WASHINGTON — You think your gasoline costs are high? Every time the price at the pump jumps a nickel, it causes budgetary heartburn for the U.S. Air Force, whose gas-guzzling fleet of nearly 6,000 aircraft devours about 7 million gallons of fuel a day.
The cost of a fill-up for a B-52 bomber, an eight-engine behemoth that holds nearly 48,000 gallons of jet fuel, can easily surpass $100,000. A sleek F-16 fighter sucks up more than $300 worth of fuel a minute when it kicks in its afterburners and blasts through the sound barrier.
"We burn a lot of gas," acknowledged Assistant Air Force Secretary Bill Anderson, who oversees fuel consumption for the service.
The skyrocketing price of oil is causing a strain on the Defense Department, the largest petroleum consumer in the nation, if not the world. With combat forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. strategists are struggling to keep up with burgeoning fuel costs for a war machine that includes uneconomical fuel-eaters such as ships, tanks, helicopters and an array of fixed-wing aircraft.
The Army’s M-1 Abrams tank, in service in Iraq, gets less than a mile per gallon. The cost of fueling the Navy's 278 diesel propelled-ships, including one non-nuclear aircraft carrier, has jumped by 10 percent over 2006.
The problem is particularly burdensome for the Air Force, which consumes more than half of all the fuel used by the government and purchases significantly more than the Army and the Navy. Every $10 increase for a barrel of oil costs the Air Force $600 million.
"You're getting heavy, sophisticated machinery off the ground. It's fundamentally very expensive," said aircraft analyst Richard Aboulafia, vice president of the Teal Group of Fairfax, Va. "You just have to deal with it. In wartime, you don't have the option of restricting flight hours to save money."
Aviation fuel accounts for more than 80 percent of the Air Force’s total energy bill. In 2006, the service spent more than $5.8 billion for jet fuel, more than twice the $2.6 billion spent in 2003.
Jet fuel, a form of kerosene, cost an average of $1.21 per gallon in 2003. By 2006, its cost had nearly doubled to an average of $2.23 per gallon and sometimes soared as high as $4.68.
Officials in the Air Force and other services say the rising fuel costs haven't interfered with combat missions. But they have nevertheless forced the services to make adjustments elsewhere, such as trimming manpower or postponing repairs at military installations.
"We have never stood down or limited the mission," Anderson said. "We just have to suck it up somewhere else."
Anderson, assistant secretary for installations, environment and logistics, said the service has launched a multi-pronged response to the energy crunch.
Multi-engine planes often use only one engine to taxi along the runway in an attempt to save fuel. Air Force personnel are increasingly using lighter nylon straps instead of chains to tie down cargo. Lighter and more durable resin cargo pallets spelling are replacing heavier wood pallets. Non-essential toolboxes are often left behind.
Air Force officials are also increasingly relying on simulators to reduce the need for fuel-consuming training flights if they determine that they won't undercut a pilot’s combat effectiveness. Another option: obtaining diplomatic clearances to enable U.S. aircraft to make shorter and more direct flights to their missions.
The fuel-saving steps, said Anderson, are part of a broader conservation awareness program the service has developed over the past 18 months, encompassing everything from insisting that airmen turn off the lights in dorms to expanding use of solar and wind power at Air Force bases.
Anderson said the service is also looking far into the future to help develop new technology and carry out President Bush's long-term goal of ending reliance on imported foreign oil. Researchers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio are working with industry and other branches of the federal government to explore new fuels and propulsion systems.
While there may never be a hybrid jet fighter, Anderson said, he believes that scientists and engineers ultimately will find a replacement for "the air-breathing, hydrocarbon-burning" jet turbine that has propelled aircraft since the dawn of the jet age in the mid-20th century.
"A lot of laboratories are trying to figure what it's going to be," he said.
Closer at hand, the Air Force is already aggressively testing the use of synthetic fuels in military aircraft and is working toward a goal of certifying the entire air fleet for synfuel use by 2011. The objective is to fly military planes with a blend of traditional oil-based fuel and synthetics derived from coal or natural gas.
The service has successfully conducted a synfuels test on a B-52 and plans to deliver more than 300,000 gallons of synfuels this year for further tests.
Air Force officials have cited the rising fuel costs as part of their push for new-generation aircraft — including new tankers, transports and fighters such as Lockheed Martin's F-35 and F-22 — to replace inefficient old-school aircraft that have been in the skies for decades.