Rising fuel costs tighten Air Force belt

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Russell Wicke
  • Air Combat Command Public Affairs
The growing cost of crude oil combined with increasing fuel demands of the war on terrorism are forcing Air Combat Command officials to brace for a budget crisis while looking for future fuel alternatives.

The Air Force paid approximately $4.2 billion for petroleum in fiscal 2005 -- almost $1.4 billion more than fiscal 2004, according to the 28th edition of the Defense Energy Support Center Fact Book.

The price of fuel has gone up even more since 2005. BP was the Defense Department's No. 1 fuel provider that year based upon the lowest price, said Robert Wine, a BP spokesman. Mr. Wine attributed the rising cost of fuel to worldwide supply and demand, uncertainty in the petroleum market, and political tension.

Only 12 months ago the Air Force was paying approximately $1.74 per gallon for JP-8 (aviation fuel), said Sheila Flemings, ACC flying-hour cost program analyst. Today's price reflects a 31 percent increase to $2.53 per gallon.

The budget crisis of fiscal 2005 unfolded when the Air Force was paying the cheaper $1.74 per gallon. ACC faced a shortfall then of $825 million in must-pay funds. That very year, Ms. Flemings said ACC consumed more than 501 million gallons of fuel alone. That comes out to more than $747 million spent on JP-8.

Now, with a 31-percent increase in fuel cost since that time and a budget that continues to shrink, the Air Force and ACC are required to make significant changes just to operate.

"The shrinking budget has caused the Air Force to reduce the funding available for flying hours used to train ACC aircrews," said John Cilento, ACC flying-hour program analyst. "ACC programs are based on the minimum requirements to train our aircrews, so any reduction is a loss of an already maxed-out training capability."

Furthermore, Mr. Cilento said the Air Force Flying Hour Program budget will be reduced by 10 percent each year from fiscal 2008 to 2013. This equates to an annual reduction of $280-million worth in flying for ACC.

"The biggest drain on our (funding) support is the (war on terrorism) is either not fully funded, or funded very late in the fiscal year," Ms. Flemings said.

The continual flying-hour cuts not only hurt training, but also lower the combat readiness of the aircrews.

Other significant impacts from the higher fuel costs include a reduction of operation and maintenance and quality of life for Airmen. Although aviation fuel is funded through a separate process, ground fuel is used for operations and maintenance and quality of life programs.

So far, there are at least two options being considered to mitigate the fuel and budget crises in ACC. Unfortunately, both are fairly long-term.

Mr. Cilento suggested one answer to the problem could be in high-fidelity simulators. HF simulators provide virtual, high-tech, realistic -- and in some cases, better -- training than actual sorties, he said. ACC is in the beginning stages of this initiative. Though they would be much cheaper in the long term (because of less maintenance and fuel cost), the upfront cost for HF simulators is high.

Another potential solution being explored is the coal-to-jet-fuel initiative. The Air Force is already involved in a series of tests of the synthetic fuel. A B-52 Stratofortress from the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., is scheduled for a test flight this month at Edwards AFB, Calif. During the test flight, two of the eight engines will run on a mixture of this synthetic fuel.

Though experts disagree on whether the cost of this synthetic fuel will be competitive with fossil fuel, the "coal-made" synthetic fuel burns cleaner, according to Michael Aimone, Air Force assistant deputy chief of staff for logistics, installations and mission support. He said it emits no sulfur dioxide and pollutes much less than fossil fuel.

Additionally, the United States has a coal reserve of about 500 billion tons, according to the National Mining Association, enough to "support a growing coal demand for over 200 years."

But again, the cost is high up front to create facilities and plants to produce this synthetic fuel in large amounts. It takes years to build large plants for this purpose, according to the NMA Web site at www.nma.org.

Nonetheless, a long-term solution would benefit the Air Force more than any other organization. The Air Force Times reported the Defense Department is among the world's largest oil consumers. And within DOD, "the Air Force is the largest consumer of petroleum among the services."

The DESC fact book numbers agree with the claim: The Army, Navy and Marines spent a combined total of $3.57 billion in fiscal 2005 on petroleum. The Air Force spent more than $4.2 billion that same year.

(Courtesy Air Combat Command News Service)