Going Green on the Battlefield Saves Lives

Iraq Explosion

Thousands of veterans like myself experienced the daily danger that comes from reliance on fossil fuels in the middle of a war zone. Slashing federal funding for renewable energy and energy efficiency research ignores the lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will put U.S. servicemembers in future conflicts at risk.

In 2005, I deployed to Iraq as a rifle platoon leader with the Maryland Army National Guard. For six months, my unit provided security for fuel convoys running throughout the dusty, barren deserts of Al Anbar Province. At the time, Al Anbar was a hotbed of insurgency. Iraq’s largest province by area, Al Anbar was a vast wasteland of intensely hot and rugged desert, broken only by scattered groves of date palms, and crumbling brick villages huddled along the Euphrates River. In 2006, before it was dislodged by the Sunni Awakening, Al Qaeda in Iraq was entrenched among the population. Over the course of the Iraq War, one in three U.S. casualties occurred in Al Anbar province.

The demand for fuel was enormous. Tens of thousands of U.S. marines and soldiers required constant power. Trucks, tanks, generators, helicopters, and jet aircraft all burned JP-8, a kerosene-based jet fuel, without which the war would have ground to a halt. JP-8 was not something you could buy on the Iraqi economy, and you certainly could not pull into a local gas station to top off your trucks. Every single drop had to be transported into Iraq with an armed escort, and that meant troops on the ground and in harm’s way.

Twice a week, our infantry company mounted up in our up-armored HMMWVs and drove the three-day, 978-kilometer round trip from the U.S. base at Al Asad to the Jordanian border. On each trip, we escorted over a hundred fuel tankers to and from the border. To this day, I can close my eyes and see the long red desert of Al Anbar stretching into the distance, smell the burning diesel fuel, and feel the vibrations of my HMMWV as we drove over rough terrain. It is an experience that is never going to leave me.

As a result of the continuous demand for fuel, we could never take a day off or alter our schedule in any substantial way. To keep insurgents second-guessing, the best we could do was to periodically delay our departure a few hours, or leave a few hours early. Nonetheless, insurgents could still essentially set their watches by our schedule, and they were always waiting for us.

Jordanian, Syrian, and Lebanese civilians drove the fuel tankers that we escorted, having taken the often-deadly job to earn more money than they could in their home countries. While most were there to support their families, a few of these civilians actively worked with the insurgency, and would call ahead on cell phones to let their counterparts know that we were coming.

The trucks were from the 1960s and 1970s and seemed held together by duct tape and shoestrings. They frequently broke down on long stretches of Route 1 or along the rough dirt roads that were lined with signs warning us of mines left over from the Iran-Iraq war. When a truck broke down, the entire convoy had to stop, becoming predictable targets for the insurgents placing IEDs along our route.  Sometimes, we could get the trucks fixed. When we couldn’t, we were forced to drag the fuel tankers into the desert and blow them up, sending 11,000 gallons of fuel burning into the desert. On each trip, we drove past the burned out hulks of U.S. army vehicles that had been hit on previous convoys.

The security risks that accompany U.S. reliance on this massive fuel transport network are very real. While my unit took several casualties, we were fortunate to have no soldiers killed in action during our convoy missions. The unit that replaced us, however, was not so fortunate. On September 30, 2006, SFC Scott Nisely, a marine veteran of Desert Storm and father of two, and SGT Kampha Sourivong, a young man two years out of high school, were both killed when their vehicle received small arms fire while trying to secure their fuel convoy. A 2009 report by the Army Environmental Policy Institute calculated that U.S. forces sustained one casualty for every 24 fuel resupply convoys in Afghanistan, and one U.S. casualty for every 39 fuel resupply convoys in Iraq. The report estimated that in 2007, there were 5,133 required fuel convoys for Iraq and 897 required fuel convoys for Afghanistan, or 170 U.S. servicemembers killed or wounded in action securing fuel convoys in 2007 alone.

The risk to Americans in the line of duty is not the only reason to move away from fossil fuels for energy security. Supply chains are also prone to disruptions by weather and political fallout. After a U.S. airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in 2011, Pakistan shut down NATO supply routes through the Khyber Pass for over a year, forcing a scramble to find alternative methods of moving supplies — 70% of which were fuel — into Afghanistan. As a result of that shutdown, the fuel trucks already in the supply pipeline were left vulnerable. In a single incident, militants destroyed 34 fuel trucks in Quetta, Pakistan, which had been intended to supply NATO forces in Afghanistan, but had been left stranded after the border crossing was closed.

Importing fossil fuel onto the battlefield is also incredibly expensive. In October 2009, Pentagon officials testified before the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee that the cost of moving fuel to remote outposts in Afghanistan was about $400 per gallon. After the Pakistani shutdown, estimated costs for some of those outposts rose to as high as $1,000 per gallon.

Unfortunately, all of these recent lessons are already being forgotten by policymakers in Washington. According to estimates by the International Energy Agency, the U.S. is slated to become the largest global oil producer by 2020, surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia. The development of hydraulic fracking technology has created an unprecedented energy boom by making the extraction of previously inaccessible shale oil and natural gas economically feasible. At the same time, the political debate rages over the Keystone XL pipeline. Republican proponents of the pipeline argue that it would allow the U.S. to increase its energy security and reduce dependence on foreign oil, while Democratic opponents warn that the danger to the environment, including increased carbon admissions, could be catastrophic.

One casualty of this debate has been the federal funding for researching and developing alternative energy sources.

Much of the controversy over this funding is the debate between the cost of developing alternative sources of energy and the increasingly lower costs of available energy as a result of the hydraulic fracking boom. For fiscal year 2014, the president’s budget requested $2.7 billion for renewable energy research in the Department of Energy, but the Republican-led house slashed the budget by 30 percent to $1.9 billion. Another program that funds high-risk, high-reward research into cutting-edge energy technologies requested funding of $379 million, only to have the budget slashed by 25 percent to $280 million.

The Department of Energy requested $2.317 billion for research and development of clean energy and renewable power technologies in its fiscal year 2015 budget. This money would be used to pursue sustainable power generation, helping to develop the technologies that will allow the armed services to move away from fossil fuels as the primary source of energy.

Congress should fully fund these efforts in 2015. Developing renewable power and achieving greater energy efficiency is critical for the national security of the United States, and will make a significant impact by reducing the burden on military logisticians and ground troops in future conflicts. As new technologies are deployed on the battlefield, the dangerous dependence on fossil fuels by future warfighters can be reduced. This will in turn mean fewer fuel convoys in future wars, and fewer casualties of U.S. servicemembers who risk their lives on a daily basis to secure an inefficient and expensive source of energy.


Adam Tiffen is a co-founder of Tri-Star Collaborative, a firm specializing in sustainable development in emerging markets and post-conflict environments. He is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council and a veteran of three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Photo credit: SGT Michael Kelly