Army aims to get a handle on battlefield fuel usage

The Army is rolling out a new software system at more than three-dozen bases across Afghanistan that promises to provide some of the best information yet to the Defense Department about where energy goes during war.

Ringing in at about $4 million in a department that spent $15 billion on fuel last year, the Tactical Fuel Manager program is being lauded by Pentagon officials who have bumped up against huge data problems as they try to figure out how to cut energy use on the battlefield without affecting the military's fighting ability.

"You can't manage what you can't measure," Sharon Burke, the assistant secretary of Defense in charge of operational energy, said in June when her office released its first battlefield energy strategy (Greenwire, June 15). "We want a better sense of where to target our efforts."

The need to measure fuel is acute. Last year an Army staff sergeant stationed in Afghanistan was able to steal nearly $1.5 million worth of fuel over a three-month period before anyone noticed.

That incident won former Army Staff Sgt. Stevan Nathan Ringo 90 days' worth of jail time. It also lit a fire under the Pentagon to come up with a better way of tracking energy and catching theft.


It did not take much for Ringo to pull off his scheme, said Col. Phillip VonHoltz, commander of the Army Petroleum Center. On the battlefield, the Army has used a system of hard-copy paperwork to track where fuel comes and goes.

Ringo, who at the time supervised the fueling station at Forward Operating Base Shank in eastern Afghanistan, simply filled out two sets of papers. One set, which was filed away at the base, showed the number of trucks that had been filled up with fuel. If, for instance, his station filled six tankers, Ringo might then write up a second set of paperwork that was sent with the drivers showing that only four trucks had been loaded.

"The guy at the receiving station would check the paperwork the driver brought and see four trucks listed and say, 'four trucks delivered, we're green,'" VonHoltz said. "Meanwhile, the other two trucks would go off to the black market."

The military's hard-copy system meant someone would have had to go to the base and dig through reams of paper in order to catch fraud like Ringo's.

It also meant that no one could look across a camp, let alone all of the operations in Afghanistan, to see how how energy-intensive different systems and operations are. Today, no one is quite sure how much fuel is going into generators that run computers and air condition tents, versus how much is getting poured into the gas tanks of Humvees and aircraft.

Fielding the new system

The Tactical Fuel Manager system the Army has so far deployed to 26 bases across Afghanistan does not solve the problem for the military, but it does get DOD energy managers to the next rung of detail. Whereas good data used to stop at the point of delivery -- the spot on the battlefield where the military's energy agency sold the fuel to the services -- these new systems are designed to give the military information about how much fuel gets put into what types of equipment.

At the bases where the fuel management system has been deployed, the hard-copy paperwork that a team like Ringo's has filled out gets entered into a software program similar to Microsoft Excel at the end of the day.

And the second round of energy-tracking technology that the Army began rolling out in Afghanistan last week, called an Automated Data Capture Device, cuts out the paperwork altogether. Instead, the servicemember manning a fuel station simply scans a barcode on the side of a Humvee or a fuel truck and types in how much fuel was just poured into its tank.

For both systems, the data ultimately gets uploaded so that higher-ups can comb through for red flags that might signal fraud or parse the data to learn what types of equipment are drinking the most fuel.

"A big thing we're going to know for sure is what percentage of fuel is going toward installation energy, which is just a way of talking about generators and air conditionings, compared to the operational piece of it -- what percentage of that is going into helicopters and tactical vehicles," VonHoltz said.

Even better, says Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Energy Richard Kidd, will be the data the military gets when the fuel manager system gets paired with information collected by black boxes in vehicles.

Most Humvees, tanks and mine resistant ambush protected vehicles currently on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan don't have onboard diagnostics like the black boxes, but many of the new vehicles the Army is purchasing do. Vehicles that go into the shop for maintenance and repairs are also sometimes retrofitted.

"Over time we will be able to match information about how the unit was used with this energy data," Kidd said.

By pairing the two sets of data, the military could learn things like which systems on a tank use the most energy and how soldiers use vehicles differently on the battlefield than they do in training. That information would allow commanders to make energy-informed decisions about everything from whether to have the air conditioning cranked up in all of the tents at all times to which of a tank's systems should be turned on at what time.

An initial study by the Army has already yielded some surprises. Researcher Scott Kilby tracked fuel usage in Army vehicles over a five-year period and found that, on average, they spent 50 to 80 percent of their time idling. On the battlefield, soldiers may choose to keep a tank running in order to keep radar or weapons systems operational -- or because they want to charge their iPods. That's the sort of difference the Pentagon cares about.

It may sound unlikely that wartime commanders will worry about things like when an engine is turned on and off, but Gen. David Petraeus doesn't think it's too much to ask. Before he stepped down as lead of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Petraeus told commanders they would be held responsible for exactly that.

"I expect commanders to take ownership of unit fuel demand," Petraeus wrote in a June 7 memo to all military personnel in the country. "This 'operational energy' is the lifeblood of our warfighting capabilities and a key enabler of coalition operations in Afghanistan."

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