Innovation in energy can be a force multiplier on the battlefield.

In March 2003, the commander of the US Army’s Fifth Corps, General William Wallace, was again reminded of the timeless axiom that amateurs talk tactics, but professionals study logistics. His massive and powerful formation, the main effort against the Iraqi Republican Guard, was “operationally paused.” The general feared that his thinly protected lines of communication were compromised by deliberate targeting from Sadam Fedayeen, and that his troops would lose access to vital supplies coming from the Port of Kuwait. As the world watched, media and political leaders were starting to term the situation a “quagmire.”

Wallace’s most acute logistical concern was fuel to feed his massive 1st Armor Division and 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division. Just to the east of his corps, the First Marine Expeditionary Force continued to pound deep targets with its attack aircraft, in preparation for its own offensive. I MEF had planned or established three major forward operating bases and twenty-seven smaller forward arming and refueling points along its route of advance. Some of these were as primitive as hasty refueling point along a highway for KC-130 Hercules tanker aircraft to land and hook up to thirsty mechanized vehicles.

At the time, the probable next secretary of defense was leading I MEF’s charge. James Mattis, then-commander of the 1st Marine Division, to maximize momentum and the endurance of the Division’s vehicle columns, lightened the loads of individual marines and minimized the number of mechanized vehicles. Mattis put his faith in the 3rd Marine Air Wing’s ability to defeat Saddam’s formations surrounding Baghdad, and accepted the risk that his force might not achieve its objectives before running out of fuel. In later testimony, Mattis reflected back on the compromising situation of the “March Up,” as well as on the cost of increased fuel demand during the counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the future, he stated, the military must be “unleashed from the tether of fuel.” Mattis had seen the future imperative to change our sources of energy for military operations.

While the US Department of Defense (DoD) has commenced many important energy initiatives in recent years, its dependence on fossil fuel still presents a vulnerability to US forces. The continuing war in Afghanistan, renewed war in Iraq, and new involvement in Syria are characterized by a steady stream of fuel trucks to feed the American way of war.  Taking a close look at its supply chain, one Pentagon study found that through 2009 more than three thousand troops and civilian contractors had been killed or wounded protecting convoys; 80 percent of those were transporting truck fuel. The United States would probably have lost more had the Taliban not earned so much money by letting fuel pass at a price, rather than attacking it.

The four heaviest loads for the individual Soldier or Marine are armor, ammunition, water, and batteries, in that order. Apart from food, fuel is the largest operational sustainment demand at the organizational level of war.  In the highly mobile and decentralized battlefield of the future, supporting vehicles and load carriers will need persistence to move with and power their forces. Alternative energy means are essential to support that.

Largely as a result of General Mattis’s testimony to Congress, the DoD began to investigate ways to reduce soldiers’ load for fuel, and established operational energy staffs within the Pentagon. More efficient generators, man-packable solar arrays, and attempts at more fuel-efficient vehicles promise to make tomorrow’s ground forces nimbler and extend their range and endurance. However, without continued design and testing to improve these nascent efforts, the ability to radically decrease the military’s fuel demand is insufficient for mitigating risks today or preparing for the battlefield of the future.

Iterative improvements in weight and efficiency are not enough. To ensure that the next march up is governed by the ingenuity of the maneuvering formations, and not the pace of commercial fuel trucks, the DoD must harness the remarkable technological innovations in renewable energy ongoing today, and link them with emerging operational concepts. The large forward operating bases of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan must disappear. These bases will still be necessary as forces assemble prior to distributing on the battlefield, but they will not be a component of the battlefield geography for engaged or forward forces. Command posts and headquarters will need to reposition rapidly to move with their dispersed forces. They must not drag logistical tails with them at the slow pace of the past. The primary vulnerability for command is energy, and the principle providers of that energy are generators and fuel.

The DoD has made great strides in developing collaborative relationships with Silicon Valley in pursuit of cyber security. Equally important is collaborating with industry in public-private partnerships to develop renewable energy solutions to benefit the warfighter. More than anything, fuel keeps one focused backwards on logistical lines of sustainment—all the way back to ports and airfields. Fuel also comes with a host of hidden costs in storage, security, and building materials. That compromising link must be broken. Ninety-six percent of all fuel delivered in Afghanistan for vehicles and bases was done by contracted delivery trucks starting in ports and airfields crossing international borders. US forces had to pay for the infrastructure to keep and store fuel on the battlefield. Storing fuel required us to enlarge bases’ perimeters, increasing demand for security to protect the increased base footprint, rather than directly and persistently engaging the enemy.

Secure micro-grids sourced by predominantly renewable energy should be at the heart of forward bases. Industry is making massive improvement in the efficacy, weight, and durability of solar and wind energy. There is no longer any reason why maneuver elements should have to wait for fuel trucks to arrive before they seize the next objective. Marines and soldiers should be equipped with lightweight renewable solar panels and wind generators, easily assembled, of low signature, and capable of powering a hasty assembly area or linking together for a company outpost. Energy security at this tactical level will make these maneuver elements more sustainable, more maneuverable, stealthier and protective of the force, and ultimately more likely to accomplish the mission.

Nobody understands this better than the incoming secretary of defense. James Mattis intuitively understands that the tether of a long fuel line of communication is antithetical to survivability, and that victory requires lightning fast maneuver, fires, communication, and decision-making. Let’s set the conditions now with renewable operational energy so future small unit leaders won’t have to wait for the fuel truck when opportunity arises.

Greg Douquet is the founder and managing partner of Red Duke Strategies. Before retiring, he was a colonel in the US Marine Corps and chief of staff for Marine forces in Africa and Europe. In March 2003, he was the lead aviation planner for the First Marine Expeditionary Force.

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