Charette’s orders were simple: Reduce the use of energy and bottled water on the battlefield. Find ways to generate power and purify water autonomously. Make Marines more combat effective. And do it quickly.
An assessment completed shortly before Charette’s appointment had found pervasive inefficiencies in the way electricity was being used in the field: too many generators, running at too low a capacity, with too much of the resulting power going to waste. Small forward bases with as few as 30 Marines used ten-kilowatt generators to produce one kilowatt of power, often to cool poorly insulated tents. Generators consumed more than half the 200,000 gallons of fuel a day used by Marines in Afghanistan.
Charette assembled a team on the fly, tapping representatives from the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, as well as contracting and acquisitions departments—plus, he chuckles, “lawyers to keep us out of jail, because we were moving so fast.” By December they had issued a request for information to private industry, seeking technologies that could meet battlefield requirements.
Three months later, the Marines established Experimental Forward Operating Base One (ExFOB-1), a kind of battlefield test kitchen, at Quantico, Virginia. By August 2010, Marines from India 3/5 were training there with the four technologies that made it through the gauntlet, including Greens and Spaces, along with insulating tent liners and low-power LED lights. By September they were toting solar panels through Sangin District.
“It’s an interesting challenge,” Charette reflects wryly, “to take a solar panel to a Marine and say, ‘Listen, this is going to make your life better.’”
At first, he says, his team “couldn’t get Marines to look at this stuff.” But after India 3/5 showed that the gear could power a forward base and reduce a patrol load by 700 pounds, “word spread like wildfire.” The technologies from ExFOB-1 are now being widely distributed; by early 2012, the Marine Corps expects to have them in the hands of every infantry unit in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the Expeditionary Energy Office ran ExFOB-2 in Twentynine Palms, in California’s Mojave Desert, in June. Several technologies tested there, including hybrid generators (solar with diesel backup) and solar-powered refrigerators (to cool purified water), were deployed in Afghanistan’s Helmand province with the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment in August. They are expected to fully power a battalion command operations center, a significant step up in scale from the patrol bases of India 3/5. “Young Marines have adapted to this faster than we’d ever thought,” says Charette.
The effort has covered ground so quickly in part because of the Corps’s relentless, non-ideological pragmatism. They have looked everywhere for good ideas, including the other armed services, development groups, and … Burning Man. In August, Marine Corps representatives traveled to the alternative arts festival to visit the Playagon, a camp where humanitarian-minded futurists and gear geeks, many ex-military, test disaster-relief technology in the austere conditions of the Nevada desert.