Defense Department responsible for setting the priorities of the military’s research agencies decide to dedicate resources to making them a reality. Given the importance of Defense Department funding in scientific research in the United States today, the mature renewable-energy and fuel-efficient technology of the future may never appear in reality until it appears among DARPA’s “Areas of Interest.”

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