VfB Board questions the MoD’s recent preoccupation with ‘green’ issues.

On 5th May 2021 an article was published in the Daily Telegraph which has caused great concern to VfB Board Members. It reports that ACM Mike Wigston,  the Chief of the Air Staff, intends to divert time and resources into developing so-called ‘carbon neutral’ fuels for the RAF.  Likewise Army interest in battery electrification of armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) is reported. This announcement comes on the heels of an equally but differently extraordinary MoD report from the ‘climate change champion’ Lt Gen Richard Nugee.

Until this point, VfB has refrained from comment, expecting and hoping that enthusiasm for such views would subside without active harm to the readiness, safety and lethality of UK Forces. However, if this is not to be so, then true to our credo which is to advise and warn on threats to the realm, we are obliged to engage on this new front. We warn that these so-called ‘green’ initiatives are pregnant with danger and should be quietly abandoned before they have a chance to mature further. Nor are they, in themselves, environmentally beneficial in any useful way. In short, they are self-harming of national security.

VfB military board members are all retired fighting commanders with decades of experience between them and major operational commands from the Falklands to Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. Therefore they can attest to four basic principles of warfare: first, the deadly truth of Murphy’s Law – if it can go wrong it will. Second, that any fighting system will be taxed in battle beyond its design limits. Third, that any fighting system may expect to be used in battle for other than its formal design purpose. And finally that it is the fundamental responsibility of any Commander not to trifle with the security of his people or to compromise their mission by avoidable constraints.

That does not make military innovation slow. The opposite. Our freedom has depended many times upon what Admiral Jacky Fisher called ‘plunging’ which was what he did when driving the step-change from coal-fired reciprocating engines to oil-fuelled, turbine powered  Dreadnoughts on a timescale that today’s overly bureaucratic MoD would find unthinkably fast.

But the essence of all military motive power innovation since steam replaced sail, the internal combustion engine replaced the horse, nuclear reactors replaced diesel engines in submarines and in large surface ships and the aerojet replaced the reciprocating piston engine in aeroplanes has been in one direction only: the adoption of prime movers of incrementally improving efficiency powered by more – not less – energy dense fuels.

Furthermore, in contrast to ACM Wigston’s reported ambition and the direction of travel in Lt Gen Nugee’s report, all these innovations have been legal. Not only do they show respect for observed experience under fire (Murphy’s Law which isn’t a real law) but they also obey the only laws which no human agent can ever break: the Laws of Thermodynamics.

It is not VfB’s business or intention to explain here in detail the unavoidable incoherence of the target of ‘Net Zero’ or to discuss why anybody is a free society is in the business of setting Stakhanovite targets at all to override the collective wisdom of the free market or to review the documented futility of the previous 25 UN Climate Conferences. But a general and a specific point must be made. What is relevant to our remit is that the main mechanisms upon which Government currently plans to rely in this pursuit, seek to substitute thin, high entropy flows (near random heat) for low entropy, dense stocks of primary energy.

To do this is, in general, to aspire to reverse the entire history of human progress since the 1500s. That history is the move from high to low entropy fuels which have been and are the source of the wealthier, healthier, more free, culturally richer and more leisured societies that we take for granted today. Societies which – the first duty of government – are well defended. Recall that the surplus wealth  created from early adoption of coal was early transferred into the Royal Navy, the agent, as King Charles II’s Articles of War of 1661 correctly stated “…wherein under the good Providence and protection of God the Wealth Safety and Strength of this Kingdome is soe much concerned.” A Nelson’s Navy First Rate Battleship had the highest latent energy density of any moving object for its age, its broadsides packing the firepower of the entire Russian army.   The principles do not change, which makes the current ‘green’ diversion, which moves in the opposite  direction towards dilution not concentration of power, so eccentric.

In particular, the ambition to substitute less energy dense ‘carbon free’ fuels for avgas in aerojets or marine applications, or diesel in other military vehicles, has trivial if any environmental benefit but has certain operational penalty. Recalling the R-101 airship disaster, to say nothing of the Hindenburg and many non-civilian airship disasters, the idea of hydrogen in military applications would be grossly irresponsible.  The irony is that the EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested) of these allegedly ‘greener’ synthetics, incurring associated process emissions as well, is often much less than using current fuels in direct application with less full-cycle environmental impacts; and swapping Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) drive-trains into heavy AFVs is a frightening prospect. Who would wish to be in a burning tank with a runaway lithium battery fire? This sort of ‘greenwashing’ of the armed forces impairs fighting power as well, not only in range reduction but with complex system-dependent re-charging requirements or mobile diesel generators: in which case what’s the point? Far better to stick with advanced turbo diesels on board.

How so? Simple physical facts tell that story. The key metric to grasp is Watt/hours per kilogramme (Wh/kg). The energy density of an original (1900) lead-acid battery was 25 Watt/hours per kilogramme (Wh/kg). The best lithium-ion battery available for BEVs today achieves 300 Wh/kg. A logistic curve projection, which is a generous assumption, suggests a maximum innovative improvement of this technology to around 500Wh/kg by 2050. In contrast, diesel fuel already has energy density of 13,750 Wh/kg: orders of magnitude better. And diesel engines, scaleable from a tiny BMW Mini diesel (the world’s current best) to a massive Wartsila Marine Diesel, are – along with aerojet engines – the world’s Prime Movers. Without them, the global economy stops. Do not pretend otherwise. This valuable energy dense fuel that is highly convenient and relatively safe to handle, powering mature and incrementally improving engines, is why there are no viable superior alternatives in prospect for Heavy applications (for example agri-tractors, HGVs, tanks, ships) or for ‘off infrastructure’ use in Africa, S America, India, and other areas, which is much of the world where British Forces may be called to fight. There is only a civilian market for BEVs if it is rigged in their favour by political subsidy or, in the military case, by directive action.

This virtue-signalling distraction risks service peoples’ lives and risks the mission facing an enemy not so constrained. Thank goodness, therefore, that Dowding and Parks didn’t spend their time worrying about running their Spitfires and Hurricanes on recycled chip oil or household waste instead of concentrating on fighting and winning the Battle of Britain. It is not the job of MoD to engage in ‘climate catastrophism’ virtue signalling but to prepare to defend the realm, quite possibly quite soon.

Henry Kissinger has observed that we are “in the foothills of a new Cold War”. There are signs that we may in fact already be onto the main slopes, and that a ‘hot war’ episode is entirely possible in the South China Sea before long.

Therefore do the Chiefs not know three essential facts about Xi Jinping’s Communist China?

1) that it has no intention of self-harming its economy by foregoing energy dense fuels or internal combustion or jet engines or oil for industrial petro-chemicals any time soon (see graph below). It is not following the west’s coerced high entropy path increasing electricity grid fragility with associated reduction in electricity use because of rising prices, a perversity which poses both a national security and a social security risk to the poorest people in society.

2) that the PLA has in any case declared an exemption for all its armed forces from declaratory statements about let alone moves towards substitute fuels

3) that the PRC’s on-going offensive intelligence influence operations encourage us in the Free World to self-harm in pursuit of incoherent concepts like ‘Net Zero’.  It is high time to investigate the role of PRC influence operations conducted by its Ministry of State Security United Front Work Dept in the West’s various high profile climate catastrophist agitator groups.

Therefore why, pray, would the Chief of the Air Staff want to do what Xi Jinping wants him to do?

War is on the wind, especially in the South China Sea. It is the time to clear the decks for action, which means dumping overboard fatally flawed initiatives such as ACM Wigston and Lt Gen Nugee have espoused.

The Board of VfB

Eco Fuel Graph
Slide credit: Dr J. Constable (Renewable Energy Foundation) lecture to the US National Defense University, April 2021