Future of sustainable military operations under emerging energy and security considerations

By Ozcan Saritas, Serhat Burmaoglu

Future of sustainable military operations under emerging energy and security considerations

Due to limited energy sources and growing concerns about environment, secure, safe and sustainable energy has become one of the Grand Challenges at the global level. Likewise, in many other aspects of life, energy is crucial for military forces. In parallel to the changing nature of warfare, the need for energy in military operations has increased dramatically. While energy consumption in the World War II was 1 gal per soldier per day, it was 4 gal per soldier per day during the Desert Storm operation in 1991. Not only the quantity, but also the type of energy required for military operations has changed dramatically. Shifts have been observed from individual man power to machines powered by fuel and electricity. Energy demand and type have changed further through the introduction of more sophisticated devices with new capabilities such as to enable night vision, designate targets with lasers, provide advanced sensing and communication capabilities and reduce human involvement in operations through drones and robotic technologies. Investigating the trends in changing nature of warfare and energy through review, technology mining and scientometrics, the present study develops future scenarios, and a strategic roadmap to identify priority technology areas and strategies for the future military energy R&D.

Future scenarios

Scenarios are developed based on the trends and drivers of change identified through the work presented above. Among those two most important ones with high potentials of shaping the future of military landscape and energy use were selected through the consultations with the experts, including: the ‘nature of military operations’ and the ‘intensity of energy use’. The changing nature of war indicates that the context of war is diversifying and evolving. A greater number of conflicts are observed within states, which indicates a shift from ‘inter-state wars’ towards ‘wars-in-state’. An increasing number of counter-insurgency operations are observed in the world. Two varieties of such operations can be mentioned. The first one is a counter-insurgency operation, where individual countries undertake operations within the country to provide stability by using their own capacity. The second type indicates a larger scale operation, which involves international governmental organizations like the UN, NATO or allied forces of individual states embarking upon a multi-national operation in individual states. At the national level, the instances of insurgency are usually limited in frequency and scale. These operations involve smaller and more distributed forces to intervene into insurgency cases, in most cases instantly. This operation style is frequently applied to deal with smaller terrorist or rebellion groups within urban or rural areas. In these cases, typically one or more mission-oriented small-scale team of forces act to accomplish a task. These forces operate rather remotely and sometimes autonomously. They may not stay on the field continuously and can return to bases or smaller scale stations at certain frequencies and may be replaced by other teams. What is important in this type of counterinsurgency operation is to ensure the sustainability of the operation without interruption. Success criterion in this case is to be durable and to remain on the battlefield longer than the opponent. Continuous control and support of personnel and energy sources can be considered as a force multiplier. On the contrary, the operations with the involvement of multinational forces are much larger in scale with the mobilization of large amount of personnel and resources, and thus require more complex planning and organization. Not only these forces undertake the mission of peacekeeping, but also frequently conduct the task of reconstruction. Therefore, these operations involve larger number of military personnel, typically from different countries. Naturally, energy requirement of these forces will be fundamentally different by type and scale from the smaller-scale team-size operations.

Energy use in military will vary according to the operational demand arising. The variations may be high and low energy intensities in conjunction with the type of operation. The smaller scale and more flexible forces of counter-insurgency operations will require less but more distributed energy sources. On the contrary, large headquarters and higher number of units and personnel involved in multi-national operations will demand higher amount of energy in a fully-fledged and coordinated power structure. Besides undertaking operations, merely maintaining the daily life in such multi-national bases requires considerable amount of energy. Thus, the type and intensity of energy required in each type of operation may also vary depending on the size, location and time required. Following these deliberations, a scenario matrix was produced based on the two key drivers of military energy R&D: ‘nature of military operations’ and ‘intensity of energy use’ (Fig. 1).


As the figure illustrates each driver axis has two dimensions. Counter-insurgency and multi-national operations represent the dimensions of ‘nature of military operations’. Operations in real life may involve some combinations of these two types. Therefore, they may not completely contrast each other. For instance, multi-national operations may also involve smaller scale operations for reconnaissance and control missions. However, there is usually a larger force behind, which remains stagnant until a stable state is achieved in the host country. Accordingly, the differentiation between counter-insurgency and multi-national operations reflects the aforementioned distinction between the small-scale distributed/networked operations and large-scale centralized ones. As discussed earlier different types of operations will have different types and levels of energy demand. These are distinguished as high- and low-capacity operations. Four scenarios were generated with the crossfertilization of the nature of military operations and energy use, including:

  1. “Main operation bases”: High-capacity — Multi-national operations scenario
  2. “Forward operation bases”: Low-capacity — Multi-national operations scenario
  3. “Rural forces”: Low-capacity — Counter-insurgency operations scenario
  4. “Urban forces”: High-capacity — Counter-insurgency operations scenario

Each scenario narrative describes a particular operation type drawing upon the literature review and discussion, combined with the sorts of emerging energy generation, storage and transfer technologies. Following the description of each scenario, these stages of technology development and deployment will be described in a in a strategic roadmap through a transformative process from the present towards desirable future visions with the examples of potential and emerging technologies.

“Main operation bases”: high-capacity — multi-national operations scenario
Multi-national operations are the ones, where large-scale military forces assembled from different countries undertake operations typically in distant geographies and cultures with the challenges of communication, coordination and adaptation. A wide variety of technological equipment for the use of bases and operations make energy supply crucial for the sustainability and success of these operations. Even for the most modern military bases, currently, energy supply is provided through the convoys of fuel trucks in a very conventional way. Fuel is then used as it is or converted to electric energy through generators. The main operation bases scenario suggests that moving towards the future, military bases should gain the capability of generating mass energy. Critical technologies for this scenario include: (1) solar, wind and waste energy generation technologies; (2) high-capacity and high-density energy storage technologies with limited space requirements; and (3) smart grids and wireless energy transfer technologies to transfer energy from remote sources and to longer distances. Renewable energy sources are considered to be crucial for this purpose. Among those, waste, wind and solar energy appear to be the most promising ones. A suitable combination of them can be created for a sustainable energy system. For instance, high altitude autonomous wind power systems can be set up. Energy generated can be transferred to the base through wireless energy transfer systems, which can potentially play a critical role in this new energy ecosystem. Military units when undertaking exploration or civil operations may benefit from these technologies when they are on the field outside the base. Wireless systems can also be used to power remote preventive sensor systems. In addition, solar power systems and energy produced from waste can be used to meet the daily operational demand of the base. High capacity energy storage systems like NaS batteries can be combined with smart grid technologies to provide ‘energy supply on demand’.

With the possibility of using diverse and substitutional energy sources, the amount ‘safety-stock’, which is currently required due to vulnerabilities in energy supply, can be reduced. Energy-autonomous military bases will be more flexible regarding location, positioning and mobility. Moreover, cleaner, safer and sustainable energy sources will reduce negative environmental impacts of operations; reduce the number of security personnel responsible for the energy supply; minimize improvised explosive device threats to supply convoys; and will reinforce the humanitarian profile of the operations.

“Forward operation bases”: low-capacity — multi-national operations scenario
Besides main operation bases, operations undertaken by multinational forces may involve forward operating bases (FOBs). Similar to the ones used for NATO and UN operations, FOBs are usually located far from the main operation base. They are expected to be self-sufficient during their operations to accomplish specific attack, control or security missions. Due to their smaller size with a limited number of personnel, FOBs are in a more vulnerable position. Hence an efficient use of UAV surveillance systems can be considered without locating FOBs geographically dispersed in the country. It is clear that UAV surveillance system will be more efficient and sustainable. However, psychological effect on target population should be considered too beside its efficiency. Critical energy technologies to provide the expectance of self-sufficiency for FOBs include: (1) energy generation technology from renewable sources for the operation of a small to medium scale FOB; (2) medium size energy storage technology with a capacity of storing surplus energy; and (3) wireless energy transfer technology to for the frontier forces. The self-sufficiency of FOBs will provide them flexibility and mobility when they need to be deployed in a short period of time at multiple locations. It is crucial to make these forces as independent of energy supply logistics as possible.

“Rural forces”: low-capacity — counter-insurgency operations scenario
In this type of asymmetric operations, countries use their own conventional forces to undertake an intra-state operation. Different from the previous scenarios, in this scenario the source of conflict is frequently civilian and the opponents are rebels. Consequently, national security forces need to be alert continuously against the outbreak of frequently uncontrolled and unforeseen activities of civilian rebels. Such operations usually take place in rural areas, where rebels are usually based and have an opportunity to organize themselves by taking the advantage of being in far and remote areas. In the event of such a conflict, there is a need for rapid deployment of relatively smaller size of forces into the operation zones. As the rebels have the possibility of changing their places frequently, security forces have to be transferred from one geographical location to another swiftly. As these operations take place momentarily, it is difficult to establish a base with necessary energy infrastructure. Here, the challenge is rather to supply energy to individual soldiers and to make each of them self-sufficient for the sustainability and success of the military operations. Thus, the key technologies for rural forces are considered to be: (1) energy harvesting technologies to supply energy from ambient sources; (2) smaller-size, lightweight and re-chargeable battery technologies; and (3) small scale wireless energy transfer technologies for soldiers to use their weapons and equipment.

Energy harvesting technologies will allow smaller forces to generate their energy in rural and natural environments whenever required. Higher speed of energy extraction from ambient sources will reduce the dependence on larger batteries for energy storage and increase the mobility of forces with less weight. Energy absorbing paints, wearable camouflages, and piezo-electric systems can be mentioned among the energy harvesting technologies. Energy generated should be converted and stored. Wireless energy transfer will also be important at this level. Technologies to enable soldiers in a close-contact operation to receive energy from their detached backpacks wirelessly at the field will provide them a great operational efficiency without carrying an additional load.

“Urban forces”: high-capacity — counter-insurgency operations scenario
In the urban forces scenario, operations take place in urban and residential areas. Likewise in the previous scenario, urban operations are also asymmetric in nature. However, in this scenario, the opponents are less organized members of the society with light or no weapons, but usually come together as large crowds. Due to the location of the operation and nature of the opponents, operations undertaken by urban forces will have different concerns regarding energy generation, storage and transfer: (1) because the operations take place in urban areas, access to energy sources is considered to be relatively easier. Therefore, the dependency on energy generation technologies in this scenario is relatively lower; and (2) similarly, because of the availability of energy in a closer proximity; there is a lesser need for energy storage systems. Storage can be provided by using simpler battery technologies than the other scenarios; and (3) on-demand energy supply can be provided through smart grid systems and smaller scale wireless energy transfer systems. Similar to mobile communication technologies, base stations can be set up in urban areas to transfer energy to the forces scattered around urban and residential areas.

Stages of military energy transformation: a roadmap

Due to the nature and speed of technological R&D and the availability of resources, it is expected that the scenarios described above will come into reality in an evolutionary process. Therefore, it is considered to be useful to outline a roadmap to indicate the stages of technological development and application from the present state towards desirable future visions. A matrix structure is proposed to describe the levels of energy use in military and stages of technological development at each level. Scenarios described above suggest that energy use in military will be mainly taking place at three levels:

  1. Main-base level
  2. Forward operating base level
  3. Individual level.

Considering the immediate-term, medium-term and long-term transformations, three stages of development can be mentioned at these three levels as illustrated in Fig. 2.



Scenarios developed based on the trends in military concepts and technologies, and changing energy landscape indicate that renewable energy generation, advanced large/medium/small-scale storage technologies and wireless energy transfer are among the most prominent technologies to be developed. Research in these areas will certainly increase the efficiency of military operations and will reduce human and environmental loses dramatically. However, there is a need for positioning this discussion within a wider framework. Besides the technological advancements, the transformations in the characteristics of war and broader changes in society, economy, politics and environment suggest that there is an increasing need to re-consider the “military power” concept. Currently, the key measures of military power are lethality and impact, which are far from reflecting the efficiency, sustainability, and greater responsibility for human life and environment.

The shift from ‘inter-state’ to ‘intra-state’ wars means that destroying the human capital in a country is not acceptable humanistically and not rationale economically. Therefore, increased capacity such as on heavily armed jet fighters and tanks will not make countries stronger from the operational point of view but will make them more vulnerable due to the high destruction power of these systems and increased dependency on conventional energy supply. Considering the nature of military operations towards more frequent intra-state cases; closer proximity of operations to society; and increasing expectations for more human- and environment-centric concepts, it may be concluded that there is a need for re-considering the meaning of the ‘military power.’ Without doubt, the development of more advanced technologies for sustainable and efficient operations will be one of the key enablers of this new military power concept.

The expectation for more flexible and mobile forces will be achieved with less energy dependency, which can be achieved by:

  1. developing and field new primary energy sources that do not rely on petroleum and are preferably renewable
  2. reducing consumption through conservation, and
  3. improving the efficiency of energy use so that more mission is accomplished per unit of energy input.

Renewables including waste, wind and solar technologies are gaining importance for military operations. Besides undertaking R&D activities in these areas, the present study proposes that it is first important to consider these technologies in an integrated way to create an energy system with the possibility of quick and efficient substitution of energy sources. Second, there is a need to consider energy generation along with storage and transfer technologies from a triangular perspective. Generated energy should be stored in an appropriate way depending on the operational needs and should be transferred on demand by using smart grid and wireless systems. Besides the base level, the scenarios developed indicate that individual soldiers will play a greater role particularly in urban and rural counter-insurgency operations. A similar triangulation of energy generation, storage and transfer solutions will be needed at this level. Meanwhile, complementary R&D activities should be undertaken to increase the energy efficiency of the buildings, operational infrastructure and equipment and to adapt them to the new sources of energy. Changing characteristics of warfare suggest that in the new global context operations by multi-national forces will be performed both in main and forward operating bases with an increasing likelihood of performing operations both in urban and rural areas. Hence, it can be concluded that the aforementioned scenarios are not mutually-exclusive. Military R&D policies would be expected to address all the stages of transformation at three levels. One final important point in the military energy R&D domain is that most of the technological developments and advancements presented above would also create vast opportunities for civilian use due to increasing expectations for sustainability and renewable energy use. This possibility for the dual-use of technologies at the military and civilian domains will provide a greater motivation for research institutions and firms to be involved in the energy R&D.


This is an excerpt of the journal article: Future of sustainable military operations under emerging energy and security considerations, by Saritas, Ozcan and Burmaoglu, Serhat.  Published: January 2016 in Technological Forecasting & Social Change, 102, pp.331-343. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2015.08.010 

Ozcan Saritas

Dr. Ozcan Saritas is currently working with the Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia

Serhat Burmaoglu

Dr. Serhat Burmaoğlu currently works at the Department of Economics, Izmir Katip Celebi Universitesi in Izmir, Turkey. He does research in Quantitative Social Research and Qualitative Social Research.