Lean, green war machine

Suddenly, the military is looking into hybrid tanks and solar power

Lean, green war machine

The final slide in Dan Nolan’s token PowerPoint presentation is an overhead photograph of the Pentagon, the famous five-sided headquarters of the U.S. military. It’s a pretty standard shot, the kind you see on postcards and T-shirts all across Washington. Except for two things: the solar panels on the roof and the wind turbines near the parking lot.

The added features are fake, of course. But the message Nolan is trying to convey is very real. “If we don’t have that in five years, then I’ve failed,” says the retired army colonel, who now advises his former employer in its pursuit of energy-efficient technologies. “We are only limited by our imaginations.”

Like most soldiers, Nolan was not a born environmentalist. An artillery officer who served in the first Gulf War, he spent his career hugging the front lines, not trees. But two years ago, the Florida native experienced an enviro-piphany of sorts. He was stationed in the army’s Rapid Equipping Force, a special unit that fast-tracks high-priority supplies, when an urgent memo arrived from Iraq. The general who sent it didn’t ask for more water or more manpower. He needed a “self-sustaining energy solution” to replace the gas-guzzling diesel generators used at American outposts. Saving the planet wasn’t his concern; he wanted to save his troops from being ambushed as they delivered fuel to their comrades. It just so happened that the proposed solution—solar panels and wind turbines—accomplished both objectives at the same time.

As soon as he read that memo, Nolan realized what all military leaders are beginning to understand: in an age of unstable oil prices and imminent climate change, the next generation of warriors must be lean, mean—and green. They’re not there quite yet (at last check, the Pentagon was still sucking electricity off the grid), but environmental innovation is quickly becoming the mantra of military brass, Canadians included. Welcome to a new age of hybrid tanks, fuel-efficient Humvees and bio-generators that transform trash into power.

The military’s sudden love affair with the earth can be almost entirely attributed to one thing: high oil prices. After decades of relative stability, the cost of a barrel of crude nearly tripled to US$140 between the start of 2007 and the summer of 2008. The price has since dropped significantly, but those 18 months wreaked havoc on military finances. In the U.S. alone, where the army, navy and air force consume an estimated 340,000 barrels of oil per day (yes, you read that correctly: per day), the Pentagon’s fuel bill has skyrocketed. In 2007, the Defense Department spent a reported $11.6 billion on petroleum products, up from $7.8 billion in 2005. This year, the cost is expected to reach more than $16 billion. The Canadian Forces have been hit just as hard. During the 2005-’06 fiscal year, the fleet fuel bill was approximately $220 million. Last year, it jumped to $318 million. The Forces are so concerned about the cost of oil that they recently created a new position, the directorate of fuel and lubricants, to try to track consumption and oversee research into alternate options, such as biodiesel and ethanol.

However, the purchase price of crude isn’t even half its true cost. After filling up at the pumps, militaries must then pay millions more to transport and protect the fuel. According to a recent task force report prepared for the Pentagon, a gallon of gasoline that is originally purchased for $3 costs another $42 to deliver, via airborne tanker, to a waiting F-16. The price of that single gallon extends into the hundreds of dollars when it’s trucked by land to a remote Forward Operating Base in war zones like Iraq (not to mention the immeasurable cost in blood if that convoy is attacked along the way). To help understand this “fully burdened” cost of fuel, the task force urged the U.S. military to create a system to measure costs from purchase to guzzle. Only then, the report says, will the brass realize just how much money is wasted so that tents can be air conditioned and showers flow with hot water.

In the meantime, defence officials are on the lookout for the latest and greatest in energy-efficient machinery. It may be a few more years before hybrid tanks patrol the deserts of Kandahar, but dozens of other cutting-edge designs are in the works. In the U.S., the air force is experimenting with “blended wing bodies,” a sleek new design that has the potential to reduce fuel consumption by up to 10 times. Unmanned aerial vehicles are a top priority, too. They require two-thirds less fuel than a typical fighter jet, and they can stay in the sky for 20 hours without a refill (or a bathroom break). At Georgia Tech University, researchers are working on a revamped version of the armoured vehicle, one that weighs less and guzzles less, but still provides all the necessary protection against roadside bombs.

Vehicles aren’t the only focus. Among their many projects, army researchers are trying to supply front-line troops with ready-to-eat food packages that don’t contain fossil fuel-based coatings. The navy is working on “high power density water jets” that can power fleets on half the fuel. And at Guantánamo Bay, 75 per cent of the U.S. naval base’s energy now comes from four massive wind turbines. “I think that the military actually is doing a fair bit more than the public realizes,” says Edward T. Morehouse, a researcher at the Institute for Defense Analyses. “The largest solar array in the country was built at Nellis Air Force base as part of a public-private partnership. The largest geothermal installation was made as a public-private partnership by the U.S. Navy.”

The Canadian military is making progress, too. DND is responsible for an incredible 40 per cent of the federal government’s total greenhouse gas emissions, but over the past decade, those emissions have steadily declined. In 1999, the military released 1,040 kilotons of CO2 equivalent, but by last year that number fell to 874. Some of the reduction can be attributed to common sense, like reminding troops to turn off equipment when it’s not in use. But other initiatives are part of a concerted, Forces-wide plan to reduce carbon discharge and slash fuel prices in the process. Some military vehicles now run on B5, a mixture of biodiesel and conventional fuel. A “green procurement” plan is in the works that will encourage fuel-efficient purchases. And by 2018, the military hopes to plant an “urban forest” at every base and wing in the country, offsetting some of the carbon generated from LAVs and living quarters. The ambitious, 10-year plan is called “Grow Clean Air.”

If DND officials need more ideas, they may want to call Dan Nolan. Among the technologies he is now promoting is a foam spray insulation that seals tents, locking in cool air and reducing energy use by up to 83 per cent. Retired U.S. colonel Jerry Warner can offer up even more options. His company, Defense Life Sciences, has built a trash-to-electricity generator that turns coffee grinds, Styrofoam and other garbage into the equivalent of low-grade propane. Tested in Iraq, his invention solves two problems in one swoop: it gets rid of waste and creates alternative energy. “These days, there seems to be a convergence between environmental and military objectives, which previously had been thought to be mutually exclusive,” Warner says from his Virginia office. “If you look at the kinds of operations of the future, there is a tremendous value afforded to capabilities that include environmental language: self-sustaining and renewable.” It’s an interesting twist, and it’s making for some strange bedfellows. When Warner’s company issued its first press release, it showed up on “I never would have expected that,” he says.

Neither would most people. But the more Western militaries pursue a philosophy that matches the colour of their fatigues, the better life could be for everyone. In the years to come, don’t be surprised if it’s the armed forces—bracing for the battles of an oil-free future—that teach the rest of us how to decrease our carbon footprints. It certainly wouldn’t be the first made-for-military solution adopted by mainstream society. After all, the miliary did play a key role in inventing the Internet. “You’ve heard the joke about ‘military intelligence’ being an oxymoron?” Nolan asks. “There is a tendency to think of military guys as dull blunt instruments, yet nobody is more imaginative, and nobody is more used to being put in severe situations and having to sort it out for themselves.”