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The closure of the Afghan/Pakistan border earlier this week and consequent targeting of NATO fuel supplies has highlighted a critical vulnerability for the International Security Assistance Forces: Fuel. But what can be done to overcome ISAF's Achilles heel?
8 October 2010
The Problem with Fuel
In 2008, the UK Ministry of Defence estimated that around one million litres of fuel were transported from Karachi to Camp Bastion in Helmand every year along routes that were frequently targeted by insurgents. A 2009 US Army study estimated that for every twenty four convoys sent out, one soldier or contractor was injured or killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. 
In recent months the number of people injured or killed transporting fuel - aviation fuel (or JP-8) to be precise - has decreased, but at the same time, much of the responsibility for convoying the fuel has been given over to contractors so the numbers are less precise. In addition, the cost of transporting fuel to remote Forward Operating Bases in a country as underdeveloped as Afghanistan can increase the cost of fuel by a factor of ten. The latest attack on a NATO fuel convoy brought this challenge into sharp relief.
NATO forces operate under a single fuel policy which is designed to simplify the logistic effort. This means that every system requiring fuel - whether aircraft, tank or electricity generator - uses JP-8 even if the system was not designed to run off it. Consequently, many vehicles are 10-20 per cent less efficient and are likely to experience mechanical problems, which only adds to the overall logistic requirement.
However, the main requirement of fuel is for cooling and heating, taking up to 70 per cent of the fuel delivered. The reason for this is that many of the ISAF forces in Main Operating Bases such as Camp Bastion are housed in tents. These tents are cooled with air conditioning units powered by units of daisy-chained generators. None of this is particularly efficient; the tents are rarely insulated, the air-conditioning is left on all day regardless of whether troops are in their tents or not and each unit of generators is run using all generators at all times despite the fact that this is often unnecessary.
British and American forces have recognised that this approach is unsustainable. Both the US Marine Corps and the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) have conducted surveys of electricity usage in Afghanistan and are exploring spray on foam insulation, low energy air conditioning solutions and alternative or hybrid energy solutions to reduce the burden. Early next year, the MoD will undertake its FOB-X technology demonstrator, with a view to reduce power consumption in Forward Operating Bases and Main Operating Bases by up to 50 per cent over the next two years. Low cost solutions such as energy management and foam insulation are likely to produce the greatest benefits.
The US Marines are a little further ahead and undertook trials with a variety of alternative energy products in the Mojave desert this summer. According to the New York Times, the US Marines have deployed their first 'green' company, which is powered predominantly using solar power using the GREEnS solar array and PowerShades - a tent-like structure with solar panels integrated into the material that can provide both shade for the marines and electricity. 
The US Army is also undertaking studies in this area and is looking at the viability of hybrid vehicles. In June this year, it ran its first Alternative Energy Rodeo at Fort Bliss in Texas to showcase existing commercial off the shelf technologies and identify other products that could be further developed for Army use in the mid-term. Hybrid vehicles are attractive as they could be used to power portable electronic devices, which would reduce the need for soldiers to carry heavy batteries.
Energy security concerns are driving development of alternative fuels principally for the air force and the US Navy. The US Air Force Alternative Fuels Office tested a blend of 50/50 synthetic fuel developed from coal dust on most types of aircraft and has now started a similar programme to test a blend of biofuels based on camelina. To date, there has been no performance degradation and the fuels have been tested on some high performance aircraft. Darpa is now testing biofuels based on algae. Although this technology is very recent, extraordinary progress has been seen over the last 12 months to the point at which fuels may now be available $2/gallon and production of 50 million barrels per year will commence next year.
Large scale refineries should come online by 2013 which has given the US Department of Defense (DoD) confidence that it will be able to secure 50 per cent of its fuel from alternative sources by 2016. The Holy Grail in algae based biofuel will be portable containers. Since some algae reproduce anaerobically, there is hope that sealed containers could be deployed forward with troops producing a steady supply of fuel.
In the UK, the MoD is focused on energy management on its estate and in theatre. However, it is undertaking similar research into algae-based biofuels in line with central government efforts while keeping a watching brief on US military programmes. It has also started writing specifications for its platforms to allow for a drop-in replacement. One of the main drivers for these efforts is the need to maintain interoperability with the US. If the Ministry of Defence wishes to continue to operate with US forces, it has to be able to use the same fuel.
So what does this mean for ISAF forces today? Not much at present given the relatively small numbers of trucks attacked to date. A crossing still remains open in the South of Pakistan and fuel is also brought into Afghanistan from the North through Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan so NATO forces are not unduly worried at this stage.
The US remains the predominant driving force in the adoption of green technologies with initiatives driven by the senior leadership across each of the services. NATO has a working group looking at energy management, however, the impetus for developing these technologies remains within the individual member states.
There is little recognition by senior military leaders outside the US that energy management should be a priority. However, this recent episode has highlighted again the need to reduce the military's reliance on JP-8 and to think more carefully about the way it uses its energy. If the border does remain closed, demand for alternative energy solutions can only increase.
1. Army Environmental Policy Institute Report,'Sustain the Mission Project: Casualty Factors for Fuel and Water Resupply Convoys', September 2009
2. Elizabeth Rosenthal, 'U.S. Military Orders Less Dependence on Fossil Fuels', New York Times, Oct 4