Fuel Costs Biting USAF As It Seeks Alternatives
The rising cost of fuel has received extensive coverage and military attention of late. This includes US Air Combat Command (ACC) officials, who are reportedly bracing for a “budget crisis” while looking for future fuel alternatives and simulators to pick up some of the slack.
The USAF reports that it paid about $4.2 billion for petroleum in FY 2005, with JP-8 jet fuel at $1.74/gallon and BP as the #1 fuel provider among many thanks to its lowest-cost bid. That was still almost $1.4 billion more than fiscal 2004, and more than the $3.57 billion spent on petroleum in FY 2005 by the US Army, Navy and Marines combined. Indeed, ACC reportedly faced an FY 2005 shortfall of $825 million in must-pay funds.
Recent prices reflect a 31% jump to about $2.53 per gallon, and there are consequences…
One key consequence is reduced funding available for flying hours used to train aircrews, which were based on minimum requirements. Indeed, The USAF Flying Hour Program budget will be reduced by 10% each year from FY 2008 – 2013, even as demand in India & China and global conflicts could continue to push petroleum prices ever-higher.
Training is a critical element of air force effectiveness. While the pace of the global war will help to offset some of the training hours lost with combat hours gained, the replacement is not 1:1 because the tasks are likely to be different. The scope of the trends thus raises fears of a “hollow force” similar to the late 1970s USA.
While insiders in the Pentagon and groups like the Congressional Defense Energy Working Group grapple with issues like this, and outside groups like the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) and the Energy Security Leadership Council mobilize, some solutions are presenting themselves. Their common denominator, however, is a significant up-front investment.
One answer to the problem could be high-fidelity simulators. Moore’s Law continues to raise available computing power per dollar, and rapid growth in networking and many-participant simulations on both the military and commercial fronts allows simulators to conduct full-teamwork missions.
Nations like Britain are already adopting this approach on a limited basis, as is the USA via programs like the T-45TS Goshawk naval aviation trainer, new Super Hornet simulators, the Army’s AVCATT helicopter simulators, et. al. Stepping it up would require significant up-front investment, however, if it’s really expected to provide a substitute for flight training hours.
Which of course raises the other issue – that no simulation perfectly represents reality, and therefore that some benefits of real flight hours cannot ever be fully replaced. Even as one grants that other skills can be honed far beyond what normal training would allow.
Another potential solution under investigation is the coal-to-jet-fuel initiative, similar to the efforts undertaken in World War II but requiring higher test fuels. A B-52 Stratofortress from the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base, ND, is scheduled for a test flight during September 2006 in which 2 of its 8 engines will run on a mixture of this synthetic fuel [UPDATE: this took place successfully].
The United States has a coal reserve of about 500 billion tons according to the National Mining Association, and the coal-produced synthetics actually burn cleaner and emit less pollution than conventional jet fuel. Nevertheless, test results remain to be seen, the process as a whole will receive significant environmental scrutiny, and it’s likely to take over a decade and tens of billions of dollars to create an infrastructure of synfuel plants.
Choices, choices… and depending on the future course of the global war and the global economy, these choices could get tighter still.
- Air University Review (July-Aug 1981) – The Role of Synthetic Fuel