A famous American general, John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, got that nickname because he proudly commanded the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry - the "Negro Cavalry" as Native Americans of the 19th century called them - and Pershing didn't want it any other way. He wanted to win and that meant the best people.
The American military was the first to integrate the 'races' and they didn't do it because of a government mandate or a political agenda, they did it because they wanted the best people, much the same way baseball integrated to be competitive shortly thereafter.
War considerations have always been first - that is why a military exists - so it's no surprise that some members of Congress have been going after the Navy for engaging in a spending program that looks like questionable political silliness to them, especially at a time when budget cuts have to be considered. It didn't help that the president made energy and the military a political football in his January State of the Union address. But it needs to be considered that the military might be putting defense first by pursuing some ideas in alternative energy.
The issue is fuel. The Navy recently spent 600% more for algae biofuels than they would for regular fuel, so the worry is they were doing it for non-military related reasons. Namely, to make the president happy. Now, you don't ordinarily think of the military as being pro-Obama but the top echelons are political. Secretary of the Navy Roy Mabus is a Democrat, he was a Democratic governor, he was an ambassador in the 1990s appointed by a Democratic president and he was appointed to his current job by a Democrat. Still, the idea that someone got to the top ranks of the Navy without putting the Navy first - and not environmental policies or currying political favor - has to be examined critically.
Navy Secretary Mabus was an ambassador to Saudi Arabia, so he likely understands the strategic value of oil as well as anyone in the military. He may be right to contend it is in our best interests to get off of it. But how much is that worth in a time of budget worries? In December, the Navy bought 450,000 gallons of biofuels at $26.75 per gallon. Outrageous, right? Maybe, but if the Navy is going to have “the Great Green Fleet” by 2016 there has to be more research done on biofuels and that means spending money now. The first fax machine was expensive too.
The Paul F. Foster is a decommissioned navy destroyer now used for experimental purposes, like the 17-hour voyage using Solazyme Inc.'s algae-derived biofuel, in the Naval effort to make its fleet 'greener'. Photo: U.S. Navy
Secretary Mabus contends that even a $1 increase per barrel means $31 million in fuel costs so alternatives make sense, even if they are not cost-effective right now. And we are talking about $12 million out of a Department of Defense budget around $550 billion. Peanuts. Heck, the new Navy destroyer is almost $6 billion each. $12 million to promote research in alternative fuels is slight. But, as veteran Jonn Lilyea noted, it is not rational to spend $20 a gallon on an alternative to not have to worry about regular fuel changing by $1 a gallon. On the exterior, he is right.
Yet we have to start accepting something; energy is a strategic resource. It is not always going to be cost-effective or profitable. The US military is not profitable. Wheat and milk are not profitable. We take losses on those things because we can't outsource them to competitors based on the lowest bidders because it would put is in jeopardy, free market concerns aside. So the military thinking about alternatives makes sense in that regard. It also demonstrates the cultural leadership of the military, their reputation among people who, let's face it, are never happy unless they are complaining about the military, aside. Like American farmers, the military gets a bad rap from environmental activists. In reality, like farmers, the military has spent two decades 'dematerializing' - between 1985 and 2006, the Department of Defence's total energy consumption declined more than 60%. That wasn't just environmental good work, it also made military and economic sense. Environmentalists should be applauding that but they instead complain about what hasn't been done so their input has little value when it comes to strategic concerns of any country, including on energy issues.
Mabus says algae-based biofuels “have made us better warfighters” because “for every 50 convoys we bring in in fuel, a Marine is killed or wounded.” That part is a little patronizing. The biofuels he bought have a lower energy value than traditional fuels, which actually means more convoys and dead soldiers. As Lilyea puts it, "if you’re going to start using my dead friends to push your boss’s energy policy on behalf of good vibes for his political base you better make damn sure you’re not doing so while spending an extra $12 million a year on fuels with lower BTUs than traditional petrol and so actually INCREASING the number of convoys required to meet our military’s energy needs." Not much more to say to that. In other words, be honest about why you are taking an action, do not try to couch it in language of saving lives because it makes the actual people in the military angry.
Of course, the whole idea in biofuels is growing fuel locally and that would eventually mean fewer convoys. We have to accept in biofuels what the president did not accept about solar power and therefore has been a fiasco; you can't just throw money around and speed up science, there is no shortcut and there is no magic bullet that will issue forth for energy that makes it profitable and superior all at one time. The Navy uses 1,300,000,000 gallons of fuel per year so 425,000 in biofuels is literally a drop in the military bucket, but it may be a drop that can put us on a path to less energy dependence with countries we have ended up fighting.