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Innovation in the Marine Corps

By Jen Boynton

The U.S. armed forces aren't usually associated with innovation. Despite numerous examples of innovation to reduce energy use and increase energy efficiency, the armed forces have a reputation for stodginess, moving slowly, and conservative values (which don't normally mean a focus on reducing your carbon footprint.) But it's time for that reputation to change. The powers that be have come to realize that national security and energy security are highly aligned, and in many cases, keeping our troops safe means investing in energy efficiency and renewables.

At last week's Climate Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., Tom Hicks, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps spoke about operational innovation in the energy realm as a means  to increase safety for the troops.

Energy and security

Energy security and national security are two peas in a pod. As oil scarcity increases, and procurement becomes dangerous, energy efficiency is one of the most direct paths to reducing violence. That's true at the macro-global political level, but it's also true at the micro level. For troops who are stationed in war zones, fuel runs can be very dangerous. Energy efficient fleets and operational efficiency can literally be the difference between life and death. Which means an inefficient fleet has a big problem. Said Hicks, "When we were heavily engaged in Afganistan a few years back, energy was a critical issue. We had one marine killed for every 50 fuel convoys." Those soldiers lost their lives securing oil to keep operations going. By reducing the number of necessary fuel convoys, lives will literally be saved. Talk about a win-win!

In order to address the problem of inefficiency, the Navy created a created a mock base at Quantico and invited in a whole host of tech and combat experts to brainstorm new ways to use existing technologies like LED lights and solar blankets. Once the group selected a few technologies that could be applied to problems in the field, they ruggedized them and tested them for durability. Solar blankets looked like a big winner - no, they don't keep you warm, they serve as solar recharging stations for all the equipment a soldier needs in the field. Batteries are heavy and need to be replaced frequently. The solar blanket can actually replace 50 pounds of equipment, which means a man is much more nimble when he's got equipment on his back, and convoys can run with less equipment.

After only six months of testing, the Navy sent these kits into the field, into the hardest part of the fight. Headquarters didn't hear anything from them for a couple months, and when those groups emerged they said “send more, this is great.” The Marine Corps now has two bases running entirely on renewable energy and two on 90 percent renewables.

Renewable technologies mean that resupplies can happen every three weeks instead of every three to four days. Hicks reiterated that there were no special expensive technologies in use - the innovation came from testing technologies and figuring out how to get them into the field as quickly as possible.

Bringing folks along

When asked how the troops responded to all these new pieces of equipment when they were already in such a dangerous situation, Hicks said it wasn't that difficult to garner support.

"First we tried products in a safe environment. We had marines come by and work with the companies. We had them give quick clear feedback with no gray area – either a product is great or it stinks. If it stinks, make it better. Reception to the new equipment was fantastic, it basically went viral in Afganistan." The products tested so well because they made soldiers' jobs easier and, despite being basically off the shelf, they had a gee-whiz quality to them. Said Hicks, "It works well because it’s neato gadget stuff. We became Q and they were James Bond."

But at the end of the day, light, efficient products help soldiers do their jobs better. In order to innovate effectively, Hicks recommends a quick iterative process in a safe environment and then a field test.

What's next

From basic training all the way through the ranks – resource efficiency has become a part of what it means to be a marine. In order to move up in the ranks, marines have to demonstrate how they've used resources efficiently.  That type of integrated approach will truly keep the armed forces leaner, meaner and greener.
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Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

Read more stories by Jen Boynton