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Pentagon study says oil reliance strains military

Urges development of alternative fuels

WASHINGTON -- A new study ordered by the Pentagon warns that the rising cost and dwindling supply of oil -- the lifeblood of fighter jets, warships, and tanks -- will make the US military's ability to respond to hot spots around the world "unsustainable in the long term."

The study, produced by a defense consulting firm, concludes that all four branches of the military must "fundamentally transform" their assumptions about energy, including taking immediate steps toward fielding weapons systems and aircraft that run on alternative and renewable fuels. It is "imperative" that the Department of Defense "apply new energy technologies that address alternative supply sources and efficient consumption across all aspects of military operations," according to the report, which was provided to the Globe.

Weaning the military from fossil fuels quickly, however, would be a herculean task -- especially because the bulk of the US arsenal, the world's most advanced, is dependent on fossil fuels and many of those military systems have been designed to remain in service for at least several decades.

Moving to alternative energy sources on a large scale would "challenge some of the department's most deeply held assumptions, interests, and processes," the report acknowledges.

But Pentagon advisers believe the military's growing consumption of fossil fuels -- an increasingly expensive and scarce commodity -- leaves Pentagon leaders with little choice but to break with the past as soon as possible. Compared with World War II, according to the report, the military in Iraq and Afghanistan is using 16 times more fuel per soldier.

"We have to wake up," said Milton R. Copulos , National Defense Council Foundation president and an authority on the military's energy needs. "We are at the edge of a precipice and we have one foot over the edge. The only way to avoid going over is to move forward and move forward aggressively with initiatives to develop alternative fuels. Just cutting back won't work."

The Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation and Resources, which is responsible for addressing future security challenges, commissioned LMI, a government - consulting firm, to produce the report. Called "Transforming the Way DoD Looks at Energy," the study is intended as a potential blueprint for a new military energy strategy and includes a detailed survey of potential alternatives to oil -- including synthetic fuels, renewable biofuels, ethanol, and biodiesel fuel as well as solar and wind power, among many others.

The military is considered a technology leader and how it decides to meet future energy needs could influence broader national efforts to reduce dependence on foreign oil. The report adds a powerful voice to the growing chorus warning that, as oil supplies dwindle during the next half-century, US reliance on fossil fuels poses a serious risk to national security.

"The Pentagon's efforts in this area would have a huge impact on the rest of the country," Copulos said.

The Department of Defense is the largest single energy consumer in the country. The Air Force spends about $5 billion a year on fuel, mostly to support flight operations. The Navy and Army are close behind.

Of all the cargo the military transports, more than half consists of fuel. About 80 percent of all material transported on the battlefield is fuel.

The military's energy consumption has steadily grown as its arsenal has become more mechanized and as US forces have had to travel farther distances.

In World War II, the United States consumed about a gallon of fuel per soldier per day, according to the report. In the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, about 4 gallons of fuel per soldier was consumed per day. In 2006, the US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan burned about 16 gallons of fuel per soldier on average per day , almost twice as much as the year before.

Higher fuel consumption is a consequence of the US military's changing posture in recent years. During the Cold War, US forces were deployed at numerous bases across the world; since then, the United States has downsized its force and closed many of its former bases in Asia and Europe.

The Pentagon's strategic planning has placed a premium on being able to deploy forces quickly around the world from bases in the United States.

The National Defense Strategy, which lays out the Pentagon's anticipated missions, calls for an increased US military presence around the globe to be able to combat international terrorist groups and respond to humanitarian and security crises. But aviation fuel consumption for example, has increased 6 percent over the last decade. And the report predicts that trend will continue.

"The US military will have to be even more energy intense, locate in more regions of the world, employ new technologies, and manage a more complex logistics system," according to the report. "Simply put, more miles will be traveled, both by combat units and the supply units that sustain them, which will result in increased energy consumption."

The costs of relying on oil to power the military are consuming an increasing share of the military's budget, the report asserts. Energy costs have doubled since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it says, and the cost of conducting operations could become so expensive in the future that the military will not be able to pay for some of its new weapon systems.

Ensuring access to dwindling oil supplies also carries a big price tag. The United States, relying largely on military patrols, spends an average of $44 billion per year safeguarding oil supplies in the Persian Gulf. And the United States is often dependent on some of the same countries that pose the greatest threats to US interests.

Achieving an energy transformation at the Department of Defense "will require the commitment, personal involvement , and leadership of the secretary of defense and his key subordinates," the report says.

Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

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