Photo courtesy of U.S. Army.

Republicans have been going after the Navy’s biofuel program, the “Green Fleet,” as I covered here and here. As I’ve said, I have mixed feelings about military biofuels. Apart from the details of that program, though, I expect that this is the first sortie in what will become a broader conservative campaign against the military’s efforts to move beyond fossil fuels. So let’s have a reminder of just why the military is doing what it’s doing.

In 2008, the Defense Science Board Task Force on Department of Defense Energy Strategy released its findings in a seminal report called “More Fight — Less Fuel.” Here, from a slideshow summary [PDF] of the report, are the “two primary energy risks to DoD.”

  1. Unnecessarily high and growing operational fuel demand increases mission risk
  2. Critical missions at fixed installations are at unacceptable risk from extended power loss

So: too much liquid fuel needed in the field and too much reliance on unsteady power grids at the bases.

Let’s turn to recent news.

First, a couple weeks ago, “a bomb planted by the Taliban in northern Afghanistan destroyed 22 NATO fuel tankers carrying supplies to coalition forces.” Luckily the bomb went off fairly early in the morning, so there weren’t many casualties to add to the more than 3,000 Americans killed protecting fuel convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is all it took: “the device was attached under one of the trucks, which were parked close together.”

As I wrote in Outside last year:

THE TACTICAL NEED to reduce reliance on fossil fuels is not new to the Pentagon. In 2003, at the outset of the second Iraq war, General James Mattis commanded the 1st Marine Division during the initial drive to Baghdad. He found himself repeatedly outrunning his own fuel resupply lines, forcing him to slow down to remain fully powered. In a post-combat report that has since become a touchstone for military analysts, he called on the Department of Defense to “unleash us from the tether of fuel.”

Mattis’s plea served to highlight the extraordinary costs of fuel to the military in Afghanistan and Iraq—in dollars and lives. By some estimates, fully 70 percent of the convoys crisscrossing the theater of war are involved in “liquid logistics,” the delivery of fuel and water. In Afghanistan, fuel reaches the front lines via tankers and planes that cross the ocean, trucks from Tajikistan or Russia, and (sometimes) helicopters from forward bases. By the time it gets there, the fully burdened cost can reach anywhere from $30 to an astounding $400 per gallon. Then there are the casualties: one for every 24 fuel convoys, according to a 2009 report by the Army Environmental Policy Institute.

Reducing fuel use in the field is about saving lives, pure and simple.

Second, recent research has shown that power outages are becoming more common in the U.S. In 2008, “there were 2,169 power outages in the U.S. affecting 25 million people. In 2011, there were more than 3,000 outages affecting 41.8 million people.” Absent enormous investments in the grid, this trend is expected to continue as power lines get older and weather gets weirder. Meanwhile, there are 64 bases in the U.S. that operate drones by remote control. A power outage at a base during a drone mission would be … awkward.

And it’s not just U.S. bases that need to learn how to generate their own power and handle their own (micro)grids. The U.S. is building drone bases all over the world, often in places with even worse grids than ours. A blackout just yesterday in India left 300 million people in the dark. Autonomous power generation will become more and more mission critical.

This is serious stuff: military money, lives, and operational effectiveness. It’s not a political football.

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All this information, by the way, comes from the excellent DOD Energy blog, which you should follow if you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of this stuff. (Also recommended: CNAS’s Natural Security blog, the writing of Sohbet Karbuz, and the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate.)