Gas Pains

One of the U.S. military's greatest vulnerabilities in Iraq is its enormous appetite for fuel. The insurgents have figured this out

The Department of Defense now has about 27,000 vehicles in Iraq—and every one of them gets lousy gas mileage. To power that fleet the Defense Logistics Agency must move huge quantities of fuel into the country in truck convoys from Kuwait, Turkey, and Jordan. All that fuel gives American soldiers a tremendous battlefield advantage (in communications, mobility, and firepower, among other things). But overseeing and carrying out this process requires the work of some 20,000 American soldiers and private contractors. Every day some 2,000 trucks leave Kuwait alone for various locales in Iraq.

In addition to the challenges posed by the volume of fuel needed, the Army's logisticians must deal with the sheer variety of fuels. Although the Pentagon has tried to reduce the number of fuels it consumes, and now relies primarily on a jet-fuel-like substance called JP-8, the Defense Energy Support Center is currently supplying fourteen kinds of fuel to U.S. troops in Iraq.

In short, the American GI is the most energy-consuming soldier ever seen on the field of war. For computers and GPS units, Humvees and helicopters, the modern soldier is in constant need of energy: battery power, electric power, and petroleum. The U.S. military now uses about 1.7 million gallons of fuel a day in Iraq. Some of that fuel goes to naval vessels and aircraft, but even factoring out JP-5 fuel (which is what the Navy primarily uses), each of the 150,000 soldiers on the ground consumes roughly nine gallons of fuel a day. And that figure has been rising.

Some of the rise in consumption is due to the insurgents' use of improvised explosive devices, which account for about 30 percent of all American combat deaths since the occupation began. As John Pike, the executive director of, told me, "This is a war of convoy ambushes and car bombs. There is no front line." Perhaps hundreds of American vehicles have been destroyed by IEDs (the exact number is classified), and hundreds of soldiers—many of them guarding convoys—have been killed or injured by them. (And more than sixty-five private contractors are known to have been killed by convoy attacks or IEDs since July of 2003.) Cheap, easy to use, and highly effective, IEDs have forced the Americans to add armor to their fleet of Humvees in Iraq. A fully armored Humvee weighs more than five tons—and requires a larger engine and heavier suspension than the non-armored model. The Army also recently allocated more than $500 million to add armor to its utility trucks.

The added armor will help protect U.S. soldiers from IEDs and snipers—but it also means higher fuel consumption for their vehicles. Which means, in turn, that more tanker trucks will have to be driven into Iraq—and those trucks will provide more targets for the insurgents, who have become skilled at attacking them. It's difficult to guard them all. When insurgents see that American patrols are increasing in one region, they can quickly and easily shift their attacks—on fueling stations, pipelines, truck convoys, refineries—to another region.

It's a vicious cycle: attacks on convoys produce a need for more armor, which produces a need for more fuel, which produces larger convoys, which produce more targets for attack. Over the past six months the Army and the Air Force have had to specially train more than 1,000 additional soldiers to perform convoy security. One tank commander, who returned from Iraq last spring, told me that he had been so concerned about his supply lines that he had stationed sentries at one-mile intervals along the highway in his sector.

Logistics is an old and critically important issue in war. During World War II the German general Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps was stymied in North Africa by a shortage of fuel for its tanks. A lack of gasoline also halted the gallop across France of General George Patton's Third Army in the summer of 1944. The Third Army had about 400,000 men and used about 400,000 gallons of gasoline a day. Today the Pentagon has about a third that number of troops in Iraq—yet they use more than four times as much fuel.

Given that the longer the fuel supply lines, the greater the vulnerability for our military, logic would suggest we try to reduce our fuel requirements. But over the past several decades the Pentagon has bought billions of dollars' worth of tanks, trucks, and other vehicles with little or no consideration to their fuel efficiency. In decades past, U.S. Army logisticians assumed that 50 percent of the tonnage moved onto a battlefield was ammunition, 30 percent was fuel, and the rest was food, water, and supplies. Today the fuel component may be as high as 70 percent, according to a study done in 2001 by the Defense Science Board.

The insurgents' tactics may not stop the flow of motor fuel to American troops, but they are part of the broader war that is forcing the United States and its allies in Iraqto defend every pipeline, every refinery, every tanker truck, and every fuel depot. Even in peacetime that's a difficult task.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military in Iraq is in a bind. It has no choice but to continue fortifying its vehicles with armor and pumping imported fuel into, for example, the Bradley fighting vehicle (which gets less than two miles per gallon) and the M1 Abrams tank (less than one mile per gallon). But all the fuel demanded by those armaments and vehicles creates logistical and military headaches. The tank commander I spoke to told me that soldiers on the ground are beginning to see that "the more fuel-efficient we are, the more tactically sound we are."

But U.S. military commanders seem not to see that connection. At the conclusion of its study the DSB recommended that the Pentagon make fuel efficiency a key consideration when buying new weapons systems. The Joint Chiefs of Staff dismissed the proposal in August of that year.

Richard Truly, a former astronaut who recently retired as the head of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, chaired the DSB study. "The thing we were trying to get across was that this doesn't have anything to do with moral values," Truly told me. "It has to do with running the goddamn military with as little fuel as possible and showing the advantages to the warfighter himself—so that instead of having ten fuel trucks, you can have five." Unfortunately, Truly says, the prevailing wisdom at the Pentagon is that "fuel efficiency is for sissies."