Magazine article Insight on the News

Symposium

Magazine article Insight on the News

Symposium

Article excerpt

Q: Is protecting overseas oil supplies worth risking U.S. troops?

Yes: Access to oil is crucial both for the military and economic security of the United States.

It seems we never learn. As California was rocked by electricity shortages earlier this year and gasoline prices spiraled out of sight, it appeared that energy security finally would gain an appropriate place on the national agenda. When the crises of summer evaporated in the face of increasing supplies, however, so too did the public's sense of urgency concerning energy supplies. Sadly, this left the debate about energy policy largely in the hands of ideologues from both sides of the aisle -- individuals whose arguments seem based more in theology and dogma than any genuine understanding of America's complex energy economy. Among the most disturbing of these arguments is the notion that energy is not a ,vital national-security concern.

Nothing could be further from the troth. Throughout the 20th century, the importance in modern warfare of energy -- and particularly petroleum -- steadily increased.

The stage was set during World War I with the introduction of innovations such as tanks, aircraft and, particularly, oil-powered ships. The brainchild of legendary British admiral "Jackie" Fisher and his political ally Winston Churchill, the introduction of a so-called "fast division" of oil-powered "Elizabeth"-class battleships gave Britain an advantage in range and speed that ensured its dominance of the seas. So important was this innovation that it led war minister Lord Curzon to comment that the Allies "floated to victory on a wave of oil."

By the time the world again plunged into conflict oil emerged as perhaps the most critical military commodity. It was an essential element of new strategies that emphasized speed and mobility. As a consequence, access to petroleum supplies was more than just a logistical concern; it even became a factor contributing to the outbreak of conflict. Japan's move into Southeast Asia and Germany's invasion of Poland, for example, both were aimed at securing new oil supplies. As critical as energy supplies were during the first half of the 20th century, however, their importance paled in comparison to what was to come.

In the years following World War II, the increase in mechanization, coupled with an accompanying growth in the reliance on air power, brought with it a corresponding rise in the need for petroleum-based fuels. The extent of the change in requirements has been dramatic. A few facts illustrate this point:

* A contemporary 17,500-man U.S. Army armored division uses twice as much oil on a daily basis as an entire 200,000-man field army during World War II.

* The roughly 450,000 barrels of petroleum products consumed daily by our 582,000-man force in the Persian Gulf War was four times the daily total used by the entire 2 million-man Allied Expeditionary Force that liberated Europe from the Nazis.

* Today, it takes eight times as much oil to meet the needs of each soldier that it did during World War II.

In fact, today the Department of Defense accounts for nearly 80 percent of all U.S. government energy use. More important, of that total, nearly 75 percent is accounted for by jet fuel. During the gulf war, the only reason the Allies were able to fly the roughly 10,000 air sorties mounted against Saddam Hussein was that Saudi Arabia suspended jet-fuel sales to its civilian customers and diverted all its jet-fuel production to the war effort. But meeting oil requirements for combat was not the only logistical nightmare. Just getting to the battlefield required enormous amounts of energy.

During the first 90 days of the gulf war, the United States moved more men and materiel overseas than in any corresponding period of any conflict in its history -- including both world wars and Korea. To accomplish this logistical miracle, however, the United States relied heavily on air transport, airlifting some 2,400 tons of materiel to the region each day. …

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