IN SEPTEMBER 2010, a company of U.S. Marines entered Sangin District, an area in Afghanistan’s Helmand province that had seen some of the most intense, protracted fighting of the war. Their mission was to relieve British forces and launch an aggressive effort to clear and calm the area, which was, as the military is wont to say, “highly kinetic.” India Company, from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, lost more than two dozen soldiers in the first four months of combat.
Early on in the fighting, First Lieutenant Josef Patterson, India 3/5’s second platoon commander, took a small force south to clear a route into the Sangin River Valley. They established a patrol base, but for two months the area remained so volatile that fuel convoys couldn’t reach it. Without fuel or battery resupply, the team could have been left with no way to run generators or power radios or computers—a potentially crippling situation. Even in smaller numbers, today’s -Marines are considerably more lethal than their predecessors, mostly due to the flexibility enabled by constant connectivity. As Patterson later explained, “If I don’t have comm with my troops and my higher-ups, I am lost.”
But the soldiers of India 3/5 had another source of power: the sun. Specifically, they had a ground-renewable expeditionary energy system (Greens): four portable modules that fold out into two large solar panels each, all connected to a power cell to store the energy overnight. During field operations away from the patrol base, each Marine also carried a solar portable alternative communications energy system (Spaces), an 64-square-inch flexible solar panel lightweight enough (about 2.5 pounds) to be rolled up and stowed in a pack. Normally, a patrol carries enough batteries to last three or four days—20 to 35 pounds for each grunt—and is dependent on frequent and dangerous resupplies. But with the packable solar panels, says Patterson, his patrol of 35 soldiers shed 700 pounds. “We stayed out for three weeks and didn’t need a battery resupply once,” he says.
Two of India 3/5’s forward patrol bases, in fact, were powered entirely by solar for the duration of the seven-month mission. “We were the only company that had sufficient energy the entire time,” says Captain Stephen Cooney, the mission’s commanding officer.
India Company’s pioneering field deployment of renewable energy represents the leading edge of a rapidly expanding effort by the Marines to make its soldiers nimbler and more self-sufficient. They’re not alone: every branch of the armed forces is working to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels, driven by an increasing preoccupation with rising costs, dependence on hostile oil regimes, and the destabilizing threat of climate change. But in the past two years, the Marine Corps has been particularly aggressive, bulling through the usual government bureaucracy in pursuit of immediate battlefield advantage. “It’s pretty extraordinary,” says Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. “They have gone very fast.”
At a moment when renewable-energy development faces stiff political and economic headwinds, jarheads are making a powerful case for the practical benefits of going green. “To the Marine Corps, it isn’t about money or global warming,” says Colonel Bob Charette, the hard-charging head of the Marines’ two-year-old Expeditionary Energy Office. “It’s about saving lives.”
THE TACTICAL NEED to reduce reliance on fossil fuels is not new to the Pentagon. In 2003, at the outset of the second Iraq war, General James Mattis commanded the 1st Marine Division during the initial drive to Baghdad. He found himself repeatedly outrunning his own fuel resupply lines, forcing him to slow down to remain fully powered. In a post-combat report that has since become a touchstone for military analysts, he called on the Department of Defense to “unleash us from the tether of fuel.”
Mattis’s plea served to highlight the extraordinary costs of fuel to the military in Afghanistan and Iraq—in dollars and lives. By some estimates, fully 70 percent of the convoys crisscrossing the theater of war are involved in “liquid logistics,” the delivery of fuel and water. In Afghanistan, fuel reaches the front lines via tankers and planes that cross the ocean, trucks from Tajikistan or Russia, and (sometimes) helicopters from forward bases. By the time it gets there, the fully burdened cost can reach anywhere from $30 to an astounding $400 per gallon. Then there are the casualties: one for every 24 fuel convoys, according to a 2009 report by the Army Environmental Policy Institute.