The race towards building a world that's no longer dependent on fossil fuels has a powerful but silent ally in the global military apparatus.
For the Pentagon, clean energy and sustainability isn’t about saving whales or hugging trees. It’s about improving combat efficiency.
Not only does the reliance on fossil fuels put soldiers’ lives at risk in war zones, it also requires extra manpower to protect fuel convoys – resources that could be otherwise directed to other tasks.
The need to transport fuel to Forward Operating Bases along vulnerable supply lines is a critical weakness that has been recognised and exploited by the Taliban in Afghanistan to great effect.
One in 24 fuel convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan ended in an American casualty, with more than 3,000 Americans killed in fuel-supply convoys between 2003 and 2007 alone. Cutting the dependence on fossil fuels would clearly reduce the number of casualties in war zones.
The importance of clean technology and its impact on combat efficiency for the military is best summed up by the current US Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus.
“By using alternative energy, by changing the way we use and produce energy, we’re going to continue to be the most formidable expeditionary fighting force the world has ever known,” Mabus is reported to have said.
"In the drive for energy reform, and this is critical, the goal has got to be increased war-fighting capability. Too many of our platforms and too many of our systems are gas hogs."
The global presence of the American military juggernaut comes at a great financial cost in terms of fossil fuels. In 2009, operational energy use for military operations was approximately US$9.4 billion.
As the United States’ single largest user of energy, the Department of Defence has the potential to drive down the cost of emerging clean-energy technology through economies of scale.
In the 1960s, the falling cost of semi-conductors and micro-chips was partly attributable to bulk purchasing by the Pentagon when it realized the combat potential of that technology.
According to Washington based think tank The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), since 2009, the US Department of Defence (DOD) has invested US$5 billion in clean energy research, development, testing, demonstration, and procurement.
“The DOD now procures nearly twice as many innovative clean energy technologies as it does off-the-shelf clean energy technologies. As a result, DOD accounts for 24 percent of public investments in clean energy innovation in 2012, second only to the Department of Energy”, a report by the ITIF said.
“The DOD’s investments are capable of accelerating clean energy innovation in circumstances when mission-oriented research and procurement align—namely for biofuels, power electronics, energy storage, and smart grid technologies.”
In a corporate world where the customer is always right, the purchasing power of the military may prove to be the clean energy movement’s most powerful ally.
Military innovations have a long tradition of spilling over into the civilian world. While the internet is the most well-known, there are many other examples. GPS and GIS technology have their roots in military applications.
The business analyst in your office owes the existence of his or her job to the formative years of the US Airforce, when the role was created to monitor the complex workflows necessary to maintain combat aircraft.
It would be fair to say that the military is largely agnostic about the politics of climate change and the environment. But clean energy will provide a clear operational advantage in future wars, and is shaping up to be the silent arms race of the 21st century.
US based environmental lawyer Robert F Kennedy Jr warns that “The Chinese are treating the energy technology competition as if it were an arms race . . . China will soon make the US as dependent on Chinese green technology for the next century as we have been on Saudi oil.”
Aaron Lim completed his master’s thesis on strategic studies. He has worked as an analyst for the New Zealand Army and as a manager for New Zealand Trade & Enterprise. He has also worked for the New Zealand Stock Exchange and as a business journalist