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U.S. Fighting Forces are Becoming Lean, Green, War Machines

Written By: S.C. Ringgenberg

Green US Army

The U.S. Army and Marines have worn green uniforms since World War II, but in the 21st Century both services are going green in a different way, employing more "green", environmentally friendly technologies than ever before. However, this isn't being done out of concern for climate change. Our military is going green for a variety of pragmatic reasons, from cutting costs in an era of tight budgets, and particularly to save on the amount of fuel that has to be transported to remote locations in Iraq and Afghanistan, thereby, saving soldiers' lives.

Aside from saving money and lessening the amount of fuel that must be transported to various bases, green technologies like thin-film solar have other advantages as well. For instance, relying on photovoltaic panels to power soldiers' radios, computers, and lights makes a base much quieter. Instead of using a noisy, bulky generator that sucks down jet fuel, solar panels that charge batteries that run electronic devices at night are utterly silent, making it more difficult for insurgents to locate a forward outpost. Lightweight solar panels also save on the weight of the gear a foot soldier has to carry into combat. Using solar-powered devices means that a soldier or marine doesn't need to carry as many batteries for electronic gear.

When a platoon or squad in a forward position has photovoltaics as part of its power grid, the amount of fuel normal used in a day can be stretched out to last a week or more. This not only saves money, it saves lives. How? Very simple. Military units in isolated regions are not usually stationed near fuel pipelines. Therefore, they must get their fuel delivered to them via fuel convoys of tankers. These massive, slow-moving vehicles traveling along what are often rough and very primitive roads make ideal targets for insurgents. All it takes is one or two hits from RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and instantly several tankers and their crews go up in flames. IEDs (improvised explosive devices) detonated remotely along convoy routes are another constant danger. This isn't just theory, it's a fact. Consider this statistic from the July/August 2011 Sierra magazine article, "Blood and Oil": in 2007, one in 24 fuel convoys in the Afghanistan war lead to a soldier or marine losing his or her life. In Iraq, the numbers were smaller, but still unacceptable: 1 in every 38 fuel transporting convoys produced a fatality.

Lessening the amount of fuel each unit needs cuts down on the number of fuel convoys needed, which lessens the danger to the drivers and guards, and also frees up more combat troops for their primary mission: rooting out and destroying enemy insurgents. It's a simple fact that the majority of the fuel consumed by any fighting force in the field is used not to power vehicles, but to run generators that power the multitude of electronic devices now deemed so essential to a modern fighting force. A 21st Century Infantry or Marine office would no more consider going into combat without computers than a WW II grunt would think of going into a fight without ammo or grenades. Now as never before, information, supplied by remotely piloted drones, orbiting satellites, and high-tech radio communication, is one of the military's primary weapons, enabling forces to be deployed faster and more efficiently than in any previous era of warfare. All of these devices run on electricity, and it makes a lot more sense to the current generation of military planners to gather that energy from photovoltaics than it does by burning fossil fuels in a generator.

The military's use of renewable power extends beyond computers and other communications devices into vehicles as well. The Army is now testing prototypes of the CERV (clandestine extended range vehicle) for use by Special Forces, which is diesel powered but can switch to an electric, battery-powered motor for silent running in enemy territory. The Air Force and the Navy are also looking at using biofuels derived from nonfood plants like algae and camelina seeds to fly their aircraft and warships. There's a green revolution on the horizon and the U.S. military is leading the way. It's only a matter of time before the technologies that they are field-testing now will bleed over into the civilian world by driving innovation. There is growing demand for generating power in remote locations for radio stations, scientific outposts, cell phone towers, and other applications. Cutting-edge green technologies like photovoltaics and biofuels will eventually benefit everyone by lessening our reliance on the fossil fuels that contribute to the U.S. trade deficit, pollute our atmosphere, and help to fund terrorism.