ISN Insights


The US military – the world’s single biggest user of petrol – is intent on reducing its costly oil consumption without having to suffer major cuts to its force. How? The Department of Defense is committed to going “green”, making energy a strategic issue for the first time.


Last October, the US Navy unveiled the first military vessel to run on “eco-friendly fuel.” The 49-foot command ship can carry up to 24 troops and runs entirely on a combination of algae-based fuel and diesel. As the Wired report notes, this came months after the US Military launched its “Green Hornet” jet in celebration of Earth Day – an “unmodified F/A-18 Super Hornet [using] a 50/50 blend of camelina-sourced biofuel and traditional JP-5 fuel.” In 2009, General Dynamics created a military ground vehicle based on hybrid technology.

All of this is part of a much greater plan for the Pentagon to reduce its oil consumption without having to sacrifice major cuts to its force size. Ironically, while the US Department of Energy remained silent, the US military was the first to warn that oil production could dip, causing massive shortages by 2015. As a Guardian report notes, “Future fuel supplies are of acute importance to the US military because it is believed to be the biggest single user of petrol in the world.”

In response, the Pentagon created a new energy office for Operational Energy Plans and Programs, tasked with “finding ways for the US armed forces to cut its dangerous reliance on oil.”

According to Sharon Burke, director of the new Pentagon office, US military operations account for the overwhelming majority of the federal government’s total energy use – last year, the energy budget for the US armed forces reached $13.4 billion. In an interview, Burke stated “Of federal energy use, the [Department of Defense (DoD)] accounts for 80 percent or so. As a total user of energy in the US economy, it’s closer to one percent, a significant [statistic] for a single institution.”

“Last year,” she stated, “70 percent of the cost and 75 percent of the amount was for [military] operations. That’s almost 121 million barrels of oil equivalent.” One report notes that the figures of consumption are somewhat skewed since “the DoD excludes energy consumed at numerous military family housing communities that are privatized and outsourced transport services.”

With such a massive rate of consumption, DoD has ironically established a ” DoD Goes Green” website featuring a chorus of public relations material reiterating the Department’s latest “green” innovation, energy awareness themes and cost savings initiatives.

“The US military is doing the right thing but not doing it right. It pays too much attention to installation energy (energy consumed in buildings and platforms) rather than operational energy (energy used to run tactical vehicles, especially aircraft and ground vehicles). Almost all of the operational energy is oil. Recent initiatives such as synthetic fuel and biofuels are not a remedy. Green energy such as solar, wind, etc., could target installations. This is the dilemma that DoD faces,” Dr Sohbet Karbuz, a military energy analyst told ISN Insights.

For obvious reason, what is absent from the website is a startling statistic from a 2009 peer-reviewed study by Princeton University that sought to determine the cost of keeping aircraft carriers alone in the Persian Gulf from 1976 to 2007 – a cost overwhelmingly attributed to oil, writes Foreign Policy, “Because carriers patrol the gulf for the explicit mission of securing oil shipments.” The cost over 30 years? $7.3 trillion – over half the current US national debt.

The global effect

“Soaring oil prices over the past few years had a considerable impact and burden on armed forces of many countries. Many have been looking at ways to lessen the pain of high oil prices. Some (like the French navy and Portuguese air force) considered this issue as a short term trend and tried to find temporary solutions by cancelling several missions and trying to refuel at places (ports for instance) where fuel prices were lower,” Dr Karbuz explained.

“Some militaries take a longer term vision. Chinese armed forces started to reduce costs and reduce energy use in response to the government’s call for a resource efficient and environmental friendly society – the armed forces were considered to be a leading driver. Canadian military forces started to concentrate on energy efficiency to cut fuel costs. For this aim it created a new office to monitor fuel consumption and set standards and procedures for the use of alternative energy sources. The South Korean military took measures to save oil by minimizing field operations, exercises and vehicle mobilizations. The UK Ministry of Defense has set up a forum to look at all aspects of fuel usage while studying initiatives to save energy. However, none of the military forces I mentioned above are as committed and determined as the US military,” he said.

Committed, indeed. Defense Secretary Robert Gates identified energy concerns as one of the department’s top 25 transformational priorities, and the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review addressed energy for the first time as a strategic issue. But while the Pentagon has led the way in many areas concerning renewable energy, it has yet to make it a top priority, falling back on rhetoric before any meaningful institutional changes.

“Because the US military runs on oil, oil becomes a foreign policy issue. Consider one example of US oil consumption abroad,” Dr. Karbuz said.

He points to a 21 December 2010 report from the Majority staff of the US House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs titled, Mystery at Manas: Strategic Blind Spots in the Department of Defense’s Fuel Contracts in Kyrgyzstan. It stated:

“The collateral consequences of the United States’ lack of strategic oversight of its fuel contracting in Central Asia have been significant. Allegations of corruption in the Manas contracts have been linked to two revolutions in Kyrgyzstan and resulted in widespread public perceptions – shared by interim President Rosa Otunbayeva and much of the political elite – that the United States has deliberately and illicitly used the fuel contracts to bribe Kyrgyzstan’s two past presidents.”

The US House Oversight Committee has since removed the report from its website .