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U.S. Reliance on Oil an 'Urgent Threat'

A group of retired senior U.S. military officers has concluded that the country's reliance on fossil fuels undermines its capacity to defend itself. Citing a "serious and urgent threat to national security," the group has urged the Pentagon to take the lead in shifting to a new age in energy.

The dependence on oil-based fuels left the U.S. military seriously over-extended in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the officers' report, issued on May 18 by CNA, a military think tank based in Alexandria, Va. The 62-page report asserts that the true cost of fuel, including logistics and the military protection of sea lanes, can run to hundreds of dollars a gallon.

"Our energy posture is not sustainable. It can be exploited by those who want to do us harm," retired Air Force Lieutenant General Larry Farrell, a co-author of the report, said in an interview. Finding a suitable alternative fuel and scaling it up to the size of the U.S. economy "is a 30-year project," Farrell said. "We've got to get started now."

The report, called "Powering America's Defense: Energy and the Risks to National Security," was written by CNA's military advisory board, comprised of 12 retired generals and admirals. It's a follow-up to a 2007 report by the advisory board called "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change."

Retired Admiral John Nathman, another of the co-authors, said in an interview that the board deliberately tried not to inject itself into the debate over climate change, instead accepting the view that temperatures are rising. Yet the report coincides with a fierce debate in Congress over so-called cap-and-trade, a proposal to control greenhouse gases by parceling out the right to emit them.

A New Senior Pentagon Post for Energy

The report also coincides with an elevation of economics and specifically energy in debates over U.S. national security. Nathman said the Pentagon is in the midst of assigning a senior officer to study the energy challenge; the officer would serve under Ashton Carter, an undersecretary of defense for technology and acquisitions. Already, Nathman added, each of the military service arms has assigned a three-star general to study how they are using energy. Plus, Jim Jones, President Barack Obama's national security adviser and a former marine general, is expected to create a new senior slot on the National Security Council for global energy.

In addition, the report discusses the U.S. electricity grid, which it says is "unnecessarily vulnerable." It cites a 2003 cascading blackout that affected 50 million people in the U.S. Northeast and Midwest and Ontario as evidence of how a fragile power grid can leave huge areas without working gas stations, rail service, and cell-phone coverage. While a threat to the country overall, the frailty of the grid is specifically a peril to the military, the report says. "An extended outage could jeopardize ongoing missions in far-flung battle spaces," it concludes.

Reliance on oil, however, is the report's focus. It estimates that refueling military jets in flight raises the cost of each gallon of fuel to $42; on the ground the cost ranges from $15 a gallon to as much as hundreds of dollars a gallon depending on how much security and logistics are required to get the fuel to where it needs to be.

Wasted Fuel, Heavy Batteries

A full accounting of the cost of fuel would include the U.S. Navy's protection of sea lanes, the maintenance of military bases in countries such as Bahrain, and the stationing of massive numbers of troops abroad, according to the report and interviews with its authors. In Iraq, just 10% of fuel used for ground forces went to heavy vehicles such as tanks and amphibious vehicles delivering lethal force; the other 90% was consumed by Humvees and other vehicles delivering and protecting the fuel and forces. "This is the antithesis of efficiency," the report says.

Another problem is batteries. In Afghanistan, each U.S. soldier is burdened by carrying 26 pounds of batteries, which "hinders their operational capability by limiting their maneuverability and causing muscular-skeletal injuries," the report says.

The retired generals urge the Pentagon to take the lead in developing new technologies to take the place of fossil fuels and making these technologies economically reproduceable on a large scale. It notes the Pentagon's role in creating and incubating nuclear power as well as the Internet. It also points out that the military has served as an incubator for cultural change, such as integration, a fact that could prove crucial if the country needs to make a dramatic lifestyle shift because of a disruptive technological change surrounding how it powers itself.

"People will see that if it works for the military, it will work for a lot of other things as well," Farrell said.

LeVine is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau.

LeVine is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau.

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