But being an early adopter means paying higher prices, and House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Republicans such as Reps. Randy Forbes (Va.) and Michael Conaway (Texas) say the Navy spending is misguided—particularly as sequestration cuts are hurting military readiness and threatening future technological advantages by starving research and procurement spending. As part of the HASC bill markup in June, Conaway sponsored three successful amendments to ban defense buys of biofuels until their price matches conventional fuel, as well as to halt defense spending for biofuel refineries and encourage Pentagon spending on oil sands and coal-to-liquid fuel.
“This is an area that is better suited for the Energy Department to pursue and to get these fuels affordable and competitive,” Conaway says of alternatives. “If we are needing to apply them, to use these biofuels here in the U.S. to protect the homeland, that would be one thing—but that's not the case.”
But HASC Democrats such as Rep. Rick Larsen (Wash.) stress that finding alternatives to petroleum has been a key naval concern for decades, leading to innovations like nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines or the DDG-1000's integrated electric-drive technology. “If in the short term there is a little bit of an expense, well, in the short term there was a little bit of expense in developing oil way back in the day,” Larsen says. “But having alternatives to oil and not being completely dependent, that is important. It's been important in the Navy for a while.”
For the military, the drive toward alternative fuels is strategic. The Pentagon's goals are to “ensure operational military readiness, improve battlespace effectiveness,” and increase “the ability to use multiple, reliable fuel sources,” says Sharon Burke, assistant secretary of defense for operational energy plans and programs. As the leading single consumer, the Defense Department has “an interest in the long-term viability of the liquid fuels market, and we keep a hand in” research and development, she says. “Our departmental policy is that as far as bulk purchases and commercial purchases go, we will buy alternatives when they are cost-competitive.”
For the Pentagon, domestic U.S. energy consumption is just part of the equation. “We purchase 60% of our fuel overseas, because we buy as close to where we operate as we can,” says Burke. War may be winding down, but consumption is not, as training uses almost as much fuel as fighting. Despite the prospect of cheap energy at home, the Pentagon is staying the course to change the way it operates and procures systems to reduce its consumption, and its reliance on any single source.
“We will keep using liquid fuels bought around the world,” says Adm. Philip Cullum, deputy chief of naval operations for fleet readiness and logistics. “Prices are going up and will keep going up. Volatility will continue because there are fewer shock absorbers in the system—oil in reserves, or in transit—so price increases whip through the supply chain.” Alternative fuels are viewed as a way not only to provide price competition, but to help dampen the spikes that characterize oil pricing.
When it comes to liquid fuels for the military—or for commercial aviation—the U.S. cannot think only domestically. Low-cost natural gas is plentiful in the U.S.—and in China, which similarly has massive reserves of shale gas—but not elsewhere, so its impact on energy costs varies from region to region. “Prices elsewhere affect us,” says Burke.
And while the Pentagon's push for energy security is principally to secure supplies by reducing reliance on imports, the seismic shifts in the energy market have wider implications. “If we become self-sufficient in energy in the U.S., what does it mean for the exporting countries if the U.S. is not a big consumer anymore?” asks Burke.
Cullum highlights other potential factors playing into energy security. One is that U.S. home bases have become involved directly in combat operations, with unmanned aircraft being controlled from the continental U.S. “Those bases are connected to the local grid, which now has a role to play in future warfare,” he says. Another factor is that “the Arctic is going to be an ocean, which will change how fuel flows.”