Battlefield technology and plucky soldiers are getting a huge amount of attention.
But one decision made more than a decade ago also is delivering huge benefits. Its success runs counter to the standard jokes about military intelligence. Its backers are getting little attention, but this product probably means more to more troops than the best smart bomb.
It's JP-8, the fuel that almost everything American runs on in Iraq, in the skies and on the oceans. What gurgles in the belly tanks of KC-135 air-refueling planes, sloshes in the giant bladders of forward bulk refueling stations and flows through the injectors of Army trucks is JP-8, otherwise known as MIL-T-83133, Fuel, Aviation Turbine Engine.
Gen. Paul Kern, four-star commander of the U.S. Army Materiel Command, was quick to praise the long-term change that has led to a monofuel military machine when he spoke this month at the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress in Detroit.
Fuel is considerably more important than ammunition at every point on the battlefield except at the leading edge of the fighting, and even there, fuel may be more valued than bullets from time to time. Army logistics show that just over 51 percent of what troops need is water, and 38.6 percent need bulk fuel. Only about 1.5 percent need ammunition.
The fuel issue is critical. For every combat vehicle, two more are required to carry fuel to it. The Army's Abrams tanks need refilled about every 2.5 hours. With that kind of pressure on the supply chain, logistics planners realized some years ago that one of their key jobs was to make sure that when the fuel convoy arrived, it would be carrying the right liquid.
Fifteen years ago, about half the military vehicles in battle used gasoline, and the other half, diesel fuel. Of the diesel group, a number of different fuel grades and lubrication requirements meant that even between vehicles, it still was possible to make a mistake. In addition, different services used different fuels, potentially hindering joint operations.
Since the mid-1990s, it's become simpler. If a helicopter runs short, any truck can give it a refill, even if it means siphoning by hand. Tracks and trucks share a single filling hose. Only the U-2 spy plane takes premium fuel, sipping special JP-7 designed for high-altitude flight.
JP-8 is far from glamorous. It's basically 98 percent kerosene -- like lamp fuel - dressed up with additives that discharge static electricity, inhibit corrosion, discourage ice formation and keep the moving parts of the diesel fuel system lubricated. In 2000, the average price for a gallon of JP-8 was 61 cents. Its lack of glamour probably made it tough for the fuel project leaders to get a lot of respect while they worked on Department of Defense Directive 4140.25, better known as the Single Fuel Forward Concept.
It's not the stuff of exciting news broadcasts -- more likely to be the subject of a light humor piece, especially for anybody who has seen troops "burping the bladder," jumping up and down on a bag of fuel to drive out air bubbles.
The late cartoonist Bill Mauldin might have had his Willie and Joe characters sing grudging praise to the fuel geeks, though. JP-8 burns reluctantly when it's not under pressure or hot. If a truck or plane or helicopter is grazed, it's far less likely to explode. The fuel can be burned in a heater to warm water for showers. It can be burned (illicitly) in a tin can to warm a cup of coffee.
Army trucks can use other fuels if they run out of JP-8. All of the engines are equipped to run on other fuels, though any mechanic would reluctantly allow something else to be put in the tank. That's because, as Kern explains it, seals gummed up with a heavy fuel like JP-8 tend to get leaky when a lighter fuel is used. "It does a great job cleaning it out," he says.
The fuel itself isn't perfect. Because of its low volatility, JP-8 doesn't evaporate much when it spills. Instead, it soaks into the ground and sits there. One scientific study shows that after 18 months, only about half of spilled fuel has dissipated. Where there are plants, much more of the fuel is pulled out of the ground. A desert campaign means the oil spots will stay a long time.
When it spills on people, JP-8 remains on skin, in clothing and in the air far longer than other fuels. Scientists and doctors analyzing long-term JP-8 exposure among military personnel have found that even after being away from the fuel for 24 to 48 hours, the fuel affects them. Eye-blink tests find that those exposed to the fuel lag in response.
Army planners think they can work their way around these problems and others, including the large amount of sulfur that limits JP-8's usefulness as a fuel for things like electricity-generating fuel cells.
What they're working on now, though, is improving the way the fuel is used. Miles per gallon are critical to the Army, Kern says, not just for economy but because it's a long way before reaching the next filling station in a combat zone.
The military wants what every soccer mom dreams of: a comfortable truck big enough to hold everybody, that can go anywhere it's needed and support itself for 72 hours.
And you can fill it up anywhere with plain, dull JP-8.
Tim Moran is an automotive writer based in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich.