Future Proofing Defence Capability – Food for Thought


A recent article in The Independent on Sunday, 2nd August, highlighted the current problems with UK’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan.  With regard to this deployment, the British Ambassador to Washington, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, commented that UK forces could be there for ‘decades’.  By decades it is reasonable to assume that Sir Nigel means timescale of twenty to thirty years as British troops were on the streets of Ulster for a similar timescale.  So, with regards to Sir Nigel’s suggestion, is it plausible to expect UK troops to be patrolling Helmand Province for the next twenty to thirty years?  The answer is resolutely no; public opinion, rising casualties and the cost of such an operation to support what is undeniably a failed nation, will put paid to the Afghanistan conflict long before that, whatever the political or moral desires may be

Even if the UK decided to maintain such a lengthy commitment there is one singular reason why it would be unfeasible, and that reason is oil.  This is not due to the fact that Afghanistan has oil, it doesn’t, or whether the oil/gas companies want to drive a pipeline through it, that will make no difference whatsoever.  It is down to the simple fact that global oil production has peaked, as such the current supply will slowly deplete and with it the petroleum and lubricants that keeps our armed forces mobile.  It would be easy at this point to predict some kind of Malthusian catastrophe or apocalyptic outcome; however, I shall avoid that subject as there are plenty of sites on the web proposing those without this one joining the fray.

The ‘peak oil’ prediction that I am highlighting was first purported by Dr M King Hubbert, he predicted the year of peak U.S oil production and was about one year out, not bad seeing as his calculation was made around 1956; he then utilised his calculations to predict global peak oil production.  The product of his prediction was a bell-shaped graph and the year of the peak was on or around 2006, we have therefore passed the point of peak oil production and from hereon in the quantity of oil available as a global resource will diminish.  If the decline accurately follows the line of the graph, world oil production will be at 90% of present capacity by 2019.  That may not set many alarm bells ringing until you consider that the oil crisis of the early 1970’s was due to a drop in production of just 5%.  Although Dr Hubbert has passed away, the baton has been picked up and championed by Kenneth S. Deffeyes, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, USA.  Professor Deffeyes is not an environmentalist he’s a geologist and has spent the greater part of his life searching for oil.

As with most predictions, there are no hard and fast rules as to when the oil will run out; in fact the oil doesn’t need to completely run out it just needs to fall below a level sufficient to maintain an acceptable level of economic output.  So, whether it is in thirty years or in fifty years time, that is dependent on the rate of consumption, what is certain is that at the present rate it definitely will, sooner or later.  Although thirty years may not seem like a long time, the effects of the restrictions in oil supply will start to be felt, even by the average consumer.  One should appreciate that the current low oil prices are driven by a drop in global demand due to the credit crunch rather than surplus supplies; Saudi Arabia announced in 2003 that their production has peaked and they cannot increase supply to control prices and there are no new Kuwaiti style oil fields waiting to be discovered.

So, how does this affect defence?  At this time the UK armed forces are highly dependent on petroleum and oil based lubricants; to counter the threat of a future restriction in oil supply, they must reduce this dependency in all aspects to remain as effective in the future as they are now.  In addition to this, maintaining access to a continuous oil supply over the forthcoming decades will be one of the primary driving forces behind UK foreign policy.

Unfortunately, one area where the Government is not reducing dependency is the proposed acquisition of the two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers.  For all of their advanced technology the propulsion systems on these vessels will still utilise a combination of gas turbines and diesel engines which are by their very nature, oil-dependent.  Their engines may be described as the most fuel efficient of their generation but they will still guzzle fuel at an alarming rate, as will the aircraft deployed upon them.  The only viable answer it would seem would be to go for a nuclear powered option; unfortunately this was discounted at an early stage on the grounds of cost.  To put this into perspective, the carriers themselves are estimated to enter service between 2016 and 2018 just in time for the first predicted major oil shock.  It will probably be around this time that the Government will realise that going for the non-nuclear, oil-dependent option was something of a bad idea.  We can expect the carriers to be in service for around 25 to 30 years, by which time the oil reserves will have been depleted even further and become an even greater cause for concern.  Meanwhile the UK’s nuclear submarine fleet would continue to deploy, being less dependent on oil they would not suffer from the same limitations.

The Government are well aware of problems of peak oil, although they tend not to use the same language as Professor Deffeyes.  If you substitute the term ‘Climate Change’ with ‘Peak Oil’ you will get as idea how seriously the Government is taking this issue.  Unfortunately the general public at large have yet to pick up on the idea; the only ones who seem to have a clear view of what is coming are the environmentalist groups and the general population still seems to regard them with some suspicion.  To give you an idea how much the general public regards the issue of peak oil, a friend of mine has just recently purchased a 2.8 litre BMW coupe; I feel he gives the subject very little thought.

Thankfully, a number of defence companies are proactively making the move to reducing oil dependence, QinetiQ have recently flown Zephyr, their solar powered, high altitude, long endurance UAV.  This will soon be available for deployment in both Iraq and Afghanistan. 

QinetiQ Zephyr launch

In 2008, Boeing test flew a light aircraft that utilised hydrogen fuel cells, this could soon be the primary trainer configuration of the future whether we like it or not.

To future proof our defence capability we must significantly reduce our dependence on oil and start looking for alternatives, this may simply mean more time in the aircraft simulator and less time in the jet-trainer.  Although not a perfect solution, it is something to seriously consider as in the forthcoming decade doing nothing will not be a viable option.


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