The military has been a leader in the development of biofuels – for good reason. As I’ve written before, the military’s single-source dependence on petroleum for fuel is a strategic vulnerability. Oil has a monopoly on energy supply for 80% of our military’s energy needs, including virtually all of the non-nuclear transportation. To simply accept that oil is going to remain as the sole source of liquid fuel that the US military relies on for its transportation, operations, and training is to say that we should accept the long-term strategic risks of price volatility and dependence upon uncertain foreign countries.
We should remember that, even if the military uses oil solely from the United States and its allies, the price that the Defense Logistics Agency pays for oil is largely set by global market conditions – and saying that those are highly vulnerable to conflict and unrest in the Middle East is an understatement. (Related: The Operational and Strategic Rationale Behind the U.S. Military’s Energy Efforts)
Last year, in an attempt to address this threat, the Department of Defense, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Energy were authorized under the Defense Production Act (DPA) to support the development of an alternative source of fuel. The funding agreed in a joint memorandum, and appropriated by Congress, each agency will invest $170 million over three years in helping to build a domestic biofuel industry (read more about the DoD’s biofuels policy here). This funding will be matched by investment from the private sector. Over the past several months, the agencies have been deliberating over which companies will partner with the government.
In many ways, the Navy has taken a lead on the transfer from oil to biofuels, as is appropriate for a branch that pioneered the move from sail to steam, coal to oil, and nuclear propulsion. In the summer of 2012, the high-profile test of the “Green Strike Group” – run on a 50/50 blend of biofuel – at the RIMPAC exercises off Hawaii were a clear sign of the importance that the Navy places on biofuels. However, the Air Force also has issued aggressive goals on biofuels: it claims that it will be able to use biofuels for 50% of its domestic fuel use by 2016.
On a political level, the DoD biofuel program has been under fire from (some) Capitol Hill Republicans for more than a year. However, a diverse coalition of supporters of biofuels, including farm-state Republicans like Nebraska’s Mike Johanns and Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, have beaten back the politically motivated attacks. The political heavy lifting of approving this program has already been done: the will of Congress is clearly that this program should go forward.
What About Sequestration?
Admittedly, the military is facing a tough budgetary environment, and across the board sequestration cuts mean that virtually every area of the military has been harmed. These cuts are already harming readiness, undermining the acquisition and training process, and are slashing much-needed research and development. However, even in the face of such cuts, an investment in deploying advanced biofuels is important. Even if the government could reprogram the funding intended for the biofuels DPA (something that is likely not allowed under current law), it is a mistake to slash investment in the future.
The question of how to fund investments in the next-generation is fundamental to building the fighting force of tomorrow. There is a natural tendency during downturns to cut investment – but it is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing. On a national scale, Dwight Eisenhower faced a deep recession in 1957-1958, with GDP falling by 7.1% in the fourth quarter of 1957, then falling by an astounding 10.4% in the first quarter of 1958. In precisely that time, however, President Eisenhower proposed, and Congress enacted, the National Defense Education Act which significantly increased federal support to education in science, math, and foreign languages. As detailed in August Cole’s post on ASP’s Flashpoint blog, the Soviet’s ‘Sputnik’ threat inspired massive R&D investments; the strategic threats of oil dependence should also inspire investment.
In contrast, today’s Congress is forcing the government, including the Department of Defense, to make harmful across-the-board cuts. The stupidity of Congress’ actions, however, should not excuse military and civilian leadership in the Department of Defense from making the important investments into the future; it is strategically important for the military to develop new sources of energy like biofuels. The military has long been a catalyst for technological advancement – and a successful biofuels industry will have impacts across society.