The Fuel War

June 1, 2007

The Air Force is the largest single consumer of energy in the Department of Defense. That would still be the case even if the United States were not engaged in a Global War on Terrorism, but it is, and the demands of that worldwide conflict have pushed fuel use to new heights.

Last year, the Air Force’s total energy bill came to $6.7 billion, the bulk of it related to air operations. When USAF’s budgets began to sag under the weight of rising oil prices, worried Air Force leaders began closely examining the service’s energy costs and planning for reforms.

The fuel problem became undeniable nearly two years ago. USAF already was burning lots and lots of fuel as a result of the war. Then, in September 2005, USAF deployed many aircraft to the Gulf Coast to assist in evacuation, search and rescue, recovery, and other operations in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The effort was enormous and costly. It also highlighted the vulnerability of the nation’s domestic energy supply, according to Michael A. Aimone, Air Force assistant deputy chief of staff for logistics, installations, and mission support.

The Department of Defense, as the government’s largest fuel user, accounts for 93 percent of overall federal energy costs. Yet even with such a huge fuel bill, the Pentagon accounts for about two percent of the nation’s entire energy use.

In the fight to control costs, the Air Force has moved heavily into renewable energy usage. The Air Force led the federal government in the amount of renewable energy purchased last year and the year before. In fact, USAF is the fourth largest purchaser of renewable energy in the nation.

Aimone noted that one of the largest photovoltaic farms in the world is being built at Nellis AFB, Nev. This sun-powered system will generate up to 18 megawatts of power. Luke AFB, Ariz., March ARB, Calif., and several smaller installations also have buildings with photovoltaic systems.

All recognize, however, that the Air Force has to do something to cut back on its use of petroleum. “Reducing DOD Fossil-Fuel Dependence,” a September 2006 report prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, says that energy costs comprise about three percent of the military’s annual spending.

That, however, is the average for all DOD activities: The share for mobility and combat aircraft is significantly higher.

Even in peacetime, the Air Force’s mobility fleet is flying every day, moving people and supplies across the globe, racking up 42 percent of the service’s energy costs. Officials at Air Mobility Command, Scott AFB, Ill., report that the mobility fleet used about $1.3 billion worth of jet fuel in Fiscal 2005 and $1.8 billion for 2006. Expenditures in the first quarter of Fiscal 2007—$530 million—put AMC on pace to surpass the $2 billion mark.

Just behind AMC’s use is that of Air Combat Command, the service’s main operator of combat aircraft. ACC’s fighter fleet each year accounts for about 22 percent of the Air Force’s energy bill. ACC’s long-range bomber operations account for another six percent of the total.

Indeed, a whopping 80 percent of the Air Force’s fuel costs are attributable to aviation operations—training, exercises, and deployments. Traditionally, this area has been off-limits to budget cutters.

Aimone said, “For most of my 37-year career in the Air Force, when we approached the subject of energy conservation, it was around facilities operations and vehicle operations.” In short, no one wanted to touch flying.

First Lt. Katherine R. Kebisek, a public affairs officer at AMC, noted that fluctuations in fuel prices make it difficult to reliably predict costs. Each day, she said, AMC missions consume about 2.5 million gallons of JP-8. Planning for surge contingencies such as a Katrina-like situation must be done above the command level.

With oil prices lingering at high levels, though, the Air Force has slowly begun moving to manage operational consumption, too. Usage of JP-8 fuel, particularly in training operations, is under scrutiny.

Running the Numbers

In September 2005, the Air Force was paying around $1.74 per gallon for JP-8, said Sheila Flemings, an ACC flying hour cost program analyst. The total amount of fuel consumed by ACC in Fiscal 2005 was some 501 million gallons, Flemings said, coming out at over $747 million in JP-8 aviation fuel costs.

Since then, fuel costs have risen by roughly one-third, even as the overall budgets have grown tighter.

The result is reduced funding for flying hours to train aircrews. Flying commands have set minimum requirements for aircrew training, according to John Cilento, an ACC flying hour program analyst.

“It is an issue,” said Gen. Ronald E. Keys, ACC commander. “It’s always an issue.”

Col. Eric Best, chief of ACC flight operations, told Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot that pilots are encouraged to land when a training mission is completed, even if it ends early, rather than continue flying until allotted time expires.

In addition, said Best, operators are being encouraged to make more frequent use of simulators, though everyone realizes the systems can replicate only part of the flight experience.

Indeed, the Air Force Flying Hour Program budget is slated to be reduced by around 10 percent each year from Fiscal 2008 until 2013. One big reason is high fuel cost. The result, ACC officials say, is less training and lower combat readiness.

The Air Force is engaged in an ambitious project aimed at using natural gas as a jet fuel, hoping that, over the long term, dependence on JP-8 could be reduced.

The project today is in the test phase, and the central element is a B-52 bomber used as a test article. It was sent from Edwards AFB, Calif., to Minot AFB, N.D., on Jan. 17, its goal being to perform cold-weather testing while using a mix of synthetic fuel derived from coal shale. (See “Aerospace World: B-52 Flies on Synthetic Fuel Blend,” February, p. 27.)

USAF procured 100,000 gallons of US-manufactured blended synthetic jet fuel, which it successfully tested on the ground and in the air. The 5th Bomb Wing bomber earlier had flown with a mix of synthetic fuel and regular aviation fuel, eventually flying tests with synthetic fuel in all eight engines. USAF researchers are analyzing test data now.

Gen. Bruce Carlson, head of Air Force Materiel Command, explained that the Air Force chose a B-52 because “it has eight engines, so, if this is a catastrophic failure, we’ll shut down two and land and won’t even declare an emergency.” The bomber experienced no unusual problems.

The Air Force is working toward full certification of a 50-50 blend in the B-52 by early 2008.

Carlson indicated that with good results, the program may expand to other aircraft. “We’ll probably go on and fly maybe a [KC-135], maybe a T-38, and move on from there.”

The Air Force leadership is already pushing fuel experimentation on the mobility fleet, given that it is a source of high fuel costs. “If we want to get the biggest bang for the buck, I suggest we go into the transports,” Aimone said.

Carlson said he first caught wind that change was coming during a meeting with Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne. Not long after he took office, Wynne informed Carlson that he wanted “to look at a program to wean us off oil” and it had to start “right now,” recalled Carlson.

Wynne made it clear that he meant business. In a September 2006 letter to airmen, he said moving toward energy independence is a critical element to ensuring US economic and national security in the long run.

“Just a $10 increase in a barrel of oil costs the Air Force almost $600 million a year—money better spent fighting the GWOT or recapitalizing our aging fleet,” Wynne wrote.

Undersecretary of the Air Force Ronald M. Sega was tapped as the force’s “energy executive” and went to work articulating an official service strategy.

Sega’s approach was simple: Make energy use a major consideration in every service action, Aimone recalled. It should factor into how airmen “preplan the next aircraft flight, what we load in the airplane as cargo or fuel,” Aimone said of Sega’s strategy. “It may not be the consideration, but it will be a consideration.”

Sega, who came to the job after heading up DOD’s research and engineering efforts, plunged into the project—even serving as a crew member onboard the experimental B-52 during its maiden flight test in September.

The synthetic fuel used in the test is derived from natural gas, Sega explained in a meeting with reporters. It relies on the so-called “Fischer-Tropsch” process, which can produce usable fuel from coal or shale oil.

New Fuels, New Strategy

William E. Harrison, an engineer with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s propulsions directorate, said his organization has been working on the science behind F-T fuels, looking at basic properties and exploring the suitability and feasibility of using them on Air Force platforms. The fuels, he explained, are clean and feature significantly fewer particulates than is the case with traditional oil-based aviation fuel.

The F-T process, in essence, removes the compounds and sulfur from fuel. During lab testing with a T63 turbine engine, AFRL discovered a significant reduction in exhaust and excellent low temperature properties—a major factor in flying at higher altitudes and keeping fuel stable. The associated dirt, grime, and soot of hydrocarbons disappear and result in lower maintenance costs.

“Imagine an engine that can run 40,000 hours without soot cleanout,” Aimone said.

Carlson said USAF has established within its lab an enhanced program to closely examine synthetic fuels—specifically fuels made from coal, natural gas, corn, and other bio-products. Early work on such projects was “basic science,” he said. Now, the challenge is to get the science to work in the real world.

Trading off JP-8 for synthetic fuels can be tricky. Air Force researchers have been contacting countries experienced in the use of synthetic fuels. Some of these have extensive knowledge about its effects on engines, seals, and pumps.

Sega noted that Air Force Research Laboratory scientists are working to get greater efficiency out of aircraft engines, as well as conducting research to increase efficiencies on the airframe itself.

Simply put, the Air Force wants to insulate itself against the growing instability of global energy prices, noted senior leaders who spoke at a fuel symposium in January.

“Just as the Department of Defense played a critical role in forging the information revolution in past decades, we must play a similar vital role in fueling the energy revolution in coming decades,” said Maj. Gen. Charles E. Stenner Jr., assistant deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, on the Air Staff.

Air Force leaders are cautious about making predictions about their ability to spark broad-scale change.

“If we were to get all of our airplanes flying on synthetic fuel,” Carlson observed, “we still wouldn’t generate a market that anybody would want to buy into. Nobody would want to [take on] the multibillion-dollar investment just to sell gas to the US Air Force.”

Carlson said Wynne wants to effectively demonstrate new technology and work to partner with private industry, potentially an airline, and begin to generate interest at the national level.

On March 8-9, the Air Force hosted an energy forum in the Washington, D.C., area. Officials sought to provide a better understanding of USAF’s energy initiatives, programs, and strategies and to build on its efforts to link up military research with the forces of demand and supply.

As Wynne this year told an audience at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla.: “We desire to engage the debate on energy to see if there’s an opportunity to change the world view that we operate in. … We recognize that defense will always have a call on the nation’s resources, but we should minimize our impact and maybe even spark a different future.”