But, part of the problem is not just about the supply routes. It’s the energy sources themselves and the accommodation they require that puts troops at risk. The Department of Defense has been considering renewable sources of energy over the course of the war as resupply trips became increasingly deadly. This is evidenced by their most recent advancement in signing a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Energy to implement renewable energy projects on military bases.
“Every time you cut back down on supply convoys you give the enemy one less opportunity to attack U.S. soldiers in one of their more vulnerable states,” said Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Drew Sloan, who is now a client solutions associate at the energy solutions company OPower.
One in 24 soldiers overall are either killed or injured in energy resupply missions, Sloan said. Transporting energy supplies from Pakistan to Afghanistan is a lengthy period of exposure for troops involved in such operations, thus making them vulnerable to insurgent attacks.
There have been numerous reports over the years that say attacks on U.S. convoys have either increased or declined. But whether such attacks are frequent or not, they are definitely one of the biggest killers of U.S. troops. Steven Anderson, a retired brigadier general who served as chief logistician for Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, tells NPR that at least 1000 U.S. troops have died in convoys.
“The enemy is resourceful, but they’re also limited in number. They need to make the biggest bang for their buck,” Sloan said.
The biggest bang in this case implies to the lethality of fuel tankers or diesel generators being hit by mortar and IED attacks. The smallest piece of shrapnel could ignite the fuel and cause devastating causalities, but renewable energy sources don’t necessarily pose the same threat.
Sloan recalled one instance when solar panels at a U.S. forward operational base in Afghanistan got hit by mortar shrapnel. The panels didn’t explode like trucks or generators would, and even continued to work after being damaged.
The testing and implementation of solar blankets, fuel cells, biofuels, and other alternatives for onsite sources of energy are in the works, but are not yet mainstream in military operations. Michael Breen, vice president of the Truman National Security Project, who also served as a captain in the army in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that energy solutions are only one piece of the puzzle.
“This is isn’t a silver bullet problem where there’s one solution, this is silver buckshot where there’s many solutions. Fortunately that’s the way the military is looking at this,” Breen said.
The memorandum of understanding between the Department of Defense and the Department of energy is an example of one of these buckshot solutions. Their most prominent collaborative project is the implementation of 18 fuel cell backup power systems across the country.
“The focus on reliable power is central to the partnership between the two agencies, because supports the military’s national security mission,” said a Department of Energy spokesperson.
The fuel cell systems to be installed will be used for different purposes, such as providing backup power for Department of Defense 911 call centers, telecommunications services, and certain buildings and bases.
“The competence and all the research capabilities that exist in both agencies will definitely benefit the military, but more broadly it will benefit our national security by bringing these alternative sources of energy to domestic markets and curbing the U.S.’s reliance on foreign oil,” Breen said.