Last week, 150 Marines lugged new equipment in to Afghanistan that could change the face of war drastically. But the soldiers weren't transporting state-of-the-art weaponry or body armor -- instead, the Marines of Company I, Third Battalion, Fifth Marines were carrying renewable energy tools: portable solar panels that fold up into boxes; energy-conserving lights; solar tent shields that provide shade and electricity; and solar chargers for computers and communications equipment.
The new equipment is part of the military's aggressive push to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, according to the New York Times. Why the green push? Because guarding fuel convoys is costing too many lives and resources, say some military officials.
“Fossil fuel is the No. 1 thing we import to Afghanistan,” said Ray Mabus, the Navy secretary and a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, to the Times, “and guarding that fuel is keeping the troops from doing what they were sent there to do, to fight or engage local people.”
As the Times points out, large fuel convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan have become "sitting ducks" for insurgents. According to one Army study cited, for every 24 fuel convoys that set out, one soldier or civilian engaged in fuel transport was killed. In just the last three months, six Marines have been wounded guarding fuel runs in Afghanistan, the Times says. Just yesterday, more than a dozen oil tankers carrying fuel for NATO troops in Afghanistan were torched in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
"It used to be that the most dangerous job in the military was infantry," Maj. Gen. Anthony Jackson said in San Diego's North County Times this spring. "In Iraq, it was truck driver."
According to that report, Marine bases are implementing solar panels and on-demand water heaters. Besides saving energy, those heaters may also boost morale: the effects on a soldier of always having hot water cannot be quantified, but can be seen.
But solar panels and water heaters are just the beginning. The NYT says that last year the Navy introduced its first hybrid vessel (it runs on electricity when cruising under 10 knots), and took its first delivery of fuel derived from algae this summer. Additionally, the Air Force will have all its planes certified to fly on biofuels by 2011 "and has already flown test flights using a 50-50 mix of plant-based biofuel and jet fuel."
And according to the Times, when all the expenses are considered, "the cost calculation is also favorable." That's in line with a USA Today report this April, which said the "green" initiatives could save the military up to $1.6 billion, as well as benefit "national security and troop safety."
“There are a lot of profound reasons for doing this," Mabus told the Times, "but for us at the core it’s practical."