Logistics: Coal Powered B-52s

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December29, 2006: The United States Air Force has been developing and testing new synthetic fuels. Why would the Air Force be looking into such fuels? The answer is that these new fuels will be much less reliant on less-than-stable sources. This is not a minor detail. If armies marched on their stomachs in Napoleon's time, modern mechanized armies - relying on tanks, planes, helicopters, and trucks - are marching on their fuel supplies.

Germany's fuel situation in the latter stages of World War II is a classic example of how modern armies are vulnerable to disruptions of their fuel supplies. In the 1944 Ardennes offensive, German plans hinged on the capture of American fuel dumps. By the end of the war, the Luftwaffe was not even able to amount a hundred sorties a day, due to a shortage of fuel.

The new fuels being tested on the B-52 come from the Fischer-Tropsch process. This method is often used to get useable liquid fuels from coal or other non-oil-based fuels. First developed in the early 1940s, this technique was used, late in World War II, by Nazi Germany to get fuel for its tanks, planes, and other vehicles. South Africa also used this process to meet its energy needs while it was under economic sanctions in the 1980s.

What does this alternate energy mean for the United States? It has nearly 250 billion tons of coal - almost the total of the next two largest countries, Russia and China (271 billion tons total). That is the basis for a lot of synthetic fuel. Natural gas is another source - and the United States has 204 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. In addition to this, there are reported estimates of shale deposits containing 1.8 trillion barrels of oil.

That is, in and of itself, significant fuel reserves. In a very real sense, the United States, but pursuing synthetic fuels will have great benefits. If these tests pay off, the United States could find itself better able to train its forces stateside. This will only enhance the advantage the United States will have. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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