General Jim Mattis Goes Green?

Blog Post
Luke X. Martin/ Flickr
Dec. 21, 2016

The putative Pentagon chief, General Jim Mattis, is well known for his way with words, many of which cannot be posted on a family friendly website. One of his tamer quotations, “unleash us from the tether of fuel,” has endeared him to green activists around the country, but anyone expecting the retired Marine general to be a closet environmentalist is likely to be disappointed.

I can’t speak for General Mattis, of course, but I’m pretty sure I know what he meant by that quote -- and it was all about the military mission and warfighters, not about alternative fuels. I doubt he's opposed to a healthy environment or climate security, and having spent much of his adult life at war in the Middle East, I am sure he gets the importance of energy security all too well. But he probably doesn't think it's the Pentagon's job to push any of that, except as it applies to the mission and the warfighter.

Mattis was part of America’s initial push into Afghanistan in 2001 and also Iraq in 2003. In both battles, he had a front row seat to the military’s vast demand for fuel, which has the potential to be a “limiting factor.” It was hard to hide the location of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, for example, given the scale of the fuel supply lines. In Iraq, there weren’t always enough fuel trucks to keep up with the front line of the invading force of armored vehicles. Later, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, insurgents started targeting fuel convoys with ambushes and improvised explosive devices. And, in fact, for today’s high tech military, electricity is another vulnerability, including to cyber attacks.

And really, why wouldn’t our adversaries attack our supply lines? Combatants, particularly in an unequal fight, have waged war this way for thousands of years. In fact, the United States might not have achieved independence without such tactics.

In the last decade of war, attacks on energy supply lines never threatened overall U.S. military success in either Iraq or Afghanistan, but there were certainly costs. There was an opportunity cost, for example, as commanders had to divert combat forces to deliver or protect fuel. There was a literal cost in fuel expenses, but also in pricey contractors, who became the chief fuel suppliers. And there was a strategic cost, which can be hard to pin down. How many Afghan or Pakistani fuel truck drivers put money in the pockets of insurgents in exchange for safe passage? One 2010 Congressional investigation found that U.S. fuel contracts contributed to the toppling of the Kyrgyz government.

The most painful cost of all was in lives lost moving and guarding fuel. Now, war is always risky and Americans who join the military expect to be sent into harm’s way, but they also expect the nation’s leaders not to take that commitment lightly.

In the last eight years, the Pentagon did take some steps to cut these costs and risks. The dirty little secret about clean energy and especially climate change at the Pentagon, however, is that much of that progress was executive in nature. There’s nothing wrong with that: it’s the Commander-in-Chief’s job to set military priorities. But these changes did not necessarily reflect a bottom-up commitment of uniformed military, and some, such as the Navy’s Great Green Fleet or the recent directive on climate change, will be relatively easy to undo. But it would be tough, not to mention idiotic, to direct Indiana-based Cummins to retrofit their new military generators to be less efficient and break more often. Long-term renewable energy contracts at domestic military bases, generally financed with private money, would be expensive to unravel.

Many of these programs remain important. The high fuel demand of American forces is not the biggest concern any military commander is going to face in battle, but it has the potential to be a tactical risk, an operational vulnerability, and a strategic liability. And that is no less true in the Asia-Pacific region, an away game for the United States with long supply lines and well-armed potential adversaries. At the same time, climate change will affect water, energy, and food supplies and increase the number of high heat days, disasters, and humanitarian crises worldwide.  That might mean anything from flooding at important military bases and training ranges, to more humanitarian and disaster relief missions (including at home, as was the case in Katrina or Sandy), to instability and even conflict in severely affected regions with weak or corrupt governments.

Hopefully, efforts to improve DoD’s energy and analysis of climate as a trend shaping global stability will still look sensible to General Mattis, if not the Commander-in-Chief.  As military leaders might say, however, hope is not a strategy. States, local governments, non-governmental groups, private businesses, and other nations might want to start planning now for how to promote energy and climate security in an era without American leadership.