The recent announcement that the Navy Research Lab (NRL) had successfully converted seawater into fuel was greeted by hyperbolic claims that this “game changer” was going to allow the Navy to “say goodbye to oil.”As impressive a scientific feat as this was, the Navy has a very long way to go from flying a model plane powered by molecularly restructured seawater around a field to powering a sizeable portion of the non-nuclear fleet. This research was the latest in a series of milestones achieved in pursuance of what the Navy calls the “Great Green Fleet.” The objective is to reduce oil consumption by 50% and utilize alternative energy for 50% of the Navy’s energy requirements by 2020, a goal that even many supporters find aggressive. The aims of the seawater-to-fuel program are to make it possible for the fleet to remain 100% operational by eliminating the need for ships to come into port to fuel, and to avoid logistical nightmares resulting from the fact that a large portion of petroleum comes from unstable areas and must flow through some of the world’s major chokepoints, such as the Strait of Hormuz.

The project extracts carbon dioxide and hydrogen from seawater and converts the gases into liquid fuel by means of a catalytic converter. At its current stage of development, tens of thousands of gallons of water must be processed to yield one gallon of fuel. NRL believes that with continued research and the involvement of industrial partners, the process can be made commercially viable within seven to ten years and produce fuel at less than the equivalent price of a gallon of oil.

These are big claims. Bigger still is the energy that will be required to power this processing, a task that Navy sources say will very likely require a special nuclear-powered ship. Such a ship is not currently on the drawing boards and could not even enter the fleet before the 2040s.

More immediately relevant to the “Great Green Fleet” initiative is the Navy’s biofuels program, which already powered an entire carrier strike group and aircraft — the F/A-18 “Green Hornet” — during the RIMPAC exercises in 2012. The new program has garnered controversy because the average cost per gallon was around $27 compared with the Navy’s current average purchase price for fuel of $3.73 per gallon. Noting that the current price is based on smaller, experimental test runs, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has stated that biofuel prices will become competitive with petroleum and that, if they don’t, the Navy will not continue with purchases. Noting that the government has often provided early capital to prove a concept by “bringing a market” that allows industrial partners to develop commercially feasible production runs, Mabus calls the current criticisms as presenting the Navy with a “false choice.” For example, in the 1880s, as the Navy converted from wood to steel hulls, the U.S. government paid steel prices at twice the level available in Europe to build domestic capability. Supporters also cite the role of the government in enabling the development of the semiconductor and microchip industries — something that would not have occurred for decades, if ever, without the initial government funding for research and early large scale purchases for national defense.

One of the most vocal critics of the biofuels program has been Congressman Randy Forbes (R-VA), who is otherwise one of the biggest supporters of the Navy on Capitol Hill. In one sharp rebuke that reportedly shocked Congressional colleagues, Forbes reminded Mabus that he was “not the Secretary of Energy.”  Forbes’ criticism is puzzling in that he has been a vocal proponent of alternative energy, having stated that it should be a national goal to “make biofuels cost-effective with gasoline” and also introducing a bill for a “Manhattan Project” for energy research. Carlo Munos, of Breaking Defense, argued that Forbes’ criticism was strictly a partisan shot after President Obama made a reference to the green fleet in his 2012 State of the Union message. Secretary Mabus’ sensible but far-reaching policy to include the lifecycle fuel costs in making acquisition awards might have also worried the large shipbuilding industry in Virginia. There has also been a RAND study that questioned the biofuels program and even one by a Navy captain in the journal published by the Air War College. Both the departments of Defense and Energy have rebutted these reports. The Navy program is developing only “drop in” fuel requiring no new engines or modifications to existing ones. In addition, the Navy program does not compete with food production — one of the major criticisms of corn ethanol — instead using waste tallow and grease from beef processing, wood biomass, municipal solid waste and possibly algae. The Navy has been able to proceed in spite of criticism in part because of the Defense Production Act passed in the 1950s, which allows the military to experiment and invest in promising new technologies. Under this act, the Navy has joined with the DOE and USDA in a program to produce 170 million gallons of biofuels. As Mabus noted, “If concerns over cost and fear of change had carried the day, we would still be using sails.”

The Navy is also introducing other common sense measures to conserve energy, improve efficiency and integrate alternative sources of energy, where feasible.  These measures support the mission of making the force more expeditionary as lighter weight and greater efficiency improve mobility and reduce vulnerability. Between 2003 and 2007, for example, more than 3,000 American personnel died in Iraq and Afghanistan in actions related to protecting convoys — a major component of which is fuel. One of the leading examples of this drive toward fuel efficiency is the amphibious ship USS Makin Island, which has been dubbed the “Prius of the fleet.” The Makin Island uses gas turbines and can run at full electricity at low speed. In its initial deployment from launch in Mississippi to its base in San Diego, the ship saved $2 million in fuel. This same technology is being used in other ships such as the USS America, the USS Tripoli and in the experimental Zumwalt destroyer (DDG-1000), which was just launched in Bath, Maine.

The eco-friendly advantages aside, the Navy’s alternative energy program is about making it a more effective fighting force. The Navy’s nuclear energy program is very expensive, but critics largely shelve complaints over the costs of nuclear propulsion because it extends the range of ships and delinks them from trouble spots around the world. That reliance on unstable and insecure regions is a significant vulnerability of the 200-plus ships of the non-nuclear Navy that operate on fossil fuels. As retired Admiral Dennis McGinn, who currently serves as assistant navy secretary dealing with energy, said, “our oil addiction weakens our leverage with regimes that do not always have our best interests at heart.”  He made this point in particular with regard to the pivot to Asia, where the Navy will be “dealing with vast distances.” This will be increasingly true as advances in anti-access weapons push the fleet from shore and increase the need for sea-basing. The need for more efficient and effective use of energy will also be of increasing importance if the Navy actually gets its shipbuilding program in order and reverses the shrinkage of the fleet and also as the Navy employs new energy-intensive instruments such as the railgun and directed energy weapons. Then again, in an era of instability, budget constraints are also a threat to national security. The price spikes related to the Arab Spring uprising in Libya, as one example, increased the Navy’s fuel bill by $1 billion — money that caused cuts and decrements to effectiveness elsewhere. The fully burdened cost of delivering fuel to a ship — when factoring logistics and security into the equation — can range from five to fifty times the market price. Between 1991 and 2010, the Navy’s fuel costs increased at a rate more than double its manpower costs and five times the CPI. Greater efficiency and long-term contracts for domestically produced biofuels, in the words of Secretary Mabus, are aimed at “flattening our energy budget.” The green fleet, as with Winston Churchill’s advocacy of the conversion of the British fleet from coal to oil a century ago, is primarily about increasing the options, latitude and effectiveness of the U.S. fleet.  Then as now, in the words of Churchill, “mastery itself was the prize of the venture.”

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated that 3,000 soldiers has been killed over five years in Afghanistan in actions related to fuel convoy security.  The figure, according to officials, includes both servicemembers and contractors, and relates to fuel convoy operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq.)

David W. Wise is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law of Diplomacy at Tufts University and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery