Page 1 of 3

My Heart-Stopping Ride Aboard the Navy's Great Green Fleet

With Washington frozen solid on climate, the Navy is breaking the ice.

I'm strapped into my backward-facing seat on a COD, or "carrier onboard delivery" plane, the US Navy workhorse that ferries people, supplies, and mail to and from its aircraft carriers at sea. I cinch the four-point harness holding me in place. Then I cinch it some more. When it's as tight as it can go, an aircrewman walks by and yanks it so hard it squeezes the breath out of me. The hatch closes. Steam rises from the floor. Shit. I've watched the YouTube videos. I know what's coming. Takeoff, a 30-minute flight, then landing on the USS Nimitz, decks pitching, plane wings waggling, tailhook dangling from the underside of the aircraft to catch one of four arresting cables stretched across the flight deck. Since it's not hard to miss them all, the pilot will gun the engines at landing to enable an immediate relaunch. Which means that if he succeeds at trapping a cable we'll decelerate from 180 nautical miles per hour to zero in about one second.

To get to the Nimitz, 100 miles off Honolulu, our turboprop is flying a 50-50 blend of biofuel and standard JP-5 shipboard aviation fuel. The biofuel is made from algae plus waste cooking oil. This makes us part of history, my aircrewman says, players in what the Navy calls the Great Green Fleet demonstration of July 2012. It's paired with a three-year, $510 million energy reform effort in conjunction with the departments of Agriculture and Energy as part of a larger push to change the way the US military sails, flies, marches, and thinks. "As a nation and as a Navy and Marine Corps, we simply rely too much on a finite and depleting stock of fossil fuels that will most likely continue to rise in cost over the next decades," announced Navy Secretary Ray Mabus at the launch of the program back in 2009. "This creates an obvious vulnerability to our energy security and to our national security and to our future on this planet."

The Navy has set five ambitious goals to reduce energy consumption, decrease reliance on foreign oil, and significantly increase the use of alternative energy. Part of one target is to demonstrate a Great Green Fleet by 2012, and that's what's sailing this July day in Hawaii's cobalt-blue waters: a carrier strike group comprising an aircraft carrier, two guided-missile destroyers, a guided-missile cruiser, and an oiler. All are running at least partially on alternatives to fossil fuels: the Nimitz on nuclear power, the other ships on that biofuel-diesel blend. The 71 aircraft aboard—Super Hornets, Hornets, Prowlers, Growlers, Hawkeyes, Greyhounds, Knighthawks, and Seahawks—are burning the same cocktail as my COD. All of today's biofuels are drop-in replacements for marine diesel or aviation fuel and are designed to run without any changes to the existing hardware of ships or planes. "No [nation] can afford to reengineer their navies to accept a different kind of fuel," Vice Adm. Philip Cullom, deputy chief of naval operations for fleet readiness and logistics, tells me.

The Great Green Fleet is debuting at the 2012 RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) exercise, the largest ever international maritime war games, engaging 40 surface ships, six submarines, more than 200 aircraft, and 25,000 personnel from 22 nations. For the first time Russian ships are playing alongside US ships, and naval personnel from India are attending. Many fleets here are sharpening their focus on alternative fuels and working to assure the formulations are codeveloped with their allies. "We've had dialogue with the Australians, the French, the British, other European nations, and many others in the Pacific," and they all want to take "the petroleum off-ramp," Cullom tells me. "We don't want to run out of fuel."

You can't live off the land at sea, which is why the Navy has always looked far into the future to fuel its supply lines; the job description of admirals requires them to assess risk and solve intractable problems that stymie the rest of us. Peak oil, foreign oil, greenhouse emissions, climate change? Just another bunch of enemies. So when the Department of Defense set a goal to meet 25 percent of its energy needs with renewables by 2025, the Navy found itself fighting on familiar ground. Four times in history it has overhauled old transportation paradigms—from sail to coal to gasoline to diesel to nuclear—carrying commercial shipping with it in the process. "We are a better Navy and a better Marine Corps for innovation," Mabus says. "We have led the world in the adoption of new energy strategies in the past. This is our legacy."

It goes beyond supply lines. Rising sea levels lapping at naval bases? A melting and increasingly militarized Arctic? The Navy is tackling problems that freeze Congress solid. What it learns, what it implements, and how it adapts and innovates will drive market changes that could alter the course of the world.

During the Rim of the Pacific exercise, a boatswain tests biofuel aboard the Nimitz (top-left). The fuel will be used by F-18 Super Hornets and other fighters (bottom-left). Sailors aboard the oiler Henry J. Kaiser prepare to transfer biofuel to the Nimitz.
A USS Nimitz boatswain tests biofuel (top left) for use by F-18s and other fighters (bottom), as sailors aboard the oiler Henry J. Kaiser transfer biofuel to the Nimitz. From top left: Devin Wray/US Navy; Chris Bartlett/US Navy; Eva-Marie Ramsaran/US Navy

But not without a fight. Six weeks before RIMPAC 2012, Republicans and some coal- and gas-state Democrats tried to scuttle Mabus' Green Fleet by barring the Pentagon from buying alternative fuels that cost more per gallon than petroleum-based fuels—the biofuel blend cost more than $15 a gallon—unless the more expensive alternative fuels come from other fossil fuels, like liquefied coal. This tricky logic made sense to Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.)—"[The Pentagon] should not be wasting time perpetrating President Obama's global warming fantasies or his ongoing war on affordable energy"—even though seven years earlier Inhofe helped secure a $10 million taxpayer fund to test renewable military fuels, more than half of which went to a company in his home state. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) agreed, calling the purchase of biofuels "a terrible misplacement of priorities" and adding, "I don't believe it's the job of the Navy to be involved in building…new technologies." Mabus, who'd already bought the biofuels for the RIMPAC demo, fired back: "If we didn't pay a little bit more for new technologies, the Navy would never have bought a nuclear submarine, which still costs four to five times more than a conventional submarine."

En route to the Nimitz I've managed to snag a seat next to one of only two windows in the COD's dark cabin. Through the porthole I watch our transect over Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona Memorial, and the sunken and rusting remains of much of the 1941 Pacific fleet. Beyond Pearl we climb over the Pacific Ocean, at 60.1 million square miles nearly half of Earth's total ocean area. That's a lot of territory over which to maintain maritime supremacy, while guarding the far-flung energy supplies needed to do it. Some 75 percent of the world's fuel travels by sea, with 20 percent passing through vulnerable choke points like the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Aden, many guarded by US forces. Partly in defense of those lines, the Department of Defense burns more than 12 million gallons of oil a day. About a third of the DOD's fix goes to float the Navy, the world's largest, with a battle fleet tonnage exceeding the next 13 biggest navies combined.

Admirals are required to solve intractable problems that stymie the rest of us. Peak oil, climate change? Just another bunch of enemies.

Out over the ocean my turboprop hums merrily along on its biofuel blend, and so do I, until I catch my first glimpse of the Nimitz out the window—a toy miniature in a turbulent bathtub. Suddenly 1,092 feet of flight deck wedged into a ninth the space allotted a commercial landing strip seems insanely small acreage. "Go, go, go!" shout two aircrewmen, their backs to me, waving their hands in the air. This is the signal to prepare for the controlled crash of a carrier landing. We jam our heads into backrests, cross arms over our chests, hook hands into harnesses, and wait. It's an unnerving interlude, all noise dampened by the cranial I'm wearing, a helmet with built-in headphones clamped so tight my jawbone aches. Goggles down, I await what I can't see. A minute drags by. Ferociously. Another. Inflatable rafts twitch in overhead cargo nets. Then the sounds of a mass pileup on a steel interstate. Legs whiplash in the air. An unidentified flying object clips my head. It feels exactly like a tragedy at 180 nautical miles an hour—only nothing breaks, burns, or drowns at the end of it. And now here I am, on an aircraft carrier cruising at 30 knots of speed, safe and sound.

It's the Navy, so there's history. The Great Green Fleet was named after the Great White Fleet launched by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907: four squadrons of 16 battleships painted bright white and manned by 14,000 sailors and Marines on a 43,000-mile cruise around the world. It was the first ever armada of coal-powered steam battleships built entirely of steel—the product of years of government subsidies paying three times the market rate to develop a fledgling American steel industry. When Congress moved to blockade the fleet's around-the-world funding, Roosevelt snarled at them to "try and get it back." So the fleet sailed to 20 ports on six continents over 14 months, boldly going where no US military had gone before and announcing the debut of the United States as a player on the World Ocean.

Illustration: Frank Stockton
Illustration: Frank Stockton

Even then the fight over a newfangled Navy was old. For a time in the 19th century it proved so psychologically difficult to get away from sail that hybrid naval ships sported steam funnels alongside acres of snowy white canvas. Naysayers swore the Navy was giving up reliable propulsion for dangerous and infernal machines. The great 19th-century naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote: "Sails were very expensive articles…but they were less costly than coal. Steam therefore was accepted at the first only as an accessory, for emergencies." Acting on the principles Mahan laid out in The Influence of Sea Power Upon History—a seminal book in naval strategy—the United States methodically and expensively procured ports and territories around the world specifically for use as Navy coaling stations: Guam, Guantanamo Bay, Hawaii, Puerto Rico. Yet by the time the Great White Fleet sailed home again in 1909, the coal era was over and the Navy was converting yet again, this time to oil-burning steamships. It took a lot of oil to drive a steamship, and the realization that oil wasn't going to last forever dawned far earlier in the military than among civilians. To keep the Navy afloat as long as possible, Congress passed the Pickett Act of 1910, commandeering lands in California and Wyoming, and later in Alaska, as Naval Petroleum Reserves, some of which ultimately ranked among the highest-producing oil and gas fields in the country.

The same year the Great White Fleet sailed home, 24-year-old Ensign Chester Nimitz, the man destined to be the namesake of the nuclear-powered USS Nimitz, took command of an early submarine, the USS Plunger. It was a crap assignment; young officers wanted battleships, the sexy beasts of the Navy. But Nimitz was in disgrace for having run a ship aground in the Philippines. Derisively, he called his sub "a cross between a Jules Verne fantasy and a humpbacked whale." Yet he took the job seriously and began to lobby for an undersea fleet that ran more safely and efficiently on upstart diesel engines, in contrast to the gasoline-powered Plunger. By 1911 he had successfully skippered another energy transformation, overseeing the development of the first diesel submarine, the USS Skipjack, followed by the first diesel surface ship, the USS Maumee (an engineering task that cost him a finger). Thirty-five years later, as chief of naval operations, Nimitz changed the fleet's course once again when he championed Capt. Hyman Rickover's fiercely contested bid (Rickover's opponents reportedly exiled him to an office in an abandoned women's bathroom) to establish a nuclear-powered Navy.

"Every single time there were naysayers," Secretary Mabus has said. "And every single time those naysayers have been wrong."

Mabus has touched down aboard the Nimitz for the Great Green Fleet demo in a biofueled Seahawk helicopter. Wearing his flight helmet rakishly askew, looking more the politician than the former sailor, he's piped aboard with a time-honored bosun's whistle before passing through a hatch freshly stenciled with the Navy Energy Security logo, a blue and green wave. Maneuvers get under way on the flight deck where F-18s—today called "Green Hornets," with their nose cones striped green—are taking off at 60-second intervals. The entire ship, all 97,000 tons of it, shudders from the muscle of 67,000-pound warbirds shot into the air from steam catapults. Water for the catapults comes from the Nimitz's four distilling units, which make 400,000 gallons of freshwater daily, mostly to cool the twin nuclear power plants that allow the Nimitz to sail the seas for 25 years between uranium fill-ups. In the skies above, in perfect formation flybys, jet fighters buddy-fuel each other through a hose-and-drogue system. Off our bow, while all three ships steam at 13 knots, the oiler USS Henry J. Kaiser refuels the cruiser USS Princeton, off-loading the last of today's 900,000 gallons of 50-50 biofuel blend—the largest ever purchase of alternative fuel by the US government.

"We're seeing the Navy once again leading in the type of fuel we use and how we procure it," Mabus tells an all-hands assembly in the vast interior space of a hangar bay on the Nimitz. "Today shows we can reduce our dependency on foreign oil." The crew is jammed shoulder to shoulder: sailors in marine camouflage or "blueberries," Marines in woodland camouflage, aircrew in jumpsuits, deck crew in bold-colored turtlenecks that signal at a glance their jobs on the floating war port. It's so orderly and polite, what I imagine a small-town political rally of the 1950s to be, complete with stage bunting, an American flag the size of Kansas, and testy microphones. Except there's a giant ocean heaving by outside the bay door, advanced electronic aircraft parked in the wings, a cluster of admirals wearing Green Fleet caps on the stage (of the hats, McCain griped a week later: "I do not believe this is a prudent use of defense funds"), plus a handful of reporters, a few looking seasick. Today's demo is a milestone in Mabus' energy plan. But it's also a day for the sailors, one pilot tells me, since the media presence here will raise awareness among the rank and file better than anything the Navy itself says about the seriousness of its green purpose.

"You have the senior Navy leadership here today," crows Mabus, as the chief of naval operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, takes the stage to praise the crew of the cruiser USS Chafee. "What I saw today was theory of practice," Greenert says. "We didn't have some scientist come down into the engine room and say, 'One day you'll see this.' You hear it today and see it on gauges." He's talking about the technologies developed to further stretch whatever fuel the Navy procures: low-tech add-ons like stern flaps to reduce ships' drag and increase fuel efficiency; high-tech plug-ins like energy dashboards with Prius-type feedback on fuel consumption; energy savers like LED lighting; plus your basic turn-off-the-lights mindset. "If we deploy these energy efficiencies fleetwide," Mabus says, "we can save up to a million barrels of oil a year. And with what we're paying, about $150 a barrel, that's $150 million the Navy can save a year."

Advertise on

Those aren't the Navy's only goals. Wide-reaching targets include: awarding Navy and Marine Corps equipment contracts based on better fuel efficiency; deploying (not just demonstrating) a Great Green Fleet carrier strike group by 2016; phasing in hybrid fuel and electric vehicles to halve petroleum use in the Navy's 50,000 commercial vehicle fleet by 2015; requiring that by 2020 each base—the Navy owns 2.2 million acres of land plus 65,000 buildings—be at least 50 percent self-powered by renewables like solar, wind, and wave energy; and ensuring that at least 50 percent of the Navy's total energy consumption comes from alternative sources by 2020. These changes will ripple out to the civilian world, too—just as military demand propelled the development that eventually drove down the cost of American steel, radar, GPS, and microchips.

The Navy's embrace of renewables will ripple out to the civilian world, just as military R&D and purchasing power drove down the cost of steel, radar, GPS, and microchips.

But there are naysayers. In an op-ed in US News, Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research—a nonprofit tied to Koch Industries—calls the Navy's biofuel goals "ridiculous" and an "inexcusable example of government cronyism." And Noah Shachtman, editor of Wired's influential national-security blog, Danger Room, blasted Mabus for not shoring up political or statistical support before going full steam ahead on his biofuel mission. That said, the $12 million spent so far on biofuels is four one-hundredths of 1 percent of the Navy's annual fuel consumption, what the department would pay for an increase of less than a cent per gallon of oil, according to Mabus. In fact the entire biofuels budget currently totals less than a hundredth of 1 percent of the Pentagon's nearly $650 billion annual budget.

Page 1 of 3