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The Most Fuel-Efficient That the Military Can Be


About the only thing that could stop an Abrams tank as it lumbered across Iraq during Desert Storm was running out of fuel. To keep that from happening, U.S. Army troops continually built roads, keeping supply trucks close. But the tank's enormous thirst for fuel--it gets 0.2 mile per gallon--slowed the Army's advance and inflated the mission's costs. "About 80% of what you move into a theater is other than combat systems. And a large part of that is fuel and the equipment to move it," says Lt. General Paul J. Kern, an acquisitions and logistics expert for the Army.

That's typical of the problems identified in a new Defense Dept. report titled More Capable Warfighting Through Reduced Fuel Burden. The report, which has been circulated among government officials and was obtained by BusinessWeek, finds that gas-guzzling vehicles, aircraft, and ships are wasting billions of dollars while decreasing military effectiveness. The range of many weapons is limited by the capacity of their fuel tanks, and efforts to resupply them create a military Achilles' heel.

The report, prepared for the Defense Dept. by a team of researchers, business people, and former military personnel, argues that the Pentagon has "overlooked the substantial performance gains that can also be achieved through energy efficiencies," including "greater range, lighter weight systems, and reduced combat vulnerability."

"If you can reduce the amount of fuel usage on the battlefield, you need fewer fuel trucks, drivers, and crews--and you don't need all that training," says Vice-Admiral Richard H. Truly, director of the National Renewable

Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., who led the report task force. The Pentagon did not respond to requests for comment.

Among the task force's other findings:

-- Even small gains in fuel efficiency can lead to major reductions in infrastructure support and personnel. Putting more efficient engines in the B-52H bomber, for example, could save $9 billion in reduced fuel, resupply, and equipment costs.

-- Because the huge cost of delivering fuel to vehicles is not included in the cost of weapons systems, efficiency benefits are undervalued.

-- Mandating fuel efficiency would improve the design of new weapons and retrofits for existing weapons systems.

-- Defense Dept. accounting and allocation processes fail to reward energy efficiency.

The military spent $3.6 billion for 4.4 billion gallons of fuel in fiscal year ended last September, but that was only a tiny portion of the fuel bill. Far more money was spent on delivery. The Defense Dept. sells fuel to the services at a set price: This year it's $1.01 per gallon. But the Army estimates that the true cost, including delivery, is closer to $13 per gallon. And that rises to hundreds of dollars per gallon for delivery to war zones. For the Navy, which consumes more than a third of the fuel used by the armed services each year, costs depend on the location of the fleet. The Air Force--the military's largest consumer, at two billion gallons a year--spends most of its fuel-delivery budget refueling planes in the air, at a cost of $17.50 per gallon.

VALUABLE. But cost isn't the only issue. The Defense Dept. report found that fuel-hungry weapons systems actually decrease military effectiveness. For example, 70% of total equipment tonnage shipped during the six-month deployment before the Persian Gulf war was fuel. In a study cited in the report, the Army Research Laboratory concluded that if the Abrams tank had been 50% more fuel efficient--and the technology exists today to make it so--the setup time for the gulf war would have been reduced by a full month. And the tank's range would have been extended, too.

The DOD report was commissioned in 1999, during the Clinton Administration. But it could be a valuable tool for the Bush defense team, which is looking for a way to slash costs while modernizing forces.

Fuel efficiency has never been a military priority, largely because the Pentagon's accounting system considers fuel purchase costs separately from delivery costs. That may have played a role in a 1997 decision by the Air Force not to install more efficient engines in the B-52H bomber. The Air Force analysis assumed a fuel cost of 93 cents per gallon and found that savings would be small--only $400 million over the 40-year lifetime of the fleet.

REALISTIC. Yet, when the report task force re-ran the analysis--using realistic costs and assuming that 10% of the fuel would be delivered by airborne tanker at $17.50 a gallon--the savings reached $1.7 billion. Further analysis showed that 55 refueling tankers could be removed from service, saving an additional $154 million annually or $6 billion over the fleet's 40-year lifetime. And having those tankers available for other duty--say, refueling F-22s or Stealth bombers--eliminated the need for 55 new tankers. Overall, the task force found potential savings of $9 billion, not considering such benefits as better engine reliability or longer flying ranges. (Fuel-efficiency is only one factor to consider; older weapons present other issues, including higher maintenance costs.)

The report underscores the need to accelerate energy-efficiency efforts now under way. The Army just gave the go-ahead to upgrade the Abrams tank with an engine that could improve fuel use by up to 35%. Weapons designers point to new systems that are smaller, lighter, and powered by alternative fuels. "Five years ago, remotely piloted aircraft were not taken seriously, no matter how obvious a solution they were. Now, people aren't questioning it," says Paul B. MacCready, task force member and CEO of AeroVironment Inc., which makes such planes in Monrovia, Calif.

The military is also looking at hybrid electric engines and fuel cells. Not only is the mileage of a hybrid Humvee better by some 25%, but the electric engine also serves as a portable generator. The Defense Dept. has a prototype 60-watt, methanol fuel cell that can run a laptop computer for 100 hours on 1 kilogram of fuel. It weighs 15 pounds and replaces the need for dozens of heavy lithium batteries soldiers must now carry into battle.

As Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld prepares the Quadrennial Defense Review to present to Congress next month, he faces a thorny political dilemma: how to hold the budget while modernizing the military. The DOD report suggests that a fundamental shift in focus toward energy efficiency might be a big part of the answer.

Corrections and Clarifications

``The most fuel-efficient that you can be'' (Science & Technology, Sept. 3) erred in stating that a 50% increase in fuel efficiency would double the range of an Abrams tank. It would extend the range by 50%.

By Janet Ginsburg in Chicago


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