Marines’ Fuel Consumption

Friday, July 12th, 2013

The Marines use a staggering amount of fuel in Afghanistan, which has to be trucked in, across dangerous territory:

The scale of the undertaking is staggering: 260,000 gallons of fuel carried by 54 fuel trucks per day at an average of $8.37 per gallon, according to Newell. The bill for taxpayers: $794 million.

So, why would Marines need that much fuel?

Approximately 60% of the fuel is burned to provide climate control for Marines and equipment deployed at some 300 sites across Afghanistan.

That points to some rather obvious solutions.

Marine Corps PV Panels and Canvas Tents

Clearly, if you have men housed in canvas tents in a desert, the answer is… to run the generators more efficiently:

So much fuel is needed because, until very recently, all of the Marines’ stationary battlefield energy demand (climate control, laptops, and radios) was met using JP-8-fueled electrical generators. Though relatively reliable, such a system is woefully inefficient. Newell explained that Marines who handle utility services are taught to match the peak load to an 80% load on the generator – if the maximum load is 8 kilowatts, it calls for a 10 kilowatt generator. “I’m in the middle of nowhere; I can’t go without power,” he said.

The problem with a system designed to meet the peak load is straightforward – outside of winter, when demand peaks because of the heating load, the generators are not operating optimally. The median demand in the field, Newell said, is about 32% of the capacity of the generator. This leads to “wet stacking,” where unburned fuel ends up in the exhaust system. Run the generator this way for long and maintenance goes up, the life of the system goes down, and fuel is wasted.

Well, there’s some talk of better-insulated housing:

Newell’s unit, the Expeditionary Energy Office, has turned to energy efficiency and renewable alternatives to drive down energy demand. They recently added a thermal liner to the canvas tents that shelter Marines in Afghanistan, for instance, increasing the R-value from 1.5 to 4.

R-value doesn’t seem like the right metric.

Anyway, rather than digging in, or using a passive-solar design pattern, or whatever, they add solar panels and batteries:

When Newell deployed to Afghanistan last summer, he brought a hybrid system with him. The system performed well, he said, but because it used heavy, bulky lead-acid batteries, it won’t be the permanent solution. “We know that lead-acid could never meet our needs. When weight is a factor for me and space is a factor for me, I couldn’t even consider lead-acid,” he said.

Even this non-optimal energy storage solution proved its worth. Partner energy storage with a generator, Newell said, and “I can ensure that anytime that generator is on, it’s running at 80% to 100% load. My fuel efficiency went up, my hours went down. I have more quiet hours.” The Marines are transitioning to lithium-ion batteries. Newell noted that, for the first time, Marines had recently deployed lithium-ion batteries on the battlefield as part of a hybrid system with solar panels. “We’re very happy about where that’s at, but we’re also trying to advance it further,” he said.


  1. Ah, but telling the troops “here’s a shovel, get working” wouldn’t create millions of dollars in contracts or press kudos for “going green.”

  2. Slovenian Guest says:

    It’s even funnier knowing that for this fuel to arrive, millions and millions are paid to local warlords as “road protection money” in a mafia-style protection racket. We then in turn fight the very same warlords with the very same equipment they helped bring in; it’s hilarious. On top of that, fuel that is given to local Afghan police or army is immediately sold off on the side. Corruption is just everywhere and on every level.

    Here is the 80 pages long report the government released on that in .pdf form: Warlord, Inc.: Extortion and Corruption Along the U.S. Supply Chain in Afghanistan.

  3. Slovenian Guest says:

    And on top of that, upward of $200 million comes in annually from the drug trade, here’s a great Newsweek article on that.

  4. Ivvenalis says:

    The solution is just to cut the Pentagon’s budget. The DoD does stuff like this because they can. I can practically guarantee that the insulated tents cost more than building stuff out of concrete, especially when development and testing costs are factored in. Of course, the DoD is totally allergic to building hardened structures or, God forbid, putting anything underground. They build compounds out of canvas and plywood 5km from the Pakistani border and just eat the cost of any equipment that gets destroyed. Getting into that habit is going to hurt when precision-guided munitions have proliferated in another fifteen years or so.

    By the way, the Afghans themselves, even in relatively poor rural areas, had photovoltaics all over the place. They didn’t provide enough power to run large electrical motors, but it could keep the lights on and cell phones charged.

  5. Ivvenalis, that would work if the priorities of a large organization were set realistically in accordance with its ostensible goals. In reality, cutting the Pentagon budget would lead them not (as one might expect) to cut the unimportant silliness like solar-powered tents in favor of basic competence but likely as not to cut core competencies in favor of frills.

    I don’t have a solution for that, or at least one short of getting into a major war (which tends to make people suddenly much more rational than they would be otherwise) but that’s my observation of how big organizations seem to function.

  6. William Newman says:

    The “have a shovel, get working” approach is easier with an unskilled conscript army. And that organizational form tends to come with its own kind of horribly cost-ineffective organizational bad priorities. (“By 2014, the portyanki [foot wrappings] and the old boots that only come in two sizes will be gone [from the Russian army].”)

    I don’t know about the organizational resistance to underground hardened structures Ivvenalis refers to, but it might be in part organizational recoil from incidents like the underground headquarters built early in the learning-how-to-fight-the-Wehrmacht process described in An Army at Dawn.

    There are ways for organizations to go wrong in multiple directions, and it’s not so easy for human decisionmakers to do nuance, and it’s usually quite hard for large long-lived bureaucracies to do nuance.

  7. The advantage of a professional army is that when an NCO tosses them a shovel and tells them to get digging, they do it quickly and with more skill than conscripts. We’re not talking about huge underground hardened bunkers (or at least I’m not) but about using a bulldozer (or elbow grease) to dig a scrape the sides of which you peg your insulated tent to. Or if you’re staying in one place to build some prefab blockhouses (we already do this with the larger FOBs).

  8. William Newman says:

    Afterthought: The US DOD is not the only organization that does challenging work in distant ratholes: e.g., various mineral extraction firms do it too. Admittedly they don’t face quite the same supply line problems as US DOD in Afghanistan; but they also don’t have the same power to solve their supply line problems that DOD does. I don’t have any systematic data, but anecdotally it seems pretty uncommon for mineral extraction companies to house their front-line brought-from-home operators in really marginal conditions. If their green-eyeshade folk consistently conclude that it’s worth spending money to provide things like air conditioning, it’s not beyond imagining that the basic idea is sound even for DOD, and it’s just the implementation details that are out of whack.

  9. I may be misunderstanding the discussion here, William Newman, but I didn’t think anyone was disagreeing with the provision of air-conditioning to Army bases in third-world hellholes, just musing that it could be done far more efficiently with simple means (partially underground, better insulated structures) than how it is (expensive and fragile solar panels, huge convoys).

  10. William Newman says:

    Scipio Americanus, you’re right, I was probably overreacting to the combination of the tone of “So, why would Marines need that much fuel?” and my initial understanding of you “telling the troops ‘here’s a shovel, get working’”.

    By the way, I was unclear in my point about how it’s easier to do that with conscripts. I didn’t mean the professionals won’t do it on the day, just that you might end up paying for it at recruiting and reenlistment time, and that the opportunity cost of having a skilled soldier dig in rear areas is higher than the opportunity cost of having an unskilled soldier do it. Similarly the USAF could have their pilots do more kinds of support for their planes on the ground, such as handling towing or refueling or perimeter security, and the pilots might do it pretty well, but it would still tend to be quite expensive.

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