Lean, green fighting machine

army recycling logo with grenades

As US forces face rocketing costs in Iraq and Afghanistan, alternative energy is emerging as a potential saviour on several fronts, writes Gerard Wright

Fort Irwin, California is the middle of nowhere, which is just how the United States Army wants it. Vast and empty and desolate, Death Valley is to the north–east, the Mojave Desert is all around.

This is where tanks battle and ammunition of every size and calibre is tested, where American troops, weighed down with 30 kilograms of backpacks, helmets and flak jackets get their first taste of both desert and urban warfare on makeshift streets before hostile locals. It's the last stop before Baghdad and Afghanistan.

It's 3.10pm on a weekday afternoon in early summer, and the heat is dry and relentless. There is no shade, just a short line of malnourished eucalypts at one end of long, parallel rows of tents where soldiers from the 3/3 Infantry Division of Fort Benning, Georgia, are preparing for a two–week training exercise in the desert. Fort Irwin is also known as the National Training Centre and hosts soldiers from all over the country.

The tents are beige and windowless. Michael Scott Jones opens one of the doors and steps in. The transition is remarkable. The space, a makeshift gymnasium, is cool and quiet, a good 18 degrees cooler than outside.

Scott Jones, a former soldier himself, now a strategy planner at Fort Irwin, opens another door. There are about 120 soldiers gathered here, at least 20 of them asleep on folding stretchers, fully clad, some with their boots on. Others in T–shirts and camouflage pants are folding and packing. The air is cool and faintly musky: the men are being trained for a fight. The walls are rubberised canvas, stretched over hollowed–steel support beams. The floor is concrete. Spaces like this are the new way.

The difference is in a coating of insulating foam, five to eight centimetres thick. Sprayed over semi–permanent tents and coated with a solar reflector, this is one of dozens of potentially transformative experiments now underway across every arm of the US military: Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. The tents use only a quarter of the energy previously required to keep the space cooled to the mid-20s.

Outside, it's 40 degrees, with the mid–afternoon breeze just beginning to build, as regular as the Fremantle Doctor or the Sydney north–easter, only many degrees warmer. A willy–willy, 15–metres high, dances away at the far end of the long row of enlarged tents. Their ends and corners are ragged and frayed where the eternal wind has caught them. A huge air–conditioning duct pokes under one of the walls. It is attached to a device that emits a dull, constant roar. Inside, a roll of artificial turf covers the ground. The air is cooler than outside but the noise, the flapping of the tent and the tepid atmosphere mean it is still uncomfortable.

Air–conditioning is a necessity, not a luxury, in the Mojave Desert. 'The feedback is, they're better rested, which translates to better focus in training,' said Scott Jones. 'And if you have learnt a skill, then your survivability is increased.'

It costs $US72,000 to insulate each tent and pour its cement base. The payoff is that it takes only a 15–kilowatt instead of a 60–kilowatt generator to cool the air to an acceptable level. There are the same heating–related benefits in winter, where night temperatures can fall below zero.

Replacing and insulating all the tents will cost $US22 million, an investment Fort Irwin officials say they could recoup within nine months, with an ultimate saving of $US100 million in power costs. Some military bases in Iraq are now using the same foam on structures ranging from storage buildings to guard posts to dog kennels.

It's one small moment of progress in what amounts to a giant leap forward for the US military. The American war machine is turning green as it is confronted with rising fuel costs that sent last year's bill to $US20 billion; a Congress eager to reduce the size of its carbon footprint by as much as 20 per cent; an escalating human toll in war–related transport of diesel and jet fuel; and the massive potential impact of global climate change to its international infrastructure.

Electric vehicles are replacing thousands of standard petrol–powered cars. The navy is retrofitting its ships with LED lighting. A weapons–testing centre has installed rubber footpaths made from recycled tyres. Wind farms are planned and bases are going 'off the grid', becoming energy self–sufficient. The Humvee, much derided in its civilian life as the ultimate symbol of excess, is undergoing a makeover, with a more efficient engine. Even the bullets are kindler and gentler, with the old, grease–laden 'flash-bang' training ammunition being replaced with a munition that emits a puff of chalk dust on contact.

Events on a variety of fronts have dictated this embrace of alternative energy and green technology but it depends on who is telling the story. The official military version is that it began with pleas from army and marine leaders in Iraq. Their bases were far from the nominally secure Green Zone in Baghdad, and utterly dependent on fuel — diesel, petroleum and jet — for everything from generators to air sorties.

Fuel was transported in convoy and as with much else about the staging and fighting of the Iraq war, the process was dangerous and verging on slipshod. So much so, in fact, that in October 2004, 18 months after the war began, an Army Reserve unit took the unprecedented step of refusing a direct order to deliver a fuel shipment. The revolt occurred when members of the 343rd Quartermaster Company refused to take part in what 19 of them called 'a suicide mission' in unserviced, unarmoured trucks with no armed escort.

The army appeared to tacitly uphold their position when it announced after a two–month enquiry that some company members would be given a reduction in rank rather than being court–martialled.

According to Jay Gullege, who studies energy security and is a senior scientist with the non–partisan Pew Climate Centre, as many as half of all military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan are involved with fuel transport. Put another way, 70 per cent of the tonnage required to place the army on a battlefield — any battlefield — is fuel, according to a 2001 Defence Science Board Task Force report to the Pentagon, which was quoted by the energybulletin.net weblog.

'Unleash us from the tether of fuel,' pleaded Marine General James Mathis to his superiors in Washington. Another military officer, unnamed, was even more explicit: 'Get me some goddamn batteries and solar panels out here, and I can keep people alive.'

These uncharacteristic outbursts from usually stoic military leaders came just as the price of fuel was heading skywards. While petrol prices almost doubled last year in the US and Australia, the US Department of Defence saw its annual fuel bill rise in two years from $US13 billion to $US20 billion. In recognition of these issues, the Energy Security Task Force was formed with the goal of reducing fossil fuel consumption among all military services. If achieved, this target would amount to a force multiplier.

For one thing, the military is the largest single energy consumer — at 0.8 per cent — in the US. A reduction of that appetite has consequences in many areas, not just environmentally or atmospherically, but also technologically and even socially.

The reductions — required, in the military way, not proposed — are being achieved in a variety of ways. The new military approach — solar panels, electric vehicles, wind farming, geo–thermal mining — causes the entire climate–change/alternative energy argument to lose the aura of a clash of scientific, cultural and political ideas. The issue instead becomes something more of a foregone conclusion, with the force of logic, necessity and, because it is the military, a certain sense of 'or else'.

'We're doing this because it makes sense,' Dr. Kevin Geiss, the army's program director for energy security, told the Sydney Ideas Quarterly, 'not because we want to be labelled as something. You can call it green, purple or yellow or whatever you want to call it. We do it because it makes sense.'

And so you have the Rock Island Arsenal, on the Mississippi River in Illinois, with its own hydro–electric plant. You have Fort Knox reducing its heating bill by half, using geo–thermal energy from deep below the nation's largest gold storage. You have Fort Huachuca, in the southern Arizona desert, drawing on both wind and solar power and the National Guard erecting a 34–megawatt wind farm on its 9000–hectare reservation in Massachusetts.

Before they went into Iraq in March 2003, even neutral commentators such as the Washington Post's military reporter, Thomas Ricks, were calling the US Armed Forces the best–trained and prepared soldiers in history. This suggested a single–minded, even obsessive institution with a well-deserved reputation for surmounting obstacles and a disinclination to check the rearview mirror for collateral damage.

Which makes it ironic then, that the military is turning itself inside out in the name of animal conservation, when those animals accidentally fall under its care. Consider these two cases of animals listed as endangered species. Both live within military bases.

At Fort Irwin, 40 biologists have spent $US10 million as part of an ongoing program to re–locate 770 desert tortoises from a tank–training site. And the army has joined forces with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to oppose a new housing development adjoining a Texas military base, home to the Golden–cheeked Warbler.

Remarkably, America's patchwork of military bases — large, fenced areas of virgin habitat, with scattered outbreaks of crossfire — is being involuntarily transformed into sanctuaries for endangered species, which have the protection of Federal law.

'As people have expanded and habitat has been lost, military bases have become wildlife refuges by default,' said Janice Patten, a wildlife biologist at Fort Bragg, an army base in North Carolina.

One low mountain range north–west of Fort Irwin is the China Lake Naval Weapons Testing Station, sitting on the edge of one of the Mojave's multitude of dry lakebeds. China Lake is notable as the last civilised stop before Death Valley on the drive from Los Angeles, and for sitting atop a veritable cauldron of geo–thermal energy. Geo–thermal energy is produced by the tapping of the earth's natural heat. Suitable sites, found at various depths, are abundant. Differing estimates say geo–thermal energy could provide either 15 per cent of US energy needs within 20 years, or 60,000 times its total annual consumption.

China Lake's geo–thermal source is relatively accessible, at less then 2000 metres below the surface, and extremely hot, at 156 degrees. Its 200-megawatt output would power about 160,000 homes.

'We've got a lot of sunny land, a lot of windy land, a lot of land that sits on hot water inside a secure fence line,' Geiss said. 'What we have to offer our nation in terms of secure energy is immense.'

In all of this, Carl Zichella, of the environmental advocacy group, the Sierra Club, sees the habitual military response, of saluting and following orders, influencing its decisions, but beyond that, there is also a certain amount of self–interest.

'The military is very driven by the rewards system,' Zichella told the Quarterly. 'If good stewardship is rewarded with promotions and recognition, they will do it. If the government tells them it's important, and rewards them, military men will follow their orders and do a very good job.'

That extends to its embrace of green technology, starting with the US Navy, which is now the largest consumer of bio–diesel in the country.

'The military cares because they see it as a national security issue,' Zichella, the club's director of Western Renewable Programs, said. 'We're dependent on fuels from parts of the world that hate our guts. So this argues for massive changes in the way we fuel our economy.'

Like Zichella, environmental scientist Jay Gullege believes self–preservation as much as national security guides the new direction of the military.

'They'll be mandated [politically] to do this,' he said. 'If they wait until they're mandated, they'll be scrambling and get behind and get in trouble. They're very smartly looking at how to manage energy efficiency and their carbon footprint. [They're thinking] 'OK, they're gonna make us do it, let's not get behind the eight–ball'.'

There is the self–interest that works to preserve careers and standing, and then there is the larger and more profound motivation that Gullege also sees.

'You can't talk about energy security without talking about climate change, and that's the key,' Gullege said. 'They're directly impacted by climate change.'

At risk, Gullege said, are 'hundreds of thousands' of US military installations on coastlines around the world, representing infrastructure worth trillions of dollars. The US has 101 military bases with coastal exposure, 73 in America and 28 in other countries, including Guam, in the western Pacific. That air force base lies only a metre above sea level.

Faced with an approaching point of no return, which will have profound and expensive consequences, several mandatory tasks that have been set for the military. Here are some of the benchmarks the services must meet, as set by presidents Bush and Obama:

  • a 30 per cent reduction in energy use on military installations by 2015
  • 25 per cent of the electricity at those installations to be from renewable sources by 2025
  • a 55 per cent reduction in fossil–fuel use in new or renovated buildings by next year, and 100 per cent by 2030, with 30 per cent of the hot water in those buildings solar-sourced by 2015.

Within services like the army, there is recognition that these actions will reverberate far beyond the walls of the Pentagon and military bases.

The army leases 68,000 so–called non-tactical vehicles, and plans to replace at least 4000 of them with hybrids or electric vehicles as leases expire. Other military services are planning likewise, according to Kevin Geiss of the army's energy security division.

'You need to help create the market,' he said of the fledgling electric car industry. 'You've got to make some bold moves, and I believe this was an appropriate bold move.'

The ancient management cliche is that effecting change in an entrenched corporate environment can be like turning a battleship. So imagine the difficulty in changing course for the entity that builds and runs battleships.

'Affecting the culture is an important thing,' Geiss said. 'We have a lot to do in that area.'

That said, what is happening now amounts to a concerted effort by every part of the American security industry, from the overt to the covert. Both the CIA and the research and development arm of the Pentagon, DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency), are funding dozens of alternative–energy programs.

The CIA, for instance, through its In–Q–Tel program, spends between $US20 million and $US40 million annually (it would not provide precise figures) on 15 to 20 start–up companies. Lately, it has been showing a particular interest in green technology.

This goes back 'several years', according to Donald Tighe, In–Q–Tel's vice–president for external affairs. In particular in, 'renewable energy harvesting and capture — from the familiar sources such as wind and solar, but also from innovative sources such as vibrations'.

Tighe is referring to harvesting vibration technology. The device is called Joule–Thief, from the energy–measurement term of the same name, and the company is called Adaptivenergy. The company says the technology 'can use any movement, from the motion of a person walking, flowing air or water, or even a door opening and closing, to create and store electricity. [It] captures vibrational energy and converts it to electrical energy which can be used to power remote sensors or to extend the battery life of handheld mobile electronic products'.

And really, what else would you expect the CIA to be investing in, although In–Q–Tel has about 120 companies on its books.

Some day soon, when there are no wars left to fight, all the terrorists have been run to ground, and the Star Wars Inter–Galactic Missile Defence System has finally been mothballed, there will be a fascinating interview to be had with one of America's military supremos. It might be with Defence Secretary Robert Gates or with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, who is the most senior military adviser to the US president.

The first question to Bob or Mike might be this: 'You understand the honoured place that the American military has in your nation's history and culture. How does it affect the whole argument about global climate change when the military doesn't just say, 'Yes, we believe it's happening', but also, 'We must do something about it'.

Dr. Kevin Geiss has pondered that very notion. 'Because we're such a huge consumer,' he said, 'most of what we're going to do will have an impact, good or bad. It's an opportunity to be a leader, to push industry to meet our needs, and also meet our goals for the nation.'

'If you look at the amount of respect for the US military, it's profound,' the Sierra Club's Carl Zichella said. 'If the military is saying, 'We need to make this change. We need to avoid increasing global temperatures', then that's not a band of long–haired hippies. That resonates with almost everyone in the country.'

The American military doesn't do warm and fuzzy. Indeed, said Jay Gullege of the Pew Climate Center, it would be against its interests.

'The military is not an altruistic organisation,' Gullege said. 'It's not really fair to ask the military to make decisions on altruistic grounds, because it could negatively affect how they do their job. But in this case their job is affected by the risk of climate change. To manage the risk and rely on those coastal installations, they're going to have to deal with the problem.'

So the military may not be warm and fuzzy, but it might be a cultural and, especially, a technological incubator. This is the entity that produced, or at least husbanded the development of, mobile phones, the Global Positioning System and the internet.

Yes, it might have given us FUBAR, the military acronym for 'fucked up beyond repair' but it also gave us, perhaps regifted is a better term, the desert tortoise, safe from the tanks, sandblasted by the constant wind in a distant corner of the Mojave Desert, near the edge of Fort Irwin, 60 kilometres north–west of the middle of nowhere.

Gerard Wright is a freelance reporter based in Los Angeles.