The United States Navy may be laboring under a congressional ban on biofuel purchases that cost more than bargain basement fossil fuels, but no one said the Navy can’t burn the biofuel it’s already got. And that’s important because if you look at history, Congress generally loosens its military purse strings only when it fears falling behind US rivals, of which at least one and possibly more are currently known or suspected of working on naval biofuels.
That’s the kind of competition that once brought the US military congressional funding for jet engines, ballistic missiles, nuclear submarines, nuclear weapons, space stations, the Internet, and the countless other strategic advantages the nation’s armed forces enjoy today. Now, thanks to the upcoming war games in the Pacific, the US armed forces may get funding for biofuels as well.
Nothing could bring that day closer than the upcoming naval exercise to be held off the Hawaiian islands from June 29 to August 3, known as the Rim of the Pacific Fleet Exercises, or RIMPAC War Games. The setting of the movie “Battleship”, RIMPAC is a competitive war simulation in which participating fleets and naval vessels attempt to outmaneuver and “sink” each others’ ships, winning or losing tactical points in the RIMPAC scoring system.
The US Pacific Fleet typically turns in top scores at RIMPAC, but this year all eyes will be on the Fleet’s Green Strike Group consisting of the nuclear carrier Nimitz, its camelina-biofueled jet aircraft and the three biofueled ships of the Strike Group, the guided-missile cruiser Princeton and the destroyers Chung-Hoon and Chaffee, all three burning a blend of algal biofuel and diesel. According to RIMPAC tradition the officers of the allied navies will visit aboard each others’ ships during the exercise and the Green Strike Group is already this year’s “hot ticket.”
Two allied navies, Japan’s and Australia’s, are known to be working on naval biofuels and there are rumors are of similar Chinese efforts given the nation’s fast-growing biofuels production capacity and recent altercations with US-allied navies in the South China Sea. The strategic advantages these and other nations are seeking from naval biofuels include greater range at sea due to the ability to make fuel aboard ship from food waste–as the US Navy has been doing for the past three years–and from algal biomass as recently demonstrated during the voyage of the container ship Maersk Kalmar from Germany to India. The greater range and self sufficiency of biofueled ships results in more time on patrol at sea and less vulnerability to attack in port, the leading cause of military ship losses and crew fatalities in recent years.
By the conclusion of this year’s RIMPAC the US Navy’s existing biofuel stocks will have been depleted at the same time its allies and enemies alike are waking up to the conclusion that biofuels as a strategic necessity. Some in the US Northwest including Washington state governor Christine Gregoire, are already putting pressure on Congress to fund biofuels and support the leadership position currently held by the US Navy. Incitements to war are multiplying in the Pacific Fleet’s “back yard.” The Navy won’t need to convince Congress to fund biofuels. Its allies, its enemies and the force of events will do that just as they did in the arms race that followed World War II.
Joelle Brink is an associate editor for Biofuels Digest.
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