As Readiness Declines, U.S. Military Fiddles with 'Greening'

America's military faces a readiness crisis. The Marine Corps is looting aviation museums for spare parts to repair combat aircraft. The Navy is three dozen ships short of what the chief of naval operations says is necessary to meet operational requirements. Reduced training hours have led to an increase in fatal training incidents for the Army. And the Air Force is flying increasingly old and worn-out planes.

With these issues piling up for our service members, one would think our commander in chief would dedicate his final year in office to rebuilding the military. Yet throughout his presidency, Mr. Obama preferred to steer taxpayer dollars to wasteful environmental campaigns.

Global warming, he claims, is one of the greatest threats to American security — on par with North Korean nukes or terrorism. He thus "justifies" the allocation of scarce resources within the Defense Department to feel-good power projects driven by arbitrary energy consumption and production targets rather than military utility. Dubious "military" projects, such as building more solar power facilities to generate electricity on bases, provide no additional security, cost much more than conventional power sources and put the stability and security of bases at risk.

Solar power is famously unreliable. It provides consistent power only where it's consistently sunny, and of course it can't harness any power at night. Because security demands reliable power, many bases shifting to solar find they still must rely largely on conventional energy sources for power.

And building solar fields isn't the only major cost incurred by the military. Because of the way solar panels function, most military bases pursuing commercial-scale solar projects must also upgrade their power grids just to make it safe for them to handle solar. All of these expenses are being incurred at a time when conventional fuel sources are far more affordable.

This is not to say that alternative and renewable power is always a waste. In fact, the military has engaged in such practices to much success in the past. One example is the geothermal power generated by two plants at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California.

There, the Defense Department leased land to a private company that recognized the potential for producing consistent, reliable, renewable power from the Earth's heat. These plants generate 270 megawatt hours — enough power for 180,000 homes.

But what drove the renewable energy project in China Lake were free market principles, well-thought-out investments and recognition of a legitimate demand for power — not feel-good environmental crusades or political posturing.

Ironically, the Navy is forced to use some of its income from this successful renewable energy project to fund wasteful energy initiatives. Environmental regulations require the Defense Department to "reinvest" a portion of the plants' payments into solar and other initiatives aimed at meeting arbitrary targets for renewable energy production and consumption.

The Obama administration also forces the Defense Department to spend taxpayer dollars on "renewable energy certificates." These certificates enable the department's agencies to "meet" renewable standards by essentially buying credits, without actually engaging directly in the production or consumption of renewable energy. This acts as a cap-and-trade structure internal to the military, through which taxpayer dollars are spent on symbolic pieces of paper that contribute nothing to military capability.

Certainly there is a role for renewable energy projects in the Pentagon. Some may save taxpayer dollars. Others may enhance war fighter capability. As an example of the latter, troops stationed in sunny environments have been able to use portable solar panels to recharge batteries — a practice that reduces the weight carried by combat units. Either type of initiative should be lauded and pursued by the government.

Instead, many Defense Department energy projects exist only because of mandates imposed upon our armed forces. The next commander in chief and Congress owe it to the services to give them the resources needed to reverse the growing readiness crisis. Continuing to divert defense dollars to pet environmental projects is unwise and unsafe.

About the Author

Brian Slattery Policy Analyst, Defense and Security Studies
Center for National Defense

Rachel Zissimos Research Assistant, National Defense
Center for National Defense

Originally published in The Washington Times