From GPS to Biofuels: Why We Should Support Military Energy Research

Image courtesy US Navy

In March the Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, was called before the Senate Armed Services Committee to defend the Navy’s newest program. The Navy Energy Program, designed to help the US Navy operate more efficiently and effectively by limiting the fuel burned and energy consumed in everyday operations, has cost the Navy millions of dollars over the past year with little to no demonstrated success – in the eyes of Congress. Secretary Mabus was asked to justify the program’s cost, particularly the Navy’s heavy involvement in alternative fuel development, to a group of skeptical and budget-conscious lawmakers. As one particularly pointed questioner put it, “You’re not the Secretary of Energy, you’re the Secretary of the Navy.”

Such questioning represents a fairly myopic view of the military’s role, its needs, and what it can provide the nation beyond pure military might. The military, with its near-unlimited budget and willingness to develop & deploy cutting edge technologies, is effectively the world’s largest venture capital fund. Spurred by operational realities, the military is taking an active role in the development and deployment of next generation energy technologies, which will help pave the way for adoption in the civilian world, speeding our transition to cleaner and more efficient energy sources.

The Navy’s energy efforts haven’t occurred in a vacuum. They are instead a component of a broad, DoD-wide effort to dramatically change the US military’s energy profile. Recognizing the major role that energy plays in the US military’s capabilities, and the significant risk an interruption in energy supply could pose to military operations, the DoD established the Office of Operational Energy to work to understand the issue and mitigate any major risks. In 2011, this office established the first DoD Operational Energy Strategy. This strategy was based on three key pillars:

  • More fight, less fuel: Reduce overall demand for energy for military operations and installations by 1) increasing efficiency of operations and 2) carefully controlling energy costs and risks
  • More option, less risk: Expand and secure the supply of energy to the US military to ensure adequate supplies for any required operation. This includes 1) protecting access to energy supplies and 2) diversifying the sources of military energy
  • More capability, less cost: Build energy security into the future US military force by integrating consideration of energy issues and risks into the planning for future forces and operations

Each of these pillars plays a key role in the future development of military energy, and implementation is already underway. The DoD Operational Energy Implementation Plan sets a number of specific targets for each service, and details concrete steps for reaching them. Progress has already been made along a number of these goals. For example, the US Navy has committed to a 15% reduction in afloat energy use by 2020; the US Air Force has a stated goal of improving fuel efficiency by 10% by 2015; the US Army plans to establish 16 Net Zero installations by 2020.

However, it is in the second pillar, “More options, less risk,” that the real opportunity (and controversy) exists. The Implementation plan sets two key targets for this pillar. First, improving energy security at military installations and second, promoting the development of alternative fuels by establishing departmental alternative fuel policies and building investment portfolios in alternative energies.

While this goal impacts all services, it is the Navy that has moved most aggressively to expand its fuel options. As this site has already discussed, the Navy has publicly committed to replacing at least half its annual fuel use with “advanced renewables” by 2020 (roughly 600 million barrels worth of fuel) while simultaneously jointly investing in advanced biofuels with the DOE and USDA. The Navy has couched these investments in terms of security – by replacing a certain portion of its significant petroleum use with renewables that can be produced locally, the Navy can limit some of its exposure to volatile global energy markets and its reliance on long, easily interrupted supply chains. In doing so the Navy hopes to improve its ability to perform its mission while reducing the budgetary pressure created by rising energy prices.

Members of Congress have been increasingly strident in their opposition to these efforts, either on the grounds of cost (the Navy is currently paying roughly $26 per barrel of biofuel used, as opposed to the $3-$4 paid for traditional JP-5 jet fuel) or mission (the Navy’s mission is to protect the interests of the United States, not research and develop new fuels). However, this opposition is short-sighted and forgets the US military’s history as an innovation engine.

A broad cross-section of technology we consider indispensable to our modern lifestyle was, in fact, military-funded, military-developed, and military-applied – at least initially. GPS, the ubiquitous navigation technology in everything from our cars to our homes, is an excellent example.

Your iPhone’s location services owe a debt of gratitude to the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, launched by the USSR in 1957. While studying the satellite, scientists noticed that they could track the satellite’s orbit by listening to the changing frequency of its radio broadcast as it flew by. From this observation, it was a short leap from “where is the satellite relative to me” to “where am I relative to the satellite?”

Working from this foundation, the US Navy built the TRANSIT satellite system, eventually containing 10 geosynchronous satellites, in the 1960s to help nuclear submarines navigate the world’s oceans. DoD eventually built on this, and the rocket technology developed during the Space Race, to design and build the modern GPS network in order to give its forces continuous navigation information. The first satellite was launched in 1978, and the system was completed in 1995. By this time the GPS signals were used for far more than ship navigation, as aircraft, missiles, and other vehicles began relying on the system to navigate accurately. The system was fully opened to the public in 2000, resulting in an explosion of civilian uses. Today, everything from your car to your cellphone relies on the system for effective navigation and communication, and the system is estimated to be worth some $122 billion to the US economy.

GPS is by no means unique. The military led the development of peaceful nuclear energy for use in warships, developed the precursor to the internet, and has been at the forefront of aviation technology for decades. In each of these cases, technology developed for military use, often in concert with civilian partners, has created enormous and widespread benefits to civilian life.

This brings us back to the US Navy’s biofuels program. Critics have assailed it for its high cost per barrel of fuel, and for overstepping the traditional role of the US military. However, the development of a domestic alternative fuel supply – one that is stable, secure, and cost-competitive – has obvious benefits, and the US military is in a unique position to stimulate its growth. While costs per barrel of fuel are high today, that is largely a function of the start-up nature of the industry and the low level of demand. The Navy has committed to purchasing 300 million gallons of 50/50 biofuel blend by 2020, with the Air Force adding another 387 million by 2016. The combined 687 million gallons of biofuel blend (or 343 million gallons of biofuel) represents significant growth for the market, pushing it towards commercial viability and self-sufficiency. Should civilian airliners move more aggressively towards adoption (noting the military’s effective use and somewhat stable domestic demand), add another 1.9 billion barrels of fuel to demand – more than enough to sustain a robust domestic biofuel industry without the need for government support.

The primary impediment to doing so is the high start-up cost for advanced biofuel companies – the R&D needed to develop the fuels, the capital to build demonstration-scale refineries, and the uncertainty of financial success despite a viable fuel product. The military has the capacity to solve this problem on its own. Understandably focused on operational success, they can insure that any advanced biofuels are technologically viable and functional in the toughest environments on earth; because they are not driven by profit, they can happily eat the high initial costs of RD&D to develop operationally-viable fuels; and once the fuels have proven operationally viable and costs have begun to come down, the private sector can step in to help the industry expand beyond military uses. That is the model that worked for GPS, nuclear power, and the internet, and that is the model that should be used here.

Should a domestic biofuels industry come to fruition, the benefits will be felt far beyond the front lines. National energy supplies could be more secure, mitigating the need to deploy the military to volatile but energy-rich regions; drivers could pay less at the pump; air travel could be moderately cheaper; the industry itself could create and sustain jobs. Just as importantly, biofuels could play a key role in transitioning our economy to a low-carbon future – but not without initial support, which the military has proven itself more than willing to provide. For this reason, Congress should get out of the way and let the military do what it is best at – solving difficult problems with novel technologies.