Improving capability, protecting budget

May 21st, 2012

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This piece was originally posted on National Journal.

As Third Way explains in a digest being released this week by our National Security Program, the Pentagon’s efforts to reduce energy demand and find alternative energy sources could keep rising fuel costs from encroaching on the budgets of other important defense programs. And the payoff could be massive. The Air Force has already been able to implement behavioral and technology changes that will reduce its fuel costs by $500 million over the next five years. The Army has invested in better energy distribution systems at several bases in Afghanistan, which will save roughly $100 million each year. And, using less than 10% of its energy improvement funds, the Department has begun testing advanced biofuels for ships and planes. This relatively small investment could eventually provide the services with a cost-effective alternative to the increasingly expensive and volatile oil markets.

These actions are critical to the Pentagon’s ability to focus on its defense priorities. As Secretary Panetta recently pointed out, he’s facing a $3 billion budget shortfall caused by “higher-than-expected fuel costs.” The Department’s energy costs could rise even further if action isn’t taken. DOD expects to spend $16 billion on fuel next year. The Energy Information Administration predicts the price of oil will rise 23% by 2016, without a major disruption in oil supplies, like the natural disasters, wars, and political upheaval the oil producing states have seen during the last dozen years. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s planned budget, which will remain flat for the foreseeable future, will require significant adjustment to the Department’s pay-any-price mindset, even if sequestration does not go into effect.  Unless energy costs are curbed, they could begin to eat into other budget priorities for DOD.

In addition, the Pentagon’s own Defense Science Board acknowledges that using energy more efficiently makes our forces more flexible and resilient in military operations, and can provide them with greater endurance during missions. Also, by reducing energy demand in the field, DOD can minimize the number of fuel convoys that must travel through active combat zones, reducing the chances of attack to avoiding casualties and destruction of material. At our domestic bases, DOD is employing energy conservation, on-site clean energy generation, and smart grid technology to prevent disruptions to vital activities in case the civilian grid is damaged by an attack or natural disaster. The bottom line is, developing methods and technologies to reduce our Armed Forces’ use of fossil fuels and increase the availability of alternative energy makes our military stronger. That’s why the Pentagon has decided to invest in these efforts. End of story.

The Department’s efforts to reduce energy consumption and incorporate alternative energy are just now hitting full stride, after several years of setting up the offices and procedures that will be needed to accomplish its goals. But these efforts have already produced tangible benefits to military capability and cost-cutting. Because of their clearly-demonstrated value, DOD energy initiatives have (for the most part) been able to deflect a handful of attacks from politically-motivated opponents of clean energy. Congress should continue to support these initiatives, and provide the services with the tools they need to modernize their energy systems, improve capability, and cut costs.