The Institutional Advantage: Building an Energy-informed Military

Asst Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Sharon Burke

Asst Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Sharon Burke

We interviewed Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs Sharon Burke in October 2013. Clearly passionate about the subject and deeply engaged in making energy a priority in planning, Ms. Burke discussed a wide range of problems and solutions that the Pentagon is addressing to make sure the lessons learned from the past 13 years are applied to future operations.

DoD PEP: Please describe your office’s background and basic functions.

Ms. Burke: Operational energy is the energy used to move, train, and sustain military forces. This comes out to about three-quarters of the energy the Department uses in any given year. Last year, this cost about $16 billion. One-quarter is facilities, or installation, energy used to heat, cool, and light buildings. This is not an inconsequential bill for us; we’re a big business, and it’s a variable cost, so we manage using a variety of methods. In this space, we must also comply with laws, executive orders, regulations, and so forth, whereas operational energy is generally exempt from these regulations because it is so closely tied to military operations.

So there was a broad recognition that if we were going to look at operational energy and try to manage it as we do installation energy, we couldn’t just set blunt goals. Congress accepted that, and in the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act, they told the Department to create an office to manage operational energy use. President Obama chose to stand the office up both because he had a commitment to energy transformation and energy security and national security and how the two could work together. I am the first assistant secretary for the office.

Despite high oil prices at the time, the real demand signal came from deployed forces—both in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was very apparent to the folks that were deploying that the huge supply lines for fuel were very much in play—both because they were distributed operations and we faced an asymmetric threat. So commanders were losing troops and forced to put a lot of force protection on convoys. In the 2004 time frame, General Mattis returned from deployments overseas and directed the Naval Studies Board to “unleash us from the tether of fuel.” When I asked him about this, he said that during his time in Iraq and Afghanistan, he saw fuel and the scale of our fuel and battery demand to be a limiting factor [that needed to be rectified].

My office has a mandate to incorporate energy security and energy considerations throughout DoD processes, procedures, tactics, technology, and so forth. What we’ve been doing is looking for institutional change. Being responsible for policy, guidance, and oversight, my office has looked across the enterprise … to make energy an advantage rather than a vulnerability. For the first three years, our focus has been to stand up the office and the capacity in the combatant commands, joint staff, and services to also work this issue.

When we first came into being, however, we took then-Secretary Gates’ direction that if you had a current mission to support warfighters, then you had to focus on that first. We looked very hard at rapid fielding and practices to help lighten the load for forces in Afghanistan, [such as] better generators and power distribution, improved shelters, more efficient tent liners, and some tactical solar as well as just some better practices. Those were things that could have been accomplished before, but I think really needed to have an institutional push to get into the field.

Now we must take knowledge gained in recent operations and integrate that into the future force. This involves valuing energy as a war fighting need in force development and strategic planning and also that we’re capturing the possibilities of making it … an advantage. I think that’s especially true given the priorities of pivoting to the Asia-Pacific.

We also focus on promoting military energy innovation. We have developed the means to track how the Department invests in this area. In fiscal year 2013, we budgeted fort $1.6 billion on [operational] energy initiatives, 90 percent of that was for efficiency and propulsion improvements.

DoD PEP: How can the DoD make energy a relative advantage over U.S. adversaries?

Ms. Burke: For the DoD, the goal is to make sure our forces have the energy they need wherever they are operating across the full spectrum of operations. We decided on three ways to get there. First, we needed to reduce the volume of fuel required to field the force. The second is to diversify the sources and to secure them. We rely on a lot of electricity for a lot of our missions. Take unmanned systems, for example: It is very important that electricity to these platforms is continuous, so that means protecting that supply. Third, you have to build this into the future force.

DoD PEP: Can you discuss progress made in the three areas you mentioned above?

Ms. Burke: We have made a great deal of progress. The bottom line is that since this office and parallel offices were stood up, operational energy has become an institutionalized issue, whereas before it wasn’t even a term of art. We see this reflected in billions of dollars in investments in energy improvements to military capabilities, including the millions of dollars in equipment upgrades sent to Afghanistan. We’re also starting to see civilians and uniformed leadership improve the way we bring operational energy into our planning processes. For example, Central Command has updated their “Sandbook”—their guide book for how to build contingency bases and other capabilities—so that operational energy performance is inherently improved. Before this, it was “Build a plywood B-hut,” because that’s what was in the Sandbook. You see these [updates] in guidance, doctrine, exercise, and plans [into which] operational energy has been and is being incorporated. Another really important process: The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff updated the requirements process to mandate the energy key performance parameter (KPP), and this is being enforced. In May, the Commandant of the Marine Corps approved new guidance that was very specific about implementing the energy KPP in all new energy-consuming capabilities.

A fuel convoy in Iraq in 2005. (Army)

A fuel convoy in Iraq in 2005. (Army)

DoD PEP: What were some important revelations from your efforts to collect energy data?

Ms. Burke: The first revelation that we had was that there was no [clear] data in this space. There was fuel sales data, and that was about it. This was important, but it doesn’t tell you how you’re actually consuming energy. And you can’t manage what you can’t measure. So we have done a variety of things to collect the data … [and] when you actually see how energy is used on the battlefield, it can really challenge your assumptions. For example, [both the Army and Marines] did studies in Afghanistan that showed heating and cooling were the number one energy users on contingency bases; it was more than 25 percent of all the energy consumed. Data like that allows you to target your investments. For my office, we do manage a research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) fund, and so we have used these types of studies to target investments. There are relative gaps. Nobody knew that [the way we were doing things] exacted a price on the battlefield, and that people were carrying fuel to heat and cool through contested space when we could be doing better.

Another study we did involved air power and strategic lift, which fuel sales data indicated was clearly the number one consumer. We discovered, however, that that demand was partly driven by how we use fuel on contingency bases. So, if we don’t use fuel all that well on contingency bases … then we also have more air demand for fuel because they have to move more things more often to these bases.

DoD PEP: In what ways has the DoD improved energy use at forward operating bases? How can it continue to do so?

Ms. Burke: Just recognizing that it’s a warfighting capability that needs to be improved was an important institutional step. But also, our studies and data show that if you can improve the way your base uses energy, it not only makes forces there more agile, lethal, and flexible but also has a ripple effect; it lightens the load across force for ground and air units moving fuel.

One example is the Army’s Operation Dynamo. This was targeted at about 50 Village Stability Platforms and combat outposts across Afghanistan that are remote and difficult to resupply. A group of rapid fielding specialists and acquisition program managers got together and went out to these positions and right sized their power distribution, brought them more efficient generators (with a better maintenance burden), they wired them better, provided better shelters and tactical solar and environmental control units. A combination of new technology, advice on how to use the existing technology better, and just repairing equipment that was there. This has cut the power demand noticeably: [initial reports say] between 40 and 60 percent, which is pretty impressive. The Army is building on this by adding 21 more combat outposts in southern Afghanistan. Even as we’re drawing down, these positions can do their jobs better and require less support. So it’s a win-win.

One of the other ways we’ve improved the FOBs is the Army set up a demonstration project outside of Fort Devens, MA, with a control camp and a camp set up with a broad-area announcement where vendors can come to show more-efficient equipment [that meet Army needs]. The Army instruments the equipment, and if they find something that proves out, the Army can put it straight into the program of record and straight out to Afghanistan.

We have also just established a consortium that will help with master planning for the energy at contingency bases. A lot of these bases in Iraq and Afghanistan have been one of a kind, but all the services are now interested in building these bases in a more modular and planned way.

DoD PEP: How does your office work to reduce the weight carried by dismounted troops?

Ms. Burke: The Army has told us that on a three-day mission, a soldier carries 16 pounds of batteries. In harsh conditions, the logistics burden that places on a small unit can have a high cost. This is one of the reasons we do not want to measure efficacy only by the volume of fuel reduced. Soldiers on a three-day foot patrol may not consume a lot of fuel, but their energy use is extremely critical.

We’ve worked with the Marine Corps and the Army to reduce the number, resupply, type, and weight of batteries worn by troops. You need a systematic approach that almost considers the warfighter a platform too, with the individual looked at as someone who needs those capabilities. We have stood up a new consortium—consisting of entities from the Army, Marine Corps, and, depending on the legal mechanism, companies interested in joining—to work with the Army and Marine Corps to address this in a systematic way. We want a better battery and a common battery, but you also want devices that require less power. This consortium will develop a comprehensive system engineering framework for understanding and managing the power and energy needs of dismounted soldiers and small units.

Our target goal is to reduce the number or weight of batteries by up to 30 percent. We also have consortia for new materials and drag reduction and tactical microgrids. All solicitations related to the consortia will be pushed through our website.

DoD PEP: How do tactical vehicles fit into demand reduction and diversifying supply elements of your strategy?

Ms. Burke: The “big movers,” as we call them, are both the major energy consumers and the heart of the force. We’re looking across the board at all vehicles for ground forces, how our scenarios say how we’re going to use them, and the platforms we’re going to deploy. We’re even partnering with the civilian sector on this: We just announced that the Department of Energy and Army are working together on the Advanced Vehicle Technology Partner Alliance and will spend $48 million to improve vehicles, including $3 million explicitly directed to military vehicles. Through this effort and others, DoD is looking at lighter weight armor, hybrid electric and other types of propulsion, batteries and AUP, improved lubes and oils, and lower resistance tires.

I would also add that the Army has made great strides in simulations and analysis in how the fuel use of their vehicles affects the unit of maneuver in future scenarios, and that analysis is really important for setting the right requirements and developing the right force going forward. We’ve worked with the Army on how those kinds of tools can improve the force.

DoD PEP: How does the DoD continue innovation in operational energy as fewer personnel are deployed overseas?

Ms. Burke: We learned many lessons by making improvements in Afghanistan. We need to harvest these lessons and apply them into doctrine, training, and make sure we learn them fully, that they are incorporated into how we do business. Coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq and looking at the budget turmoil we’re dealing with now, people would say, “Are we going to continue to be able to do these energy innovations?” I would say that as long as we are in this business, as long as we are making equipment and platforms, as long as we are deploying men and women to defend us, then the question of how they use energy and how energy supports their missions, as long as we’re incorporating it into how we do business, will continue to be relevant and continue to be something we invest in. Our emphasis remains: How do you institutionalize this? Not just how do you create a one-off special project, but how do you make sure that every time you buy something, develop a plan or deploy, that energy is taken into account. That will continue no matter what happens.

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