Operational energy (OE) is a buzzword in the halls of Washington for how new, improved and sometimes alternative energy and power solutions can be researched, tested, and ultimately deployed to make the warfighter more effective and efficient. While the US has put considerable resources and effort behind OE other nations are doing their part as well. At NATO headquarters in Brussels, the concept is referred to as Smart Energy and has its own Smart Energy Team (SENT) which was set up by NATO’s Emerging Security Challenges Division (ESCD). The team is comprised of a group of experts from six Allied and two Partner countries. SENT's main tasks are to identify the best existing 'smart energy' solutions, and to provide recommendations for improving NATO’s standards and best practices. IAGS, publisher of the Journal of Energy Security, maintains an observer status to the SENT and participates in the non-classified sessions of SENT meetings held in Brussels. As equally important as these developments are is the fact that the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s highest political body, approved the addition of the new Energy Security Center of Excellence in November 2012 at which OE research, discussion, and collaboration serve a key role in its core mission. On the R&D front this is lead by NATO’s Science and Technology Organization and contributed to by thousands of engineers, scientists from disciplines spanning the natural sciences to physical sciences, and other experts to move the OE process forward.
Operational energy in practice may be a nascent development but the needs for it are not. Fuel requirements during wartime have been a strategic concern for nations for over a century. During World War II, Japan’s retrofitting of its navy to run on coal in response to the American blockade, Germany’s push towards Baku to control the birthplace of the Soviet Union’s oil industry are but two examples of energy’s prominence in strategic operations and objectives over the last century. In Afghanistan, 70% of the logistics burden borne by the US military has been dedicated to moving fuel and water around. Future operations, given the landscape of uncertainty as to where and under what conditions conflict will occur, places an even greater responsibility on defense and military establishments to think through the energy burden beginning with defense planning, plowing through OE R&D, testing, and deployment and ending with how to effectively [and efficiently] clean-up, dispose of waste, and repatriate tons of equipment from a conflict zone. Add to this global environmental concerns, operational considerations by some nations on targeting access to strategic transport corridors (and the commodities that transit them) that impact on military strategies, shrinking defense budgets and the role of energy in military operations becomes a fire-storm on how best to win the next fight.
In the United States, the US Air Force deemed October Energy [Awareness] Month as has the US Army, Navy and Marine Corps. Awareness raising on how the different services are addressing operational energy as well as how military personnel can themselves contribute to energy savings for improved operational effectiveness and straight forward energy efficiency through behavioral change are but two of the reasons for the focus. From an Alliance standpoint, NATO’s Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia is focusing on how OE can be streamlined into long term operations and strategy. And at NATO headquarters, in October the NATO Review –NATO’s flagship media outlet dedicates a good portion of its coverage to Smart Defense, of which Smart Energy, is a key component. So why the focus now on the nexus between improving military operational energy capabilities and lowering operational and security risks through the lens of energy and power?
Lessons learned: Afghanistan
The lessons of Afghanistan, of which there are many, provide a case in point. The logistical difficulties of moving fuel and power to where it is needed are enormous. Hundreds of lives have been lost in Afghanistan, and many more wounded (according to a US Army report in 2008 1 out of every 24 casualties in Afghanistan was tied to moving fuel and water). According to information drawn from NATO’s library guide, other statistics bring the OE challenges in Afghanistan into perspective. Among them,
• ISAF needs more than 4 million liters of fuel per day in Afghanistan.
• For each gallon of fuel to Afghanistan up to 4 gallons are consumed for transport.
• On average one soldier dies in every 24th fuel convoy of the US military in Afghanistan.
• Up to 1000 fuel convoys per year have been sent to bases in Afghanistan.
Three years ago, the US Department of Defense created the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy at least in part in an attempt to focus and stop the blood-letting by US and ISAF forces in meeting their operational energy requirements. The office’s creation in 2010 came at a precarious time when budgets of all kinds, let alone budgets for military expenditures, had already been under pressure for years by the collapse of financial markets which lead to recession paralleled by skyrocketing prices for oil which peaked in July 2008. All of this came at a time when America was still deeply embedded both in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2012 in the NATO Chicago Summit Declaration , Allied Heads of State and Government agreed that NATO [itself] should work “towards significantly improving the energy efficiency of our military forces” (paragraph 52).
So countries, like the US, and collective security organizations like NATO, have been mandated to act on operational energy; yet mandates are often ignored by the governments that declare them and through their attendant institutions through inaction. In the case of OE however this doesn’t seem to be the case. There is a small set of drivers behind OE R&D, testing, and deployment that help give some form to the current OE movement.
Drivers: Austerity, Current Operational Needs, and Future Uncertainties
Pressure from governments on their military institutions towards greater austerity and cost savings is a critical driver in the OE debate. Doing more with less, a common adage used in discussing Smart Defense, also applies to OE. Meeting current operational needs, through assisting the solider in being more effective in his/her mission, extending the time the solider can stay in the field without resupply, and gaining advantage through enhanced communications (power reliant) catalyzed and has sustained the drive to OE for the US and ISAF during combat operations in Afghanistan. However, this period is coming to an end and with it the shift from an ongoing, US and ISAF kinetic combat mission to training. With this change will come an even greater push towards austerity as the deployment of OE technologies will be drawn down and repatriated back home and in the immediate term the (real or perceived) need for OE reduced.
As the push for cost savings increase, in an era when NATO will have no ongoing combat operation after 2014, a second challenge is that while OE technologies may be strategically, tactically, and operationally performance efficient they may not necessarily be perceived as cost efficient as measured by traditional methodologies or metrics. In response, new metrics have been developed that put OE costs on a more equal footing with their traditional, and perhaps cheaper counterparts. Steps in this direction, from the development of Key Performance Indicators for consideration in system requirements or in developing a measurement for the Fully Burdened Cost of Energy go in the right direction and help level the playing field.
Where are we?
Instituting operational energy measures on a national basis let alone on a collective security basis is an incremental process. Further there has to be the political will to carry through on what at first may appear as consensus on the issue but which hides fissures between prospective partners themselves. On the first of these points, it is often not always entirely clear who within a Ministry of Defense, Department of Defense or even a particular service is responsible for OE research and development, program funding, and procurement and acquisition. Despite this obstacle, the initial challenge can be overcome but clearly transparency and communications need to be improved. Secondly, there needs to be enhanced public-private sector dialogue in order that private sector product and service providers understand the given priorities of a service or even national government. This isn’t a one-size fits all shop but needs to be nuanced by the clear identification and understanding of differences between nations and how service providers can practically go about approaching those with a check book. Third, there is a startling array of application, needs-driven sectors to be served. These include:
- building materials and installation technologies including portable HVAC systems
- Advanced fuel cell and battery systems for ground, air & space applications
- Further Performance metrics and measurements development
- Portable energy harvesting
- Biofuels and advanced “drop in” fuels
- Optimization of microgrids
- Energy integration in data-to-decision: Intelligent power management
- R&D in waste-to-energy conversions for FOBs
- Tactical renewable energy systems and networks
Whereas a country like the US may have its own priorities defined by an individual service, another country like Turkey, with Europe’s largest standing army, may have other priorities where operational energy is at play. What would help greatly, particularly within a NATO context, is to move OE further on as a strategic priority bolstered by the political will of its Members so that OE guidelines and standardization can be harnessed and developed based on NATO’s true strength of driving forward interoperability. This is much like creating a market for a product where competitors have to play by the same set of rules. There is nothing earth-shattering in this observation but simple, practical ideas rarely are.
Again on politics, it is recognized that different nations largely couch the OE challenge in different ways (beyond training and equipping) and these differences need to be bridged and respected. By way of example, the term energy security is often treated an anathema, not within a single nation, but among nations. Nations consider energy and power an issue of national sovereignty in short a no-go issue that is avoided because it can bleed into discussions, even with partners, into other areas nations consider sovereign such as foreign policy.
The politicalization of operational energy needs to avoid such a fate. Regardless of whether a given nation’s OE policy is driven by environmental concerns (Green Energy), Smart Energy (focused not only on cost efficiencies but on operational effectiveness) or Operational Energy (a clear focus on making the solider more effective) the fact is that these are all aspects of the same challenge: preparing for potential 21st century confrontations across a multitude of threat landscapes be it desert, arctic, island or sea-based scenarios where energy use, power generation, and fuels deployment will play a pivotal role in the outcome of a conflict.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to moving OE forward on a collective basis is the issue of trust that cannot be taken for granted even among like minded nations. Operational energy (driven by the need for interoperability) requires sharing, compromise, and a governable commitment to doing better together. This is easier said than done but is entirely realistic given that it is already happening albeit not as quickly as one might want in the field of Smart Defense; it is feasible in the domain of OE as well.