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How Fuel-efficient Is the Pentagon? Military’s Oil Addiction


September 10, 2003
Gar Smith / Earth Island Journal (Winter 1990-1)

The military is critically dependent on oil for all of its operations. Oil supplies 79 percent of the Defense Department’s energy needs. But the Pentagon is far from fuel-efficient. This 1991 article found the DOD's ships, tanks and jets to be leading consumers of the Earth's oil resources.

In an attempt to determine how much oil has been consumed in the course of Operation Desert Shield’s attempt to save American jobs and secure "our way of life," Earth Island Journal contacted the Defense Fuel Supply Center. After a brief discussion, a DFSA spokesperson informed us curtly: "I don’t believe we would want to provide that information. We wouldn’t want the enemy to find out."

Information on military energy consumption is hard to find. One of the few investigations into this topic was written by Tom Cutler in the July 1989 issue of Armed Forces Journal International. "The military’s share of the total oil market in peacetime amounts to only about two-to-three percent of commercial demand," Cutler reported. Total US oil consumption is 17 million barrels a day (six billion barrels a year), which means the Pentagon may be consuming a little over half a million barrels of the nation’s daily oil diet. But that is not the whole picture since, as Cutler notes, "one-third or more of US military oil consumption occurs outside US territorial boundaries."

The military is critically dependent on oil for all of its operations. Oil supplies 79 percent of the Defense Department’s energy needs while only eight percent of the military’s energy comes from electricity, eight pecent from natural gas and four percent from coal. Compare this to the world’s energy budget — 34 percent from oil, 20 percent from natural gas, 30 percent from coal, eight percent from nuclear — or the nation’s — 42 percent from oil, 23 percent from natural gas, 22 percent from coal, eight percent from nuclear (1990-91 World Resources and US Department of Energy).

Between wars, one would think the military’s main purpose would be to "guard the peace." Not so. During times of peace, Tom Cutler writes: "The military’s primary objective [emphasis added] is to ensure adequate oil supplies for the national defense...." Cutler should know: he once headed NATO’s Petroleum Planning Committee and the is the author of The Military Demand for Oil (Petroleum Economist, London, England).

During wartime, the military’s use of energy escalates dramatically. In 1940, the military’s share of the nation’s total energy was only one percent. Five years later, following the outbreak of WWII, military consumption had jumped to 29 percent. (In the post-war era, the military never relinquished its growing claim on the country’s oil. At its peak, the Vietnam War was consuming more than one million barrels of oil a day.)

The Defense Fuel Supply Center is the world’s biggest customer for refined crude oil. The DFSC purchases three-fourths of the military’s oil products from within North America. While only five percent of the Pentagon’s purchases actually come directly from the Middle East, one of the military’s most trusted suppliers had been the Kuwait National Petroleum Company (the ninth largest foreign supplier of US military oil).

GPM — Gallons per Mile
Because the military’s tanks, planes and ships burns fuel at such intense rates, it becomes impractical to talk about consumption in "miles per gallon." Military fuel use is, instead, tabulated in "gallons-per-mile," "gallons-per-minute," and "barrels-per-hour."

The biggest gas-hogs in the Pentagon’s arsenal are the Navy’s non-nuclear aircraft carriers that burn 134 barrels per hour and battleships which consume 68 barrels per hour. At it top speed of 25 knots, the USS Independence (a 1070-foot-long aircraft carrier with 4.1 acres of flight deck and a crew of 2300) consumes 150,000 gallons of fuel a day.

Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll, Jr. (USN Ret.) of the Washington, DC-based Center for Defense Information, is a former commander of the Independence. While stationed off Vietnam, Adm. Carroll recalls, the ship consumed 100,000 gallons of fuel a day. Every four days the Independence took on a million gallons of new fuel — half of which went to supply the carrier’s jet aircraft. Steaming to the Persian Gulf in 14 days, the Independence would consume more than two million gallons of fuel. Simply "standing by" in the Gulf, the carrier must still consume oil at a voracious pace in order to purify 380,000 gallons of fresh water daily and produce enough electricity to power the equivalent of a city of 40,000 people.

Under standard conditions the Army’s M-1 Abrams tank gets eight gallons per mile. In the heat of battle, however, the M-1 Abrams tank can eat up seven barrels — 252 gallons (based on 36 British Imperial gallons per barrel) — per hour! In actual battlefield simulations, however, these tanks have proven to have a built-in energy-conservation feature — they break down, on average, every 152 miles.

It takes nearly 500,000 gallons a day to supply an armored division of 348 tanks
Neither the Army nor the Navy are the Pentagon’s biggest gas-guzzlers, however — that honor goes to the US Air Force. Altogether, Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps aircraft, consume 61 percent of all the Pentagon’s oil.

A B-52 bomber gulps down 86 barrels per hour. F-4 Phantom fighter/bombers devour 40 barrels per hour. At peak thrust, F-15 fighters burn 25 gallons per minute. An F-16 jet on a training mission ignites more fuel in a single hour than the average car owner consumes in two years.

To reach supersonic speeds, a pilot turns on the plane’s afterburners which can triple a jet’s speed and increase fuel consumption twenty times. With its afterburner kicked in, Cutler states, the "relatively fuel-efficient" F-15 fighter torches fuel at the astounding rate of four gallons per second — 14,400 gallons per hour. And as the military opts for bigger, faster, more sophisticated weapons, fuel efficiency continues to plummet.

Now try to magnify these figures by factoring in the 300 US jets stationed on four aircraft carrier groups in the Gulf, another 700 planes stationed in Saudi Arabia and 22 Stealth bombers.

Oil & Logistics
"Fuel is the single largest commodity that military logisticians must transport in terms of both volume and weight," Culter writes. In a modern military force, he continues, "two-thirds of the weight of supplies would be for petroleum alone." According to Jane’s [complete title], a fully-loaded C-5 Galaxy cargo plane taking off on a 6000-plus mile flight will weigh more than 418 tons. Nearly 40 percent of that weight — 167 tons — is fuel.

In the first two weeks of Operation Desert Shield, more than two billion pounds of weapons, food, medical supplies and ammunition had to be trucked in from around the US, assembled at distant ports and airfields to be transported more than 7000 miles to the other side of the Earth. The volume of the initial two-week effort exceeded the entire 1945 Berlin Airlift.

The cost of air conditioning alone must be staggering. Water must be cooled to make it palatable. Everything from computers to advanced weapons must be sheltered from the searing heat. Oil is burned to power the air conditions that cool command centers. In order to keep planes flying through heat or chemical fogs, soldiers are trained to use the "Multiman Intermittent Cooling System" — a large air-conditioning unit equipped with ten long hoses used to pump cool air into the chemical warfare suits worn by runway workers.

The US military uses the equivalent of approximately 37 million tons of oil equivalent each year. If the fuel needs of Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons program and the military’s space program were figured in, the Pentagon’s "peacetime" energy bill could top 105 million tons. In his excellent chapter "Assessing the Military’s War on the Environment" in the forthcoming State of the World Report, World Watch researcher Michael Renner writes: "The Pentagon is the single largest consumer [of oil] domestically, and very likely worldwide.... It uses enough energy in 12 months to run the entire US urban mass transit system for almost 14 years."

Even if war is averted, the hundreds of planes stationed in the Gulf will continue to consume oil, even if they just sit on the ground. To its dismay, the Pentagon has discovered that the intense heat of the desert sun causes the metal skins of the jets to expand, creating fuel leaks.


The Word from Kennebunkport
Press: We haven’t really heard you call upon Americans to conserve as part of this crisis.
President George Herbert Walker Bush: I call upon Americans to conserve.
Press: Will you elaborate?
President Bush: No.

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