Oil is not just any commodity. It is a strategic commodity. Our military can’t move without it. Our economy can’t function without it. Regimes that have large amounts of oil lying under the lands they rule enjoy unearned wealth and power. Some - Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Russia - use that wealth and power in pursuit of nefarious goals.
A panel of top-ranking retired admirals and generals has taken a hard look at these connections and released a report titled “Powering America’s Defense: Energy and the Risks to National Security.” In it, they warn that dependence on oil poses a significant national-security threat - one that is “exploitable by those who wish to do us harm.”
Issued by the Military Advisory Board of the CNA (a nonprofit organization that operates the Center for Naval Analyses and the Institute for Public Research), the report concludes that “diversifying our energy sources and moving away from fossil fuels where possible is critical to our future energy security”
“If we don’t address the fossil fuel issue now,” said retired Air Force Gen. Charles F. Wald, chairman of the Military Advisory Board, “we will see more price volatility, with steeper spikes and shorter cycles between spikes. We are already paying a penalty for not looking into the future.”
The cost of oil is not measured at the pump alone. The generals and admirals note that many overseas deployments have been “defined, in part, by the strategic decision to ensure the free flow of oil, to the U.S. and to our allies.” What’s more, “some of the attacks on our troops and on American civilians have been supported by funds from the sale of oil.”
They conclude: “Our dependence on foreign oil reduces our international leverage, places our troops in dangerous global regions, funds nations and individuals who wish us harm, and weakens our economy; our dependency and inefficient use of oil also puts our troops at risk.”
They worry, too, about America’s electric grid, calling it a “weak link” on which “many of our large military installations rely” despite the fact that it is “vulnerable to malicious attacks or interruptions caused by natural disasters.”
Finally, the Military Advisory Board calls upon the Department of Defense - America’s largest consumer of energy - to begin a process of energy innovation and transformation, to act as “a technological innovator, early adopter, and test bed.”
All that is sensible and commendable. Where I find the report disappointing, however, is in its specific recommendations. These seem less than bold and cutting-edge.
For example, the report recommends that “research and development efforts should be accelerated to find new power solutions, such as the adoption of advanced energy management technologies to reduce demand.” And: “The DoD should also examine its procedures for ensuring that forward operating bases are as energy efficient as possible.”
More useful is the recommendation for the Defense Department to “transform its non-tactical fleet into electric and hybrid vehicles.” Better than electric and hybrid vehicles are plug-in hybrid vehicles that can run on electricity as well as a variety of liquid fuels. But because such a transformation could require a generation to complete, why not move much more quickly to flexible-fuel vehicles - regular internal combustion engines modified only slightly (and cheaply) so they can run on gasoline, alcohol fuels or any combination? The alcohol fuels can be made from a variety of sources, including plants, weeds, urban trash and coal. Let entrepreneurs compete to supply them to the military at the best prices. Then make sure plenty of “blender” pumps are available for drivers.
It would be best to develop both domestic and foreign sources for the alcohol fuels - that would make it virtually impossible for enemies to significantly disrupt supplies, as they could now, for example, by successfully attacking even a single major Saudi oil depot.
And why not exempt imported fuels for use by the military from tariffs? Brazilian sugar-cane ethanol carries a tariff of 54 cents a gallon. Foreign oil, by contrast, carries no tariff.
It bothers me, also, that the report makes no mention of the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the U.S. electric grid - the detonation of a nuclear weapon at high altitude to “cripple military and civilian communications, power, transportation, water, food, and other infrastructure,” to quote a congressional commission.
Iran has been developing the capability to launch an EMP attack, according to the commission, and the CIA has translated Iranian military journals in which EMP attacks against the United States are explicitly discussed.
The most effective way to stop an EMP attack would be to deploy a comprehensive missile-defense system. Currently, however, the administration and Congress are considering not missile-defense development, but missile-defense cuts. My guess is the Military Advisory Board was reluctant to weigh in on this controversy.
Nevertheless, its report is both timely and correct in its conclusion: America’s mission is to transform oil from a strategic commodity to just another fuel, one that will have to compete in an increasingly diverse fuel marketplace. Achieving that will do more than delink energy crises from national-security crises. It will strengthen national security. It also could end energy crises for as far as the eye can see.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.