This blog post was written Thursday, July 17 by Vice Admiral Philip Cullom, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Fleet Readiness and Logistics prior to the Great Green Fleet demonstration.
This week, as part of the international Rim of the Pacific Exercise, the Navy embarks on the largest demonstration of military operations using renewable biofuel. This is an important moment in our Navy’s history because, since the advent of modern reciprocating engines we have relied upon energy dense liquid fuels that come from petroleum. In the modern age of warfare, energy is fundamental to our warfighting. We use it in our aircraft, ships, and expeditionary vehicles, and throughout our shore infrastructure. Unfortunately, this makes fuel both an indispensible enabler of our warfighting and a major potential liability.
As we look ahead, we will likely continue to use some form of energy dense liquid hydrocarbon fuels for the next half century due to the long lead time to design and build ships and aircraft, as well as the planned lifetimes – some as long as 40 years – of those assets. Despite an occasional respite in the relentless upward trend in fuel prices, few would debate that the volatility and trend are generally in any direction other than up. As a result, when there are unpredictable spikes in the price of fuel, our Sailors and Marines are likely to fly less, steam less, and train less.
This is not an insubstantial expense, and we cannot, and should not, trade readiness for fuel. That is why this moment is so important and why the Navy program to become more energy efficient and to pursue all viable alternative sources of energy…an offramp from petroleum…are necessary to us being able to fight today or tomorrow.
Advanced 2nd and 3rd generation alternative fuels, such as those we are experimenting with during RIMPAC, will allow us to continue to perform our mission in a manner that frees us from relying upon a diminishing resource. As drop-in replacements, these fuels look, smell, and act like petroleum fuels and, most importantly, do not saddle the Navy with refitting the Fleet with new engines that burn different fuels or a supply system that must separately handle different kinds of fuels.
As with the development of any new technology or product, up-front research and development costs in alternative fuels are a necessary part of getting to a new way to power the Fleet. In the meantime, the Navy, other military services, federal agencies, and now commercial aviation companies, are creating demand for alternative fuels and introducing real competition in the global fuel market. Technological advances and demand are beginning to drive economies of scale and production quantities that can drive down the costs of alternative fuels. The same thing happened to petroleum in the late 19th Century, dropping the price of Pennsylvania and Texas petroleum by a factor of several hundred until it became the cheap source of fuel that saw us through World War II and into the modern age. More recently, think back to the price tag on the first Blue Ray player you saw just a few short years ago. When introduced in 2006, those devices sold for about 500 dollars. Today they sell for well under 100 dollars. The same can be expected to happen with some biofuels and other forms of alternative energy.
Though alternative fuels receive a lot of media attention, it must be remembered that the Navy’s energy program, is not just about new sources of fuel. Our energy efforts in efficiency place warfighting first by extending the range and reducing the refueling vulnerability of Navy combat assets. Greater energy performance enables us to operate forward with a reduced logistical tail.
Identifying domestic alternatives to petroleum will help ensure the Navy and the nation will be ready when the next international oil shock occurs, as it inevitably will.
Energy is an integeral part of warfighting. It has been since the Industrial Revolution, and that’s not about to change. If you are a Sailor, government civilian or a contractor on the Navy team reading this blog, I ask you to do your part by thinking Energy in everything you do. If you are merely an interested reader, I encourage you to read as much as you can about energy and figure out what you can do to help find new solutions to this our greatest challenge of the 21st Century. I believe our future will depend on it.