Security threat beyond foreign oil, say ex-military

Dependence on natural gas, coal, and a faulty electrical grid are all compromising U.S. security, a former fleet commander says.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
3 min read

"If we were to sum this up in a bumper sticker, it would say something like: 'America, the U.S. military gave you the Hummer. Now we're taking it back."

Dennis McGinn, a retired vice admiral in the Navy and former commander of the U.S. Third Fleet, spoke those words Monday during a teleconference.

McGinn is on the military advisory board of the not-for-profit Center for Naval Analyses. The group issued a report (PDF) on Monday, stating the U.S. military must, as a matter of national security, work to reduce its dependence not just on foreign oil, but on natural gas, coal, and an increasingly unstable U.S. electrical grid.

"We believe in the study that national security, energy security, and climate change are interdependent. We've come up with a list of findings and priorities, a challenge to the DOD, an opportunity to lead," John Napman, a retired admiral, said during the teleconference.

McGinn added: "We're heavily dependent on a global petroleum market that's volatile, but it's not just restricted to oil. Natural gas and coal also ran huge spikes in the last year."

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The transfer of wealth (via fuel purchases) to nations associated with terrorism has essentially put the U.S. in the position of financing both sides of conflicts and has been a wake-up call to the military, according to McGinn.

To some degree, the Department of Defense has already made strides toward increased use of electrical vehicles for light-use and of some hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles for other uses, according to Gordon Sullivan, a retired general and former U.S. Army chief of staff.

"Throughout DOD installations, you'll find a lot of the pick-up trucks. (There's a lot of) natural gas being used. And I think in the administrative fleets, you'll see a lot of that. And some of these things that look like John Deere Gators or whatever. They're like golf carts fueled by natural gas," said Sullivan.

But reducing foreign oil dependence is not enough, according to the report.

Military installations "are almost completely dependent on commercial electrical power delivered through the national electrical grid," according to the report signed by 12 former U.S. generals and admirals, and sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Energy Foundation, and the Grayce B. Kerr Foundation.

Considering the military's increased reliance on computers to analyze data, provide tactical support to troops, and remotely fly UAVs like the Predator, the "outdated, fragile, and overtaxed national electrical grid is a dangerously weak link in the national security infrastructure," said the report.

The report also recommended a slowdown of the development of coal-to-liquid fuels for the U.S. Air Force in favor of fossil- and alternative-based blends. It pointed to DARPA's $100 million in research and development toward JP-8 blends from nonfood crops such as algae and other plant-based biomass as an area in which the DOD has already expressed interest.

By addressing its own needs with regard to developing electrical smart grids, fuel efficient vehicles, and even jet fuel, the Department of Defense can influence the general market as it did with the invention of the Humvee, according to both Sullivan and McGinn.

Only this time, that crossover vehicle from military to civilian drivers will likely be a lot more fuel efficient.