Energy Dependence and U.S. Military Policy, by Edward C.

“Oil is the world’s most critical resource”, and “without it, nothing works in an industrialized civilization as currently configured”1.“The issue is not whether DoD will be able to obtain the oil it needs to provide for our national defense, because it will”, but “trends in global supply and consumption patterns” serve to further “complicate…the challenge of providing fuel to DoD’s far-flung operations as well as affecting the price DoD must pay for fuel”2.

“Historically, no other energy source equals oil’s intrinsic qualities of extractability, transportability, versatility, and cost”3. The qualities that enabled oil to take over from coal as the front-line energy source for the industrialized world in the middle of the 20th century are as relevant today as they were then”4. Accordingly, and despite the best efforts of countless scientists in virtually all developed economies, “there is no (currently) viable substitute for petroleum”5. Oil is the very substance that provides not only for the global economy, but also for the continued American dominance on the world’s geopolitical stage. American power projection, both in terms of a diplomatic goal, but also military enforcement is totally reliant on petroleum and oil products. America’s relatively remote location to the global hot-spots of the Middle East and Eurasia is bridged by its navy and air forces – propelled by oil. Sustained land operations can not be currently fueled by any other means. Oil – or the dependence on it as the primary means of supplying energy – is becoming the key determinant for current and future national security policy. Accordingly, unless the United States fully recognizes this dependence, understands the threat to the American supply of oil from foreign suppliers and international competitors, and undertakes active measures to reduce the dependence on foreign oil, America will cease to be a global superpower.

The United States economy, and accordingly its current way of life, is virtually entirely dependent on foreign oil and the mercy of the suppliers. “The United States possesses 3 percent of the world’s remaining oil reserves but uses 25 percent of world daily oil production”6. “America imports almost 60% of its oil today” and, at current rates, will import “70% by 2025”7. For example, “well over half of the oil and petroleum products consumed in America—approximately 12 million barrels per day, or more than 600 gallons for every man, woman, and child each year—now come from abroad8. And, the U.S. government projects that the level of imports will only continue to rise, reaching between 16 and 21 million barrels per day by 20259. As a result, the United States has little choice but to continue its involvement in foreign conflicts directly tied to seeking and securing a steady supply of oil based energy. The greater America’s “dependence on oil, the greater the pressure to protect and control that oil”10.

“The use of military power to protect the flow of oil has been a central tenet of U.S. foreign policy since 1945”, the year that President Franklin D. Roosevelt “promised King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia that the United States would protect the kingdom in return for special access to Saudi oil”11. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter “announced that the secure flow of oil from the Persian Gulf was in ‘the vital interests of the United States of America’ and that America would use ‘any means necessary, including military force’ to protect those interests from outside forces”12. There is little doubt that the 1991 conflict in Iraq was tied to America’s requirement for a stable supply of oil, and it is arguable that the current conflict in that same country has as much to do with oil as it does the Global War on Terror.
It is no wonder that the United States is so deeply invested in the Middle East, as two-thirds of the world’s oil is located there. However, that is not to say that America couldn’t find adequate short term supplies elsewhere, especially while alternative energy strategies are pursued. The first problem is that these “other oil suppliers, such as Venezuela, Russia, and West Africa, are also politically unstable and hold no significant long-term oil reserves compared to those in the Middle East”13. While the “intractable conflict with insurgent militant Islam has occupied center stage of the geopolitical scene for several years” other regional and global security issues are far from resolved14. Military actions in the former Soviet republic of Georgia reminds the world that Russia is far from ready to relinquish its former position on the world stage. Oil prices continue to sway as global security is further jeopardized, and consequently American diplomatic and military efforts see no respite in sight. Conflict in the Middle-East, and the neighboring Eurasian provinces, is not the only factor that could directly affect the flow of oil resources to the United States. The second takes the form of America’s emerging global energy competitor.

“With over one billion people, China is second only to the U.S. in oil consumption—and gaining fast”15. Furthermore, “China has one of the fastest growing economies in the world and an energy demand that is projected to grow by 150% by 2020”16. “China has little petroleum of its own, and it has been explored relentlessly, acre by acre, as a purely government enterprise unhampered by normal cost considerations”17. “China currently imports half of its oil, and like the United States, China will become increasingly dependent on oil from the Middle East”18.

As a result, “access to Middle East oil will over time become a key issue in relations between the two nations”19. “The more U.S. actions in the Middle East are perceived as an effort to dominate oil resources there, the more China will consider the United States a threat to its interests, and visa-versa”20. “In the current context of stagnating supply, this kind of demand competition is very destabilizing”21. As China is recognized not only for its energy requirements, the true gravity of the threat to America’s primacy becomes clearer.

When placed in context with America’s presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, a conflict less and less (if ever) palatable to Saudi Arabia and her Islamic neighbors, a continued economic and security relationship with the West could be threatened. China’s centrally managed and exploding economy, fueled largely through foreign oil, could easily supply the Middle Eastern oil producing nations with their much needed revenue. Furthermore, China’s peerless military can certainly provide the regional security those nations require. “China is a nuclear power with a nuclear ‘umbrella’ that it can spread out to shelter client nations”22. “China is geographically closer to the Middle East than America” and could comfortably protect the region at least as acceptably as America23. More threatening to America’s current security relationship is that “China could enter into a protective relationship with any number of nations from Central Asia to the Middle East, including an Arabia run by a militant Islamic theocracy”, and do so without the West’s burdensome “religious encumbrances”24. America must address this plausible threat, in hopes of “defusing a potential U.S.-Chinese rivalry over global oil supplies” and seek ways to not only partner with China in the long-term while reducing foreign oil dependency beginning in the short-term25.

Even once recognizing America’s dependence on foreign oil, the U.S. is virtually powerless to anything about it. America is held hostage to the shifting global markets, and the political views, perceptions, and instabilities of the oil producing nations. As such, despite the fact that energy dependence is likely never to cease, America must at least seek viable strategies to reduce or mitigate that dependence. America is at least beginning to take notice.

According to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, “The real lesson here [is that] it only requires a relatively small amount of oil to be taken out of the system to have huge economic and security implications”26. However, recognition of that fact does not immediately translate to a shift in policy.

Understandably, the military end-item acquisition process places “the highest priority on performance”27. It is, after all, performance that insures America its air, land and sea supremacy. However, performance comes at a cost, a cost that is not always identified or considered during procurement. In FY99, “it cost the Air Force over $2.5 billion to deliver 130 million gallons of fuel”28. More specifically, “the Air Force spent 84 percent of its fuel delivery budget to deliver 6 percent of its fuel in FY99”29. Furthermore, “to deliver a gallon of fuel through a tanker in-flight costs $17.50 per gallon”, to (ground) “deliver a gallon of fuel to the forward edge of a battle area (FEBA) costs about $15.00”, while delivering a gallon of fuel far beyond the FEBA costs hundreds of dollars per gallon”30.
These unintended, or overlooked, costs not only exemplify America’s reliance on fuel to fight, but also how greater efficiency could save the taxpayers billions of dollars – dollars that could be spent on other defense technologies and support materials, or even to explore alternative means to reduce foreign energy dependence. But, conventional “operational and logistics wargaming focuses on mission execution, considering fuel as a fixed demand to be satisfied”, whose availability is a “given”31. However, due in large part to the rapidly rising costs of energy and the recognition of greater uncertainty with respect to long-term oil supplies, the DoD has begun to examine the energy dependence problem.

In the summer of 2005, select members gathered to conduct a combination wargame and economic simulation centered on energy and national policy, known as ‘Oil Shockwave’. “In a scenario confronted by the bipartisan panel of intelligence, military, and energy experts, a series of events over several months – unrest in Nigeria, an attack on an Alaskan oil facility, and the emergency evacuation of foreign nationals from Saudi Arabia – drives the price of oil to over $150 per barrel”32. “These events lower expected employment levels by more than 2 million jobs, embolden countries that are major oil producers and consumers to pressure the U.S. on key foreign policy concerns, and cause a variety of other significant economic and security challenges”33. It is not the plausibility of the scenario that merits attention, but simply the fact that foreign energy dependence is beginning to be actively recognized as directly related to U.S. national security.

Until the global economy no longer needs oil, America’s future shall remain so yoked. However, through recognition – exemplified by policy statements and exercises like “Oil Shockwave” – America can strengthen her national security by increasing fuel efficiency. In other words, America may still need foreign oil, but not so much. Not only will increased efficiency save the taxpayers money, but it could also serve to temper the possibility of conflict (with nations like China) over oil.

Increased military fuel efficiency may become a requirement, regardless of global supply. With U.S. federal spending tipping the scales at over $2.6 trillion annually, it is likely that the American people could tire of large defense budgets ($521.8 billion in 2006) when faced with rising fuel costs and the strain of more palatable domestic spending34. As it stands today, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security account for 39.9 percent of the federal budget, or $1.05 trillion35. Finally, interest on national debt and other non-defense discretionary spending account for 40.4 percent of the federal budget, or $1.57 trillion36. While the American populace ages, thus requiring consistent and even increasing domestic spending to fund the aforementioned programs, the people grow war weary. The direct costs, in the form of monetary spending, and indirect costs, in the form of the American casualties, have adversely shifted popular opinion with respect to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. When faced with making choices between domestic programs and spending blood and treasure overseas, the electorate may choose to reduce defense spending by way of the ballot box. However, Americans understandably require a strong military to defend them, even if they don’t want to pay for it. Also, greater fuel costs could effectively slow, or halt, defense acquisitions due to fewer available purchasing dollars. If future administrations are forced to adjust defense spending – be it through a shift in the defense paradigm or because of greater fuel costs – efficiency is one solution.

Recent government studies have both addressed the need for greater defense related fuel efficiencies, but also identified that increased efficiency does not have to mean a loss in warfighting capabilities – quite the opposite. Published in 2005, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report, titled Energy Trends and Their Implications for U.S. Army Installations, first recognized that “energy consumption is indispensable to our standard of living and a necessity for the (U.S. military) to carry out its mission…, and that current trends are not sustainable”37. “The impact of excessive, unsustainable energy consumption may undermine the very culture and activities it supports”38. The report methodically details the challenges the nation faces with respect to energy assurance, and the related impacts. The report concludes with the following;

“The national and world energy situation mandates strategic planning and action by the Army. The pending challenges of meeting the Army’s ongoing energy requirements in a reliable, affordable, sustainable, and secure fashion demand thoughtful and comprehensive approaches. A deliberate careful review of energy source options and resulting tradeoffs is necessary. The informed and disciplined management of consumption is imperative.”39.

A 2001 report, chartered by the Under-Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Technology, and Logistics, titled “More Capable Warfighting Through Reduced Fuel Burden”, concluded that it is possible to “strengthen the linkage between warfighting capabilities and fuel…requirements through wargaming and new analytical tools” that examine fuel costs and efficiencies40. Furthermore, greater efficiencies can aid specific warfighting capabilities such as maneuver, security, and simplicity, to name a few. Maneuver is aided through efficiency by platforms being able to “travel faster and farther with reduced weight and smaller logistics tails that improve platform agility, loiter and flexibility”41. Security is enhanced by decreasing “platform vulnerability to attacks on supply lines, and reduces demand for strategic reserves”42. Finally, simplicity is realized through decreasing the “complexity and frequency of refueling operations and logistics planning, while reducing vulnerability to the ‘Fog of War’”43. Through such creative approaches, it is possible to maintain the performance that the services require while reducing fuel related costs.

There is no doubt that America can not maintain her global primacy without oil. Oil continues to drive national security policy, as revealed through America’s continued involvement in Middle Eastern affairs and conflicts. The United States has long known the importance of foreign oil, and her continued dependence on it. However, stagnating supplies as well as China’s emergence as a global competitor – both economically and militarily as well as a voracious oil consumer – has forced the United States to re-examine its energy dependence situation. The U.S. must accept that fact that through either open competition or economic pressures, America may not always enjoy such a free-flow of Arabian oil, thus placing its global primacy and national security in jeopardy. Accordingly, America’s only choice is to both embrace its competitors – in this case China – while seeking ways to mitigate the dependence on foreign oil and its impact on defense spending. Strategies such as more realistic operational wargaming and actively seeking efficiency solutions both reduce uncertainty while aiding America’s warfighting effectiveness. If such strategies are adopted, then America may very well retain its global primacy.

1) Kunstler, James Howard. The Long Emergency, New York: Grove Press, 2005. 64
2) Schneider, William. More Capable Warfighting Through Reduced Fuel Burden. 7
3) Fenderson, Adam and Anderson, Bart. US Army: Peak Oil and the Army’s future
4) Ibid
5) Ibid
6) Kunstler, 66
7) Collina, Tom Z. Oil Dependence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Real Dangers, Realistic Solutions. 2
8) Duffield, John S. Over a Barrel: The Costs of U.S. Foreign Oil Dependence
9) Ibid
10) Collina, 2
11) Ibid, 3
12) Ibid
13) Ibid, 2
14) Kunstler, 62
15) Collina, 4
16) Ibid
17) Kunstler, 83
18) Collina, 4
19) Ibid
20) Ibid
21) Ibid
22) Kunstler, 84
23) Ibid
24) Ibid
25) Collina, 4
26) Ibid, 5
27) Schneider, 65
28) Ibid, 18
29) Ibid
30) Ibid, 67
31) Ibid, 70
32) National Commission on Energy Policy. Oil Dependence Creates Severe National Security and Economic Risks
33) Ibid
34) Bittle, Scott and Johnson, Jean. Where Does the Money Go?, New York: Harper Collins, 2008. 83
35) Ibid
36) Ibid
37) Fournier, Donald F. and Westervelt, Eileen T. Energy Trends and Their Implications for U.S. Army Installations; available from: p. xi
38) Ibid
39) Ibid, 59
40) Schneider, 75
41) Ibid, 10
42) Ibid
43) Ibid

1) Bittle, Scott and Johnson, Jean. Where Does the Money Go?, New York: Harper Collins, 2008.
2) Collina, Tom Z. Oil Dependence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Real Dangers, Realistic Solutions
3) Duffield, John S. Over a Barrel: The Costs of U.S. Foreign Oil Dependence
4) Fenderson, Adam and Anderson, Bart. US Army: Peak Oil and the Army’s future
5) Fournier, Donald F. and Westervelt, Eileen T. Energy Trends and Their Implications for U.S. Army Installations
6) Kunstler, James Howard. The Long Emergency, New York: Grove Press, 2005.
7) National Commission on Energy Policy. Oil Dependence Creates Severe National Security and Economic Risks
8) Schneider, William. More Capable Warfighting Through Reduced Fuel Burden