Recently the Secretaries of the United States Air Force and Army introduced polices aimed at turning their services green. As these policies are implemented, not only will US military operations and bases develop smaller energy footprints and make better use of renewable energy, the military will deliberately inculcate green values into its personnel--it will develop a green culture.
The US military's move to green is hardly unique. Over the last few years, many of the world's leading corporations have taken this route. Yet the military's motives and the toolset it brings to bear are substantially different from those of the private sector.
Like other greening organizations, the military has made clear that it appreciates the billions it will save in energy costs, but the driving force behind the strategy is operational security. Energy makes up the bulk of the logistical burden for US expeditionary forces and it is a fragile lifeline. Tens of thousands of personnel are tied up protecting vulnerable convoys on foreign roads and tens of billions of dollars have been invested in defenseless aerial refuelers loitering in desert skies. Plans to reduce fuel consumption largely stem from the need to reduce dependence on a delicate global energy tether. Over a period of years, even a small reduction in military fuel use in places like Afghanistan and Iraq can save a substantial number of lives.
Similarly, on the domestic front, like Al Gore, the services are urgently pushing for a modernized national power grid and for more local renewable power generating plants. Yet while environmentally conscious civilians want a new smart grid mainly to make it easier for renewable energy producers to plug into the grid, for the military it is principally about keeping bases running during natural disasters or during the next war, when any number of potential opponents might be able to shut down America's decrepit and nearly defenseless civilian grid. Jump starting the move to a national smart grid and being able to plug in more renewable power is important but secondary.
But there is another motivation behind the services' plan to go green. Over the last century the military has proven uniquely qualified to accomplished world changing technological and social programs. It is unlikely that the world would enjoy nuclear energy without the Manhattan Project; have access to commercial space without the Atlas Rocket Project; enjoy the Internet without the military's ARPNET; or benefit from the Hoover Dam and the irrigation of the American West without the Army Corps of Engineers. During the civil rights era it helped to remake American culture as a whole by integrating its forces.
Congress has recognized this and has regularly pushed the armed forces to develop new renewable energy technology and become more energy efficient. The services have accepted these challenges and often pushed even further. Over the last three years the Department of Defense has reduced its installations energy consumption by 10% and in 2008 obtained 9.8% of its energy from renewable sources.
Over the next few years an emerging group of green admirals and generals plan to make much larger changes, further decreasing facilities energy consumption by 20% by 2015 and significantly expanding its use of renewable energy. The services are also putting their labs to work developing, among other things, highly fuel efficient new jet engines, low carbon fuels, and hybrid-electric powered armored vehicles.
Yet the biggest long-term effect the military's energy strategy will have is likely to come from a different source. Militaries are good at creating cultural mindsets. They do it through boot camp, through war colleges, through constant repetition of messages and many other tried and proven methods. Each year the services take in hundreds of thousands of young men and women and inculcate in them values they carry for the rest of their lives. Each year an equal number of servicemen and women exchange their uniform for business clothes and rejoin civilian society. Now that it has officially decided to go green, the organization that produces the dedicated men and women we see fighting the nation's wars today will work to produce a generation of leaders who will help to solve America and the world's energy and environmental challenges tomorrow. The military's decision to go green is an important one that has implications that stretch well beyond the military.
Richard Andres is a senior fellow at the Institue for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect official positions of the US government.