News Article

Fuelling the front line

An Equipment and Logistics news article

11 Apr 09

Keeping our Armed Forces on the move is a priority for the Defence Fuels Group. Report by Lieutenant Commander Susie Thomson.

Varying the fuel flows

Varying the fuel flows between the bulk storage tanks and jerrycan filling plant at West Moors
[Picture: Andrew Linnett]

"Throughout the struggle, it was in his logistic inability to maintain his armies in the field that the enemy's fatal weakness lay. Courage his forces had in full measure, but courage was not enough. Reinforcements failed to arrive, weapons, ammunition and food alike ran short, and the dearth of fuel caused their powers of tactical mobility to dwindle to the vanishing point. In the last stages of the campaign they could do little more than wait for the Allied advance to sweep over them."

General Dwight D. Eisenhower

The tactical and strategic imperative of robust logistics supply lines referred to by General Eisenhower during World War II is no different today. DE&S's logisticians encounter such challenges on a daily basis as they work to support our front line forces, wherever they might be deployed in the world. And just as an army needs food rations, then the military's vehicles, planes and ships also have specific fuel needs.

A German historian likened expeditionary forces to 'Sunflowers' – or as he further defined them, "huge and showy flowers at the end of a long and rather fragile stem".

The Dorset-based DE&S Defence Fuels Group (DFG), numbering about 200 personnel and part of the Joint Supply Chain, is headed by Air Commodore Sue Armitage-Maddox. It is responsible for supporting Britain's front line commands' 'sunflower' worldwide, providing aviation, marine and ground fuels, lubricants and industrial gases, ensuring that they are delivered or made available to the correct quality wherever and whenever they're needed.


Some of the 130,000 jerricans held in the West Moors depot
[Picture: Andrew Linnett]

The statistics are staggering. Annually the DFG supplies 660 million litres of aviation fuel, 265 million litres of marine diesel, 40 million litres of road diesel and five million litres of petrol, plus oils and lubricants. In short, nearly one billion litres of fuel and lubricants each year.

The DFG is also responsible for the management of the physical supply chain including policy, procedures and regulations and it is the MOD licensing authority for fuel installations. Its scientists travel the world, setting and monitoring the specifications of fuel, lubricants and gases in use by the MOD; their work can range from checking the quality of the brake fluid about to go into a Scimitar armoured reconnaissance vehicle to instructing military and other personnel on the use of the portable petroleum testing kits that are used in theatre and elsewhere.

The Group works closely with the Medical and General Supplies team, purchasing the specialised gases from the British Oxygen Corporation that are supplied to Defence Medical Services. The DFG also has major infrastructure and supply roles in the operation of the former Naval Oil Fuel Depots and management of a 35,000-tonne ocean tanker for resupply of Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) permanent joint overseas bases.

The DFG plays a significant role in national contingency planning and works with the Oil and Pipelines Agency (OPA), a non-departmental public body. The OPA is responsible for management of the Government Pipeline and Storage System (GPSS), a strategic defence asset, which is 2,500km of pipeline and 46 other facilities across the United Kingdom, providing aviation fuel to MOD sites.

Transferring fuel

Members of the Royal Welsh Regiment transferring fuel to a unit support tanker at West Moors
[Picture: Andrew Linnett]

The network is interconnected with several private networks and was built in 1942 to supply all the RAF and USAF bases in the country. The pipeline also supplies the UK's civil airports and has a contingency storage capacity as well. The MOD's fuels requirements are preplanned two years hence but the system has sufficient flexibility to allow for a surge in demand, such as an increase in the operational tempo.

As we are all too painfully aware, fuel is an expensive commodity; all fuel transactions are in US dollars, the industry standard, and the average spend by the DFG is the equivalent of around £700m per year the majority purchased via the reverse auction process. The Group's Navy, Army and RAF fuel specialists provide expert input to pre-deployment and in-theatre planning and also augment key deployed plans personnel on a regular basis.

The logistical challenges that face commanders on the ground in difficult environments such as Afghanistan are a considerable test of the skill of their supporting logisticians and are always played out against a diplomatically complex background. For instance, ground fuel for Herrick is purchased from suppliers in Pakistan and then moved into theatre with the attendant security risks this poses to the locally-employed drivers; oils and lubricants are supplied from DSDA's West Moors storage depot which is co-located with the DFG.

The fuel for military aircraft is transported out to theatre via specialised air-portable containers. However, irrespective of how strategically important the work of the DFG is, it is not immune from the demands of sustainability and the likely impact of diminishing resources.

"Oil is a finite resource that is inherently unsustainable and worldwide consumption is going up."

Group Captain Nigel Arnold

The Group is now working with QinetiQ to produce a 'technology road map' designed to safeguard the sustainability and availability of fuel supplies for defence. The road map looks at how petroleum-based fuels can be replaced by sustainable options such as synthetic or bio fuels. It takes account of the many issues that surround fuel such as national and multi-national legislation and protocols on climate change and CO2 emissions. It balances these against current and enduring military requirements, equipment that will go out of commission and new equipment such as ships that might have to be fuelled for another 50 years.

As the DFG's Assistant Director Operations, Group Captain Nigel Arnold, says:

"Oil is a finite resource that is inherently unsustainable and worldwide consumption is going up. Although it may still be some way off, if we don't start to plan now, we may find ourselves running short of time to find alternatives when oil runs out."

The work of the DFG is complex, frequently difficult, beset by stringent health, safety, sustainability and scientific requirements, and, as Eisenhower said, utterly essential.

White cattle

Rare white cattle on the Defence Fuels Group site on the outskirts of West Moors village in Dorset
[Picture: Andrew Linnett]


The locations of the GPSS pipelines are marked by identifi cation posts with bright yellow roofs with a thick black line. Even so, in March 2000, at Furness Vale in Derbyshire, one of the lines was cut by workmen. Each consignment down a fuel pipeline is referred to as a parcel.

To keep contamination to a minimum when one product follows another down a pipeline, products are sent in this sequence: naphtha (the lightest), petrol, kerosene, gas oil (the heaviest), kerosene, petrol, naphtha. Although generally there is no physical barrier between each product, an inflatable sphere is sometimes put in the pipe between consignments.

DFG is also responsible for the operation of the oil fuel depot, pipeline and wharf in Singapore. The DFG site occupies 188 hectares on the outskirts of West Moors village in Dorset. The site has a remarkable collection of wildlife and about 75 per cent of the site is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Management of the site is carried out in close consultation with English Nature and a variety of local conservation and environmental groups. The grass on site is kept close-cropped, to minimise fire risk, by rare white cattle.

This report by Lt Cdr Susie Thomson first featured in the April 2009 issue of Desider - the magazine for Defence Equipment and Support.

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