Energy and the military: Convergence of security, economic, and environmental decision-making

By Constantine Samaras

Energy and the military: Convergence of security, economic, and environmental decision-making

Energy considerations are core to the missions of armed forces worldwide. The interaction between military energy issues and non-military energy issues is not often explicitly treated in the literature or media, although issues around clean energy have increased awareness of this interaction. The military has also long taken a leadership role on research and development (R&D) and procurement of specific energy technologies. More recently, R&D leadership has moved to the energy efficiency of home-country installations, and the development of renewable energy projects for areas as diverse as mini-grids for installations, to alternative fuels for major weapons systems. In this paper we explore the evolving relationship between energy issues and defense planning, and show how these developments have implications for military tactics and strategy as well as for civilian energy policy.

Military decision-makers confront an interconnected range of energy challenges

Nations and organizations face an energy trilemma, which combines concern for energy economics and affordability with a desire for environmental protection and assured energy security. Addressing all three considerations together has proven to be a difficult challenge for energy policymakers. In this paper, we address the interface of defense policy and energy policy—the relationship between defense policy (including for technological innovation) and energy supply and use. This domain of concern is linked to issues sometimes referred to as “energy and security”, which is separate from the notion of “energy security” as conventionally conceived. Energy and security, as discussed in this paper, involves the role of energy technology and policy and its influence on military mission objectives.
The drivers for energy decision-making in the non-military sectors of the economy are largely economic. The energy system consists of mostly privately-owned energy assets interacting with public policy and regulatory frameworks to ensure economic competitiveness and social welfare via energy affordability, to provide reliable energy access and services (sometimes termed “energy security”), and to adhere to environmental regulations and goals in areas such as climate change, air pollution, and water quality. The core of the concept of energy security in a globalized energy market is represented by attempts to reduce the negative impacts of supply and price shocks through efficiency, diversified supplies, and fuel choices, although many other expanded indicators of energy security are often used. “Environment” is represented by state, federal and international efforts to minimize air, water, and waste impacts associated with energy, and to encourage new energy sources with fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In military energy decision-making, the underlying economic, security, and environmental drivers of energy decision-making exist, but the military translates and applies these concepts very differently. In the domain of defense, energy has the potential to be both an enabler of hard power but also, via denial, arguably itself to be a weapon of war. One of the motivations for this paper is to make clear that conventional paradigms of energy security (relating to economic prosperity and social harmony) should not be confused with security in the military-energy nexus (focused on the potential for hard power and willful coercion). Defense energy and security efforts are more directed at achieving military mission and strategic objectives.
Energy considerations have long been essential to mission delivery of armed forces worldwide. These include operations in theater of conflict, for land, air, and water transport, and for installations and forward operating locations. Energy enables nearly everything the military does, and the primary objective is mission assurance and decisive advantage on the battlefield. So “security” is derived through energy powering capable major weapons systems and communications infrastructure at the desired levels of performance, range, and readiness. But resupplying energy to combat theaters and the battlespace edge is a vulnerability, so security is also derived through minimizing the energy required for vehicles and forward locations. Reducing and diversifying fuel use are also drivers behind economic considerations of military energy use. The US Department of Defense (DoD) is the largest US government user of energy, and within overall constrained budgets volatile energy costs represent a source of a risk to military operations and maintenance needs. Finally, defense policy makers must choose paths that strengthen environmental performance objectives, which in the US are driven by Departmental and Federal guidelines. Environmental performance also contributes to maintaining DoD’s social license to operate. That social license might represent an engagement and maintenance of support with host communities, whether home or abroad.
The world’s militaries have also for more than a hundred years taken a leadership role in research and development (R&D), and procurement of emerging technologies – especially where they are applicable in combat theaters. Over many decades that leadership has involved issues relating to energy supply and use. Recently this interest has expanded to include stronger consideration of resource efficiency and environmental impacts. There has been increased emphasis on the efficiency of home-country installations, and the development of unconventional energy projects, including renewables, for areas as diverse as micro-grids and mini-grids for installations, to alternative fuels for major weapons systems such as aircraft and ships.

Energy and modern defense planning

There is a vast and evolving literature on energy security as seen from the perspective of civilian energy policy-makers the framing of such considerations, and frequently gives emphasis to the concerns of energy economics and involves notions of security of supply and security of demand for those involved in energy-based trade. Here we focus on defense energy and security–those instances where energy is directly related to armed conflict, the threat of such conflict, military facilities, or concerns in the clear confines of foreign diplomacy. In the Twentieth Century, this was primarily associated with the global oil sector or the use of fossil fuels for troop movements, although the story of the use of nuclear energy for submarine warfare and naval nuclear deterrence is another important example of defense-energy synergies. The high energy density of nuclear fuel made possible the strategic doctrine of Continuous At Sea Deterrence (CASD) in which Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear (SSBN) submarines hide in deep blue water awaiting orders from the Commander in Chief to move to launch depth and deploy the onboard missiles. The nuclear reactor made possible the ultimate second strike nuclear weapons system able to deliver massive retaliation consistent with either counter-force or counter-value goals. Meanwhile ranged against every SSBN force are a set of nuclear-powered attack submarines designed to neutralize an enemy deterrent early in a conflict. Arguably this whole defense enterprise was enabled by an energy technological innovation – the controlled nuclear fission reactor.

Geostrategic risk

The need to secure oil supplies and to maintain the stability of world oil markets has played a major role in shaping US foreign policy and dictating US military strategy and deployment. While DoD’s own petroleum demand is a relatively small portion of US petroleum needs, it experiences a unique feedback loop in adding to the energy and defense concerns that arguably have partially motivated US military action in the first place.

Increased dependence

The international, US-led, operations in Iraq (since 2003) and Afghanistan (since 2001) have illuminated the increased cost and intensity of energy use in modern theaters of conflict. In World War II, the United States consumed about a gallon of fuel per soldier per day, in the 1990–91 Persian Gulf War, about 4 gallons of fuel per soldier was consumed per day. In 2006, the US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan burned about 16 gallons of fuel per soldier on average per day, almost twice as much as the year before.

Energy and defense – the role of the United Nations

The United Nations (UN) has had a leading role in attempting to mitigate climate change caused by human activities. In Rio di Janeiro Brazil in 1992, the UN created the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was followed in 1997 by The Kyoto Protocol. The intention of the Convention (UNFCCC, 1992) was that major developed industrial countries would lead the way in greenhouse gas emissions reductions.
Global environmental protection was not a founding mission of the UN—it was conflict prevention that motivated and shaped the UN’s mission. It was conceived by the Allied Powers in 1942 in the depths of World War II in a Declaration by United Nations, and the UN charter reveals an ongoing focus on international peace and security. In the domain of defense energy and security, it is in UN work to support the core function of peacekeeping that one can find tangible examples of environmental progress. UN Peacekeeping is noteworthy for the explicit policy consideration given to the minimization of negative environmental impacts. While military forces devoted to warfighting must necessarily prioritize narrow military objectives, the special focus of peacekeeping operations permits, and arguably even requires, a different balance of priorities in what is fundamentally a military enterprise. UN peacekeeping operations consist of around 115,000 staff in 16 countries (at the end of 2012) and represent 55% of the emissions of the entire UN system. The largest share of emissions for peacekeeping operations is due to air travel (46%), followed by power generation (26%) and road vehicles (15%). Until 2009, the decisions regarding the adoption of renewable energy sources and of energy efficiency measures were generally handled at the single mission level, lacking any general UN-wide policy in the area, despite the potential for cost savings. The UN then initiated a policy of reduction of its environmental impact in all of its operations, including its energy consumption for the field missions, and to pursue also other environmental goals following the spirit and the indications of the Seventh Millennium Development Goal (MDG7) to ensure environmental sustainability. Two instruments have been adopted: the first is the Environmental Policy for the UN Field Missions, adopted by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and by the Department of Field Support (DFS), the second is a Global Field Support Strategy adopted by the General Assembly. These policies are mandatory and include many areas of the environmental sustainability of peacekeeping operations, including camp management issues (such as the use of water, wastewater, solid and hazardous waste, wildlife, and energy). The adoption of these policies provides minimum environmental standards and operational guidance for all field missions.
The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) affirmed that one obstacle to the adoption of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies in the field is that the field mission’s length is often unknown in advance and consequently a future-oriented cost-benefit analysis of renewable technologies becomes difficult. In many cases the technologies to be deployed are chosen on the base of the initial length of the mission, typically six to twelve months, while the average length of a mission is far longer, typically seven years. Experience from the implementation in UN peacekeeping operation of sustainable energy and energy efficiency measures points to a cost-recovery payback time of one to five years. The benefits that surely exist are being missed as a result of an excessively short-term mindset in project planning and approvals. Part of the solution could be to allow for time horizons to be considered for cost benefit analysis that exceed the authorization period of the mission in question at the time of assessment. The extent to which UN concern for environmental impacts in peacekeeping is linked to the role of the organization is attempting to enhance global sustainability and a low-carbon future can be debated, but it is clear that the desire to be seen to lead by example is underpinning actions by the UN to reduce the harmful environmental impacts of its own activities.

Energy and defense in a military alliance – NATO

The NATO approach to energy issues is taken through an energy and defense lens, both for its member countries and of its operations. NATO debated its approach to “energy security” in 2006, and convened this theme to be of central importance for the alliance and further mandated its member countries to define its role. One of the consequences of this decision is that a NATO Energy Security Centre of Excellence was founded in Lithuania (NATO ENSEC COE) in 2012. The Centre will join the family of the other NATO COE and will provide 1) strategic analysis and research; 2) development of doctrine, standards and procedures; 3) education, training and exercise and 4) consultations. Some work in this area has already started, in particular NATO members are collaborating to exchange smart energy solutions to reduce fossil fuel consumption in their respective militaries, and reduce the threat to the environment. The problem of fuel consumption and of the security of fuel supplies has particularly affected the largest NATO operation in history Afghanistan. In late 2012 ISAF forces amounted to more than one hundred thousand troops consuming more than 1.8 million gallons of fuel (6.8 million liters) every day, 99% of which delivered by truck from abroad. The fuel travelled through Pakistan but, after an air attack that accidently killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in 2011, the border was closed by the Pakistan government and NATO forces were forced to shift all the supply of energy to the North, through the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a rail link of more than 5000 km starting from Latvia, traversing Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan until the city of Termez, where trains are offloaded and the fuel is moved to trucks that cross the border to Afghanistan. It should not have come as a surprise when Foreign Policy described this logistic network as a “nightmare”.

Positing the prospect of a future revolution in military affairs

As in previous conflicts, the U.S. military has used technologies and strategies to adapt to the new challenges experienced in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The rapid increase in use of remotely piloted aircraft (aka “drones”) in these theaters signaled a realization of the “revolution in military affairs” that drones represented. A revolution in military affairs, or RMA, “involves a paradigm shift in the nature and conduct of military operations”. The literature cites many past examples of RMAs that have changed warfare, including precision strike munitions, nuclear weapons, the aircraft carrier, radar, and even the English-developed longbow from the thirteenth century. RMAs can be technological, but can also result from the emergence of new strategies, doctrine and decision-making. We argue that the new ways that the military plans for, uses, and manages energy could represent a future RMA that could transform DoD acquisitions and operations, and enhances the capabilities of the fighting force. In this way, the military would break free of the risks and difficulties seen in conflicts over at least the last 100 years.
As we have seen, resupplying energy to combat vehicles and the warfighter has long been a vulnerability and area of desired improvements by the military. Throughout the military literature, there has long been a desire of enhancing the ratio of the fighting “tooth” of the military to the supporting logistics “tail”. The size and requirements of the tooth of the fighting force directly affect the size and requirements of the resupplying tail. For example, when combat vehicles and warfighters deploy to theaters, they require additional vehicles and personnel as combat support elements (such as medical, supplies and other needs), and these combat support elements, themselves require resupply from other combat service support elements along the tail. This results in cascading vehicle, personnel and supply requirements from the tooth to the tail. In World War II, average fuel demand per soldier was about 1 gallon per day. As noted earlier, this has increased to 15 to 20 gallons per solider in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. The long-standing challenges of fuel logistics are undiminished and arguably becoming worse. The vulnerability of such supply lines was exploited by enemy fighters, and contributed to about one U.S. Marine Corps casualty for every fifty convoys in Afghanistan. A separate estimate distinguished FY (Fiscal Year) 2007 Army solider and civilian casualties by energy and water convoys. In Iraq, the Army study found 1 casualty for every 39 fuel convoys and every 63 water convoys. For, Afghanistan the casualty factors were higher- 1 casualty for every 24 fuel convoys and every 29 water convoys. These casualties incurred during resupply have intensified DoD’s efforts to reduce this strategic security vulnerability. Reducing energy and water requirements for the fighting tooth represents a significant and realizable opportunity to shift the fundamental tooth-to-tail ratio in the Armed Services.
Two other factors have recently shaped military energy decision-making. The first is the increased focus on the costs of military energy. In FY 2011, DoD consumed 939 PJ (890 trillion British thermal units or BTU) of energy, which was approximately 1% of U.S. energy consumption and 80% of U.S. federal energy consumption, at a cost of $19.3 billion. DoD spent approximately 90% of these FY2011 energy costs on petroleum products. The second other factor affecting military energy decision-making is the requirement for the DoD to improve energy efficiency, use renewable energy, and energy management as directed through several legislative and executive actions. From the National Energy Conservation Policy Act enacted in 1978 to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, to Executive Order 13514 signed in 2009, a bevy of federal mandates have sought to demonstrate the federal government’s own leadership in fostering sustainability and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by setting aggressive goals for federal agencies. These goals are aimed at reducing water and energy intensity and petroleum consumption, and at increasing the use of renewable, efficient, and alternative energy technologies.
It is clear that the dependence of US military operations of extended and vulnerable fuel supplies is unsustainable on many levels. A Revolution in Military Affairs could arise whereby innovative technology in energy supply and use could reduce the need for extended fuel supply lines. Reduced external energy needs through device, motor, and housing efficiency and distributed energy resources at combat outposts and forward operating bases could reduce the amount of transported fuel required to serve these locations. Increased efficiency of tactical and non-tactical vehicles could further reduce the logistics needs of fuel resupplies. These technological innovations will be driven by defense policy and military needs and as such will be largely independent of measures to promote energy technology in the civilian sector. The consequences for civilian energy supply and use arising from defense innovation could, however, be significant.


Energy has always been a strategic input to warfighting but was typically viewed as the purview of logistics planners. Security, economic, and environmental factors have recently elevated energy to be considered as a system-wide strategic lever in the military, which will have lasting and positive results for war-fighting capabilities, and ultimately the civilian energy sector. In this paper, we argued there is a long history of energy and defense interactions and these interactions apply in policy, strategy, and tactics. Furthermore, defense innovation has long led to civilian technological improvements in many technological areas, perhaps most notably in aerospace. We are now on the cusp of a possible similar technological transfer in the domain of energy technology. Defense can lead the way for economic reasons as well as a result of more direct military concerns. For example, for war-fighting in recent decades the US military has faced an extremely high fully burdened cost of fuel. Those very high costs favor moves to innovative approaches far earlier than would be seen in civilian contexts where prices and costs of established options are far lower. We recommend such questions for further research. We see these pressures in the defense context only growing further favoring defense-led innovation. Of course, non-state actors, belligerent states, and other adversaries may not value reduced environmental impacts or greenhouse gas emissions from military operations. But defense-led energy innovation from the U.S. and NATO member countries will only advance operational technologies and strategies that increase military capabilities, competitive advantages, and combat lethality in theaters of conflict. Hence efforts focused on improving environmental or energy performance of military activities could induce additional innovations in warfighting capabilities such as reduced logistics requirements or costs, resilient and low-signature off-grid power systems, or enterprise cost savings that adversaries are not investing in nor benefiting from. In addition, more fuel-efficient major weapons systems and reduced logistics requirements can potentially partially offset some Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2/AD) efforts by adversaries. Finally, the recent emphasis on life cycle cost effectiveness and energy savings from installations will both reduce operating costs and enhance the resilience of these installations.
Alongside these developments, the issue of anthropogenic climate change has become a major international concern. While this paper does not directly concern itself with the impacts of a changing global climate on international relations, potential conflict, and military capabilities, there are clear points of interaction between this paper and that literature. This paper sees how climate change policies are affecting not only civilian innovation but also policy and decision making in defense contexts (nationally and inter-governmentally, such as in UN peacekeeping).
Military and defense innovations are now showing positive developments in the energy and environmental areas. Whether the changing nature of energy supply and use in military planning and tactics represents a revolution in military affairs remains an unanswered question, but we see the potential for a major shift emerging from the military arena where it may even achieve the status of a revolution in military affairs. We observe that there is an unhelpful separation, organizationally, and socially, between experts involved in civilian energy policy and innovation and their colleagues concerned about military strategy, planning, and capabilities. We suggest that those concerned about civilian energy technology and policy should do more to consider innovations and potential innovations emerging from the defense sector, and leverage two-way technology spillovers. We suggest there is a growing opportunity for a reverse flow (civilian to military) in energy innovation especially as one considers the greening of military operations. The advantages lie not just in looking at the present and the past, but also (where possible) into the future. These opportunities for mutually beneficial exchange have considerable potential to transform the ways both the defense and civilian sectors use and manage energy.

This is an excerpt of the journal article: Energy and the military: Convergence of security, economic, and environmental decision-making, by Constantine Samaras, William J. Nuttall, Morgan Bazilian. Published: November 2019 in Energy Strategy Reviews, 26, 100409; DOI: under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY 4.0).

Constantine Samaras
Associate Professor

Dr. Constantine (Costa) Samaras is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Affiliated Faculty in the Energy Science, Technology and Policy Program at Carnegie Mellon University. His research spans energy, climate change, automation, and defence analysis. Samaras analyses how energy technology and infrastructure system designs affect energy use and national security, resilience to climate change impacts, economic and innovation outcomes, and life cycle environmental externalities.