The Realist Prism: Energy and the Future of U.S. Grand Strategy

The Realist Prism: Energy and the Future of U.S. Grand Strategy

The Naval War College just completed its annual Current Strategy Forum, with this year's topic being "Energy and U.S. National Security: Vulnerability and Opportunity." Listening to the presentations, one could not help but be struck by the "chicken and egg" relationship between access to energy and U.S. grand strategy. Which should drive the other -- and what are the various options?

Rising energy costs, combined with economic austerity, means that "business as usual" is no longer an option for the U.S. military. A recent study by Deloitte noted (.pdf), "Warfare and combat operations are not the only variables driving [Defense Department] fuel usage and costs. It is estimated that a $10 cost increase for a barrel of oil costs the [department] over $1 billion [annually]." The recent increase in oil prices, after the precipitous decline during the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, means that the U.S. Treasury will have to pay out a lot more money for the fuel to sustain current military operations. The uptick in prices over the past several months alone will add an unexpected -- and whopping -- $500 million in additional and unplanned costs if the U.S. military keeps up its existing operational tempo for the rest of 2011.

How should Washington respond to these increasingly challenging energy realities? One option is for the U.S. to cut back on what its military does: fly less sorties, deploy fewer vessels, operate less training missions -- and mothball equipment. But we have a recent and stark example of what sustained budget cuts do to the effectiveness and readiness of a fighting force: the decline of the post-Soviet Russian military. And it's hard to see anyone winning an election on the basis of such a platform.

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