In an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, retired Rear Admiral Robert James notes that the Air Force and Navy, to very heavy users of fossil fuels have been on a renewable fuels quest for a number of years now. He notes that it can take $400 dollars to transport $1 of fuel to the front in Afghanistan, and thus agrees with the motivation. But he questions the heavy reliance on biofuels as the method to take.
How to you hide from the enemy if your camp runs on a giant windmill
Robert James, Wall Street Journal Opinion Section, 2 August 2011
The military's flirtation with green energy began a decade ago when the Department of Defense started taking advice from environmental guru Amory Lovins. In his 1976 book, "Soft Energy Path," Mr. Lovins proposed getting one-third of our fuel oil from domestic crops. We could do this, he said, by building a distillery complex only 10 times the size of the combined beer and wine industries' complexes….
Through all this work, however, Mr. Lovins has never bothered to calculate how much land would be needed to grow these crops. Using the figures he proposed with the grape and hops industries, it's easy to estimate.
We would need an area three times the size of the continental United States to replace one-third of our oil requirements. These figures are confirmed in that we now employ one-third of the corn harvest—our biggest crop— to replace only 3% of our oil consumption. In "Winning the Oil Endgame," by the way, Mr. Lovins predicated his scenario on inventing cars that get 125 miles to the gallon.
…The Marines are exploring . . . a small-scale, truck-based biofuel plant that could transform local crops, like illegal poppies, into fuel."
But how many acres of poppies would be required? Lester Brown, the renowned environmentalist who has turned against biofuels, offers a vivid estimate. "The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year," he notes.
Since the M1A2 Abrams tank and variants has been a notorious gas hog from day one, using open sources, let’s look at the M2A2 Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicle - A light tank that transports troops. It has a fuel capacity of 175 gallons and gets .7 gallons to the mile (1.43 mpg). So for the food equivalent of feeding seven people for one year, It can travel about 250 miles: a little less than the 300 mile range of your typical passenger vehicle.
He goes on to note that while, laptop computers, or tent heaters can be recharged by fold up solar panels, almost anything else requires a very large array setup on some sort of (mobile or otherwise) platform. These platforms would take up an enormous amount of space, be very vulnerable to enemy action. How large of array and battery pack you would need to move a 66,000 pound M2A2 Bradley is open to question. There are such things as electric tractors, but of course while they do tow plows, they are not armored or armored.
The author is very careful not to come out and directly say it, but his position is one that denies the relevance or existence of peak oil issues. He does not even bring up the problem of increased competition for resources driving up costs – even if the flow of oil were unlimited, more people trying to make use of that flow would greatly increase prices. While he enjoys his absurdist comparisons, he fails to bring up the comparable comparison that if the whole world starts to use oil the way we do, we are going to need to find 9 more Saudi Arabias to keep up.,
The author’s solution is to stop wasting time on renewable fuels, and start using energy efficiently. Given the number of gas hogs in service, there is obviously a lot of room for improvement.
What is odd is that he does not comment on non-renewable alternatives – at least as a mid-term solution. Although nuclear fuels have their own limits, they are certainly an alternative. The Germans in World War 2 made heavy use of liquid fuels made from coal.
He notes that the military’s job is defending the nation, but is a little unclear how our current military is exactly set up to defend us versus being a power projector for our government and whatever parties interests you might believe that our government represents.
The United States has an enormous number of (by one count 727) bases scattered around the world. Most of these bases have value within a rapid-reaction air mobilization context. Pulling back from a large number of bases will likely have to be one consideration when economizing. This air response is very heavy on oil usage versus the more tradition naval transport.
Of course the United States no longer has a dedicated Merchant Marine to service its needs, and must rely on contractors, but that is a different problem. Re-expanding the Merchant Marine will not solve any fossil fuel issues.
He carefully avoids noting that much of our Army is still mechanized and equipped to fight on either European Central Front hard surface roads, or the open desert. The armored fighting vehicles we possess are extremely heavily armored and gunned. The Bradley AFV we noted above is a linear outgrowth of the light half-tracks (via the M113) that fought in World War 2. They have turned a relatively light, inexpensive transport vehicle into a tank that carries troops. Our tanks are essentially German King Tiger tanks on steroids. They are insanely fast for such a heavy vehicle, and use up fuel correspondingly. That major problems with the Tigers (all versions) was their weight, lack of operational range, and difficulty of servicing has been pretty much ignored. That a 60mm guided round from a man portable mortar (should we bother to make such a round) landing on the rear deck of one of these monsters would likely put it out of action is beside the point. We want ours to be the biggest and fastest. That the availability of reliable mobile radios did as much to revolutionize mid-20th century warfare as panzers and the Luftwaffe seems to be a lost concept. The armor and airplanes were the first beneficiaries, but by the end of the WW2, German tanks were often met coordinated defensive boxes of fire from every gun within a 20 mile area. The Western Allies may have been plodding at times, but they did win. The Israelis were to relearn this lesson when their heavily armored Merkavas (tanks) were stymied by barrages Hezbollah light missiles: coordination trumps weight of armor.
Modern firepower and communications is pushing toward smaller lower visibility weapons platforms, and continues the trend of greater concealment and dispersion. That we will not be able to easily fuel a tank or armored infantry brigade at some point in our future makes this change away from heavy forces imperative. The U.S. tactic of building large compounds in “Indian Territory” so that we can maintain our fat tail even when fighting an insurgency, is not going to work against any reasonably equipped force.
These trends in smaller more dangerous platforms also threaten the large surface assets of our navy. Navies historically were important because they controlled the only reliable method of transporting large amounts of men and material. The Roman Republic was a very compact Empire because it was a donut sitting on the edge of the relatively gentle waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The Romans fought naval actions against the Carthaginians, but they did not use their boats for shore bombardment. Except against the very small and undefended, that is where our own navy is headed. Although for some reason he forgot to mention it, the early sail powered navies had an enormous operational range compared to the latter oil fueled ones.
Our military has the unenviable task of being required to serve as the intervention force for a global empire. Call it an empire of benevolent interdiction if you will – see Libya- but an empire none-the-less. At the same time many of the technological changes and resource constraints are working against the big box solutions we have been using. It is getting more expensive at the same time as it is becoming less effective. However, it is odd that the same people that argue that technology will solve our way around the “peak oil” issue, don’t allow that technology may make some of the alternative fuel solutions more viable. I share the Admirals skepticism, but the more fuel flexibility we have in the future the more options we will have.