America forgets Oct. 12 as seamlessly as it remembers Sept. 11. Ten years ago today, 17 U.S. Navy sailors were killed and 39 injured in an Al Qaeda attack against the U.S. destroyer Cole in the harbor of Aden, Yemen. The Cole was relatively defenseless during a 24-hour refueling stop when suicide operatives pulled alongside in a small, explosive-laden boat and detonated a charge, ripping a 40-foot hole in the hull.
Though the lessons from 9/11 will be debated for years, Oct. 12's message is succinct. It is best summed up by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway: "Energy choices can save lives on the battlefield." The armed forces are searching for next-generation green energy technologies because they provide power at the point of its consumption, which decreases the military's need to resupply with carbon-based fuels.
But there's a huge problem: Renewable energy technologies, to which Conway refers, aren't being developed fast enough. One solution is an "innovation fund," housed in the Pentagon, to help companies bridge the gap between the test lab and the battlefield. Such a fund would use public dollars to leverage private money, scaling up the most promising clean-energy projects. And if a green technology revolutionizes how the military powers itself, that idea might one day power the rest of us too.
In Afghanistan, the military gets fossil fuels largely by truck. In recent days, fuel convoys have become as vulnerable as the Cole. Since Oct. 1, the Taliban has executed seven attacks against fuel supplies traveling to NATO troops in Afghanistan, torching more than 75 fuel trucks in the process. At least five civilians and three local troops have been killed this month alone, and six U.S. Marines have been wounded protecting fuel since July. Protecting fuel is driving up its cost too. According to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, moving gasoline to the battlefield can cost anywhere from $13 to, in extreme circumstances, $400 a gallon.
The Marines, in particular, are off to a good start with changing to renewable fuel in Afghanistan. As detailed in a recent New York Times article, they are already importing solar panels, energy-efficient lights and tent shields for insulation. In fact, the military is constantly testing green-power projects, such as a contraption that provides power and purifies water, or even a mobile nuclear reactor.
But designing and producing green power projects for the military is a niche market, and right now, it's too small to have a near-term impact. The market needs to grow quickly because Mabus is setting big goals for an energy-independent military. He wants to sail a "Great Green Fleet" by 2016 -- a full carrier strike group composed of nuclear and hybrid electric ships, as well as biofueled aircraft. By 2020, Mabus wants half of the Navy's energy to come from alternative sources.
To get to where Mabus wants to go, ideas need cash. The Pentagon may have a truly out-of-control budget, but consider this: Radar, GPS and the Internet all started as military-funded projects. The next green technology could be sitting in a lab somewhere, begging for a few dollars to help produce it on a bigger scale.
That's why the Obama administration should consider a Pentagon innovation fund. A few well-spent dollars would help companies tackle the technological learning curve and reduce costs.
It's hardly an idea out of left field; the CIA started such a project in 1999, called In-Q-Tel, to help small companies develop technologies for the intelligence community. For a relatively paltry $50 million a year, In-Q-Tel has spawned $1.4 billion in innovative products for the CIA. Furthermore, the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review, a comprehensive study in how the military should defeat threats, has also endorsed such a fund.
The country may be divided on everything from Afghanistan to global warming, but it should agree that buying carbon-based fuels from dangerous countries needlessly risks too many lives and taxpayer dollars. Investing smartly in new green technologies may ultimately save both, and could launch the next mass-produced innovation in green technology.