The doctrine of energy maneuver: Hurricane Harvey gives a lesson on diversifying fuel supply

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As the battered but game residents of Houston drain and repair their battered city, US gasoline prices spike on fears of a refinery crunch. North Korea has conducted an underground test of a hydrogen bomb they claim to be able to couple to an intercontinental ballistic missile, and the US Navy announces an expansion of patrols in the South China Seas, we can all take stock for a moment of US biofuels-producing capacity.

We live in dangerous times, but they can be made less dangerous by a geographic expansion and diversification of Western fuel refining assets, and the development of a doctrine of energy maneuver that is the companion of the maneuver of troops and units.

Mobile and responsive: the West’s strategic advantage in fuel technology

Because of recent investments in this fuels platform, the West ha gained a strategic advantage.  The West  can make fuel in a lot of places it wasn’t able to before, and that takes some pressure off existing production assets like Houston and transport bottlenecks like the Strait of Malacca. The Strait is just a few miles wide, carries a huge amount of the world’s liquid energy trade, and was shut down to free trade a number of times in its history.

The US mail always gets through, but not always fuel. Diversification is important.

The US Navy and the Western alliance has many strategic and tactical advantages at sea, but one of them is definitely the fact that its ships can run not only on petroleum, but a wide swath of biofuels and petroleum blends. When petroleum runs short, it can be conserved without an impact on operations by blending in more biofuels.

Fuels and battle

The lack of fuel has been known to turn battles. The Axis ran out of fuel in World War Two at the Battle of the Bulge. As Evan Andrews writes:

The Nazi high command built their battle plans around capturing American fuel depots during their advance. Allied forces evacuated or burned millions of gallons of gas to prevent it falling into enemy hands, however, and by Christmas many German tank units were running on fumes. With no way to continue the advance across the Meuse River, the counterattack soon crumbled.

But there’s more. Patton ran out of fuel before he could cross the Rhine in 1944. The Axis outran its fuel supplies on the Russian front in 1941-42. Offensives are powered not only by great generals and heroes, but by logistics and energy supply. It’s one of the reasons that forward troops are now routinely equipped with miniature solar capacity to power their batteries and communications. It extends operations and is a force multiplier.

Energy powers weapons, transport, communications — even clean water and the supply of food — in the field. The ability to stretch energy resources is a force multiplier of the first magnitude, and the Western allies can run on this extended basis because the US Department of Defense, Energy and Agriculture have been preparing for this. Not every foe around the world can extend their fuel supplies and revamp their supply lines when there are threats to petroleum assets.

Petroleum assets: fixed undefended positions in a sped-up world

Moreover, biofuels are mobile. You can grow them almost anywhere. Petroleum assets are static and almost impossible to defend against modern offensive weaponry unless the defenders have a massive advantage in air and at sea. Because it is not only easy to target petroleum assets because they are in known places with known strategic weaknesses that can be studied and exploited at leisure — the supply lines leading out of them are known, static and vulnerable.

A former Australian defense minister, Jim Killen, once quipped that Australia could be successfully invaded by Indonesia “with a phone call on a Sunday morning”, because Australia simply had too many fixed, vulnerable invasion points along its northern coasts and it was impossible to defend them all against the numbers that an invader  from the north — whatever the country — might bring to bear.

But there’s one potential saving grace for Australia and its strategic ports, airfields and communication points — and that is, the potential to interdict fuel supply across the Timor and Coral Sea, and leave an aggressor from the north unable to move troops and supplies.

Lessons from Dunkirk

As you may have noted from the narrative of this summer’s blockbuster, Dunkirk, one reason for the miracle of deliverance for the trapped Allies in 1940 was the decision by Adolf Hitler to avoid committing his Panzers to an attack on the rearguard defending the beach. Hitler was concerned that the Panzers would be trapped in the soft soils near the beach in rainy season, and mobility is the key to keeping, rather than losing, tanks. And, the Luftwaffe was confident that it could command the air and decimate the troops.

That they were unable to do so turned on the British governments ability to bring its planes for more sorties over the French coast — that’s more energy at work. Plus, the government’s ability to mobilize its mosquito fleet of small boats to make runs to the beach and bring troops to the larger ships that could not reach the trapped soldiers directly. That’s energy at work, also.

Had Britain stuck with its ample and traditional domestic fuel source — that’s British coal — the small boats simply wouldn’t have had the range for the voyage to Dunkirk and the extended operations there. And, refueling would have been a nightmare, as there were virtually no coaling stations along the Channel beaches and none under Allied control. Energy diversity was just one factor at Dunkirk, but it was a potent one.

The unsung heroes of Guadalcanal’s narrow victory

The allied victory at Guadalcanal was a narrow business and it was a nasty battle, and the Allies could not have won the fight without the control of Henderson Field, and the fighting was terrible for control of the land around the airstrip. But some of the most heroic actions of the battle are baldy overlooked, except on little-read tomes like Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of Naval Operations in the Second World War, where the heroism of the fleet oilers was noted. There was little point to controlling Henderson Field without the ability to supply aviation gasoline and it had to be delivered to the beach.

One of the heroes of Task Group 62.9 during February 1943 in the capture and defense of Guadalcanal, was the Task Groups’ ability, via fleet oilers such as the USS Patuxent, to supply fuels.

But these were hazardous operations of the highest order. Consider that the Patuxent later was later knocked out of action two days before the invasion of Iwo Jima by an “internal explosion in the paint locker on the foc’sle”.  Had the US forces had the ability to operate on biofuels, they could have been been grown, refined and stored on the island.

Consider also that the very first commercial jet biofuels test flight by Virgin Atlantic nearly ten years ago used coconut oil, and coconuts are the most important crop in the Solomon Islands. Imagine the possibilities if the Allies back then had been able to utilize aviation biofuels to extend their operations, project force, and depend less on the fleet oilers.

Dangerous bottlenecks of the energy trade

The South China Sea is a dangerous part of the world right now — off the radar of most people in the United States more focused on issues such as Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath, or the back to school season or the advent of fall sports. But the South China Sea is dangerous because it is a vital trade corridor and primarily because of the energy trade.

The world is made less dangerous every time we diversify our energy sourcing, and every time we convert static energy assets, like fixed oil fields and wells, into mobile energy assets. We all remember the incursions of ISIS into the oil fields, and we all remember the oil fields set on fire by Iraqi forces.

The doctrine of energy manuver

Maneuver is one lifeblood of military success — and the doctrine of energy maneuver, which is to put the energy to a disadvantage through the flexible application of energy production and supply — is not yet well studied but is a factor in martial success and the advancement of national goals through the projection of power.