First Pentagon Energy Chief Drives for ‘Natural Security’ Goal
By Sophia Yan
Washington (Bloomberg) — Sharon Burke, a former college rugby
player and daughter of a U.S. Marine, isn’t afraid to get her
uniform dirty. Now she’s locked in a high-level scrum at the
Defense Department, trying to redirect the military’s thinking
about its massive consumption of energy.
The Pentagon last year used 5 billion gallons of fuel and
spent more than $13 billion for “operational” energy — what
it takes to train, support and move U.S. armed forces in the
field. This runs the gamut from fuel to fly transport aircraft,
including Lockheed Martin Corp.’s C-130, C-17 and Boeing Co.’s
C-5, to batteries required to power GPS receivers, computers,
cameras and flashlights.
Burke, appointed by President Barack Obama in June 2010 to
be the Pentagon’s first energy chief, must figure out how the
military will replace petroleum products with other energy
sources. Should fighter jets run on algae-based biofuels? Should
ground troops carry solar batteries to recharge their radios?
That means carefully considering the trade-offs, Burke
said. For example, you can buy “an engine that’s more efficient
but then put more weight on the plane and you still need the
same volume” of fuel.
After a year on the job as assistant secretary of defense
for operational energy, Burke on June 14 released the Defense
Department’s first-ever strategy to transform the way it
consumes energy in military operations. It includes a call to
cut back on the 100 million barrels of oil the Pentagon
purchases a year from BP Plc, based in London, Royal Dutch Shell
Plc, based in the Hague, and other companies.
Pentagon’s ‘Demand Signal’
Burke now is on the hunt for cheaper, reliable energy
sources. Thus far, the Marines have experimented with solar
roll-up blankets in Afghanistan to recharge radio and GPS
batteries, and the Navy has flown its F/A-18 fighter jet on a
plant-based biofuel. Burke is pushing Congress for $20 million
to promote energy technology research and development.
The Pentagon has the power to “promote innovation,” she
said, “by providing a demand signal in what we need, what we
require, the way we use energy.”
To signal the U.S. military’s needs, Burke is moving “to
reach out to a broader array of energy companies,” large or
small, to find contractors that don’t typically sell to the
Pentagon and motivate them to innovate with defense needs in
“Longer term, we’d like to have information from the
private sector more available” to help inform the Defense
Department about offerings in the energy sector, she said.
Toward that end, she is considering setting up a consortium for
interested companies as a platform to exchange ideas.
“She is an intellectual entrepreneur,” said Andrew
Erdmann, a Williams College classmate. “She created the idea of
Burke came up with the theory during a three-year stint at
the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan research
group in Washington. She coined the term in a 2009 paper.
“The modern global economy depends on access to energy,
minerals, potable water, and arable land to meet the rising
expectations of a growing world population, and that access is
by no means assured,” she wrote. “At the same time, increasing
consumption of these resources has consequences, such as climate
change and biodiversity loss, which will challenge the security
of the United States and nations all over the world.”
Burke’s first Washington job was researching energy issues
in developing countries for the now-defunct Congressional Office
of Technology Assessment. She returned to the nation’s capital
in 1994 after earning a master’s in international studies from
Columbia University, eager to work on energy security policy.
There was just one problem: “When I came back, oil was $9
per barrel,” Burke said in an interview. “Nobody thought there
was an energy security problem.”
With U.S. troops and contractors dying in Iraq and
Afghanistan to protect fuel convoys, and oil at more than $100 a
barrel, Burke’s background is a better fit.
“Strategically, energy is important for economic stability
and growth, with nations around the world competing for the same
energy resources,” according to her office’s Operational Energy
Strategy, the June 14 plan, which echoes her earlier work. “As
long as U.S. forces rely on large volumes of energy,
particularly petroleum-based fuels, the vulnerability and
volatility of supplies will continue to raise risks and costs
for the armed forces.”
1,100 Convoy Attacks
Reducing the number of military vehicles on the road is one
of Burke’s major goals. In 2010, U.S. convoys in Afghanistan and
Iraq were attacked 1,100 times, according to the energy
A January visit to Afghanistan took Burke through Camp
Leatherneck, a base in the southern region of the country, where
she saw the results: columns of damaged vehicles awaiting
repair. She thought about the injured or dead soldiers who had
driven and ridden in them. “That was a sobering moment,” she
It was “a good reminder that what I’m trying to do
matters,” Burke said, “but you have to be careful for how you
do it, because the stakes are very, very high for our deployed
Establishing a new office with a 25-member staff in the
Pentagon, an institution that hadn’t before heard the term
“operational energy,” wasn’t an easy task, Burke said. To
start, she met with a parade of military officials to learn
about their energy needs to make sure she wouldn’t cripple
military operations while cutting back on consumption.
“You want to make sure that especially in an office like
this, whose mission is to promote change, that you know the
institution before you start making proposals,” Burke said.
“So I took the time to get to know the lay of the land.’
The reception was sometimes lukewarm. A Marine bluntly told
her she was facing a rough uphill battle if she was trying to
change how the military consumes energy.
“He had some tough love,” said Burke. “It was refreshing
to have someone be direct with me.” His brusqueness didn’t
bother Burke. She’s used to it, raised in Los Angeles on her
father’s stories from his time in the Marine Corps.
Gathering information and communicating clearly under
duress are Burke strengths, said John Nagl, president of the
Center for a New American Security.
Learned From Armitage
She also values different viewpoints, said Stephanie Sanok,
Burke’s friend and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic
International Studies. Burke modeled her management style after
that of Richard Armitage, for whom she worked as a speechwriter
from 2002 to 2005, when he was deputy secretary of state, Sanok
Armitage “didn’t like to waste time, and it was a no-
nonsense perspective,” Sanok said. “But he also allowed people
to share views. He wasn’t so efficient that he wanted to squelch
people voicing their thoughts.”
This is especially important in Burke’s current position,
where she has “to play well with others to make sure you’re not
stepping on other people’s toes and making sure yours aren’t
getting stepped on,” Sanok said.
Outside the office, Burke spends her time at home in
Maryland with her two sons and her environmental engineer
husband, now a stay-at-home dad. Family is “my personal
priority,” said Burke, whose Pentagon desk sports a nametag
drawn by her children, both in elementary school.
From Bike to Bug
She holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s
School of International and Public Affairs, and a bachelor’s
from Williams in Massachusetts, where she played rugby.
Burke has also worked at Third Way, a Washington research
group, and at Amnesty International, a human rights
organization, as the group’s Middle East advocacy director.
Chris Brose, a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee
staffer, remembers Burke biking to work every day when they were
State Department colleagues. Today, Burke drives to the Pentagon
in a bright yellow Volkswagen bug, a newer version of the same
car she drove in college, while drinking her morning cup of
“She takes things in stride,” Sanok said, and displays a
wry sense of humor. When Burke started her Pentagon post, she
jokingly referred to herself as ‘the D.O.P.E.’ — director of
operational energy plans and programs.
First published by Bloomberg News July 15, 2011.