The Pentagon can sneeze out $18 million and hardly notice—yes, even in the era of apocalyptic $500 billion budgets—but it isn’t always how much you spend, it’s how and where you spend it.
Yesterday, the Pentagon announced that it was awarding $18 million to fund six defense-led teams to work on innovative ways to reduce the energy demand of “future expeditionary outposts.” The programs focus mostly on developing more efficient air-conditioning systems and insulated temporary shelters for small units operating away from garrison, with the goal of cutting down on the fuel-sucking process of keeping troops relatively comfortable in harsh climates. With the Pentagon's gas bill running about $15 billion a year, and spending about 225% more on fuel than it did just a decade ago, you can see where the desire to try to cut costs comes from.
The awards come at a time when the Marines are aching to get more expeditionary and the Army is talking about shaping future operations around small unit actions while developing regionally aligned brigades that would be agile, quickly deployable and travel light. This "small footprint" approach represents a very public refutation of the way things have been done in Iraq and Afghanistan--operations that dumped hundreds of billions of dollars into building huge bases that cost lots of money to keep running.
The new strategy envisions a series of smaller, more dispersed stability operations that have a greatly reduced logistics footprint, especially when it comes to fuel usage. (The Marines, of course, have been doing this in Afghanistan for some time already.)
The six contracts range in value from $1 million for “Super Energy Efficient Containerized Living Unit Design and Development” being worked jointly by Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti Public Works Department and the U.S. Marine Corps Pacific Experimentation office; to the $5.9 million given for “Energy Efficient Shelter Systems” being worked by the Army and Air Force.
When looking at the teams involved, and what environments the new gear is being designed for, it’s obvious that emphasis is being placed on operating in the Pacific region and Africa. Sharon E. Burke, assistant secretary of defense for operational energy plans and programs, says that “as the Department reshapes the force to build a more agile, flexible military capable of responding to the full range of future challenges, the work of the six teams funded under this effort will give our troops better energy options on the battlefield.” On March 2, Burke’s office will host an “Operational Energy Capabilities Improvement” conference in northern Virginia, where each team will present their projects.
The issue of operational energy for small forward-deployed units is in many ways still in its infancy. But the Army and Marines are taking it very seriously as they plan for a post-Iraq and -Afghanistan world that they hope will bear no resemblance to those massive, and expensive, deployments.