Alain BeltranHe holds a teaching qualification in history and a Ph.D. in arts, he is currently a research director at France’s National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS).
"The swarms of planes and heavy tanks used in WWII have been replaced by infinitely more sophisticated, more efficient and more expensive vehicles and machines – but much fewer of them. "
Energy, the Sinews of War?
The start of the industrial age put energy at the heart of global rivalries and conflicts. The question of who controlled coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from...
, oil and now gas resources was a defining issue throughout the 20th century – and still is today. Alain Beltran, research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), tells us about some of the biggest disputes over energy.
The Coal and Railway Age
The first major changes came at the beginning of the industrial age. They were visible as early as the American Civil War (1861-1865), when the North had coal and the South had cotton. Coal meant steel and steam engines, and by extension railways, which transported troops and supplies faster than previously possible. Coal also meant steamboats and even submarines to carry out blockades. This access to energy and heavy industry gave Abraham Lincoln’s Northern forces a strategic advantage. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 were also marked by the influence of industry and transportation.
The Advent of Oil
The First World War (1914-1918) heralded the start of a new era, the age of oil. As early as 1911, Winston Churchill had the Royal Navy replace coal propulsion with fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant... oil propulsion. The more concentrated and efficient fuel gave off a lighter colored smoke, making it less noticeable. All the innovations of the Great War, such as the first airplanes, the first tanks and the first flame throwers, were based on oil.
Oil supplies became a matter of prime importance as a result. British oil companies were active in Persia and the Middle East very early on, and the United States provided the Allies with massive deliveries. In December 1917, Georges Clemenceau sent an extraordinary telegram to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, saying “Gasoline is as vital as blood in the coming battles.”
The Second World War
The Second World War (1939-1945) only increased the importance of oil. The Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor came mere days after President Roosevelt blocked oil exports to Japan. One of the targets of Hitler’s offensive in Russia was Baku and its oil fields, while Rommel’s Afrika Korps focused on Egypt and Iraq.
Gasoline was so essential that its cost was no longer an object. After the Normandy landings, oil arrived from England through the Pluto gas pipelinePipeline used to transport gas over a long distance, either on land or on the seabed. before being trucked to the front lines. For every two liters that went out, only one came in, but everyone’s needs were met...
The Geopolitical Weapon
Starting in the 1970s, oil became a political weapon. Oil-producing countries in the Middle East imposed oil embargoes, driven more by a desire to influence public opinion in consumer countries than to hinder their armed forces. The United States also often worried about Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. But were oil and gas really that effective as geopolitical weapons? In the first case, neither the United States nor Israel bowed to the embargo in the end. And in the second case, it has become clear that while Europe may need to buy Russian gas, Russia also needs to sell it to prop up its economy...
Oil ad gas supplies are still essential today and will probably stay that way for a long time to come. However, there are some mitigating factors.
The swarms of planes and heavy tanks used in WWII have been replaced by infinitely more sophisticated, more efficient and more expensive vehicles and machines – but much fewer of them. Even soldiers’ kit now features so much advanced technology that such huge amounts of fuel and materials are no longer needed.
Moreover, the military is taking an interest in renewable energyEnergy sources that are naturally replenished so quickly that they can be considered inexhaustible on a human time scale... technologies such as solar powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... , which can generate electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... on site in the field without the need to convoy in fuel. Such logistical requirements are a weakness. At the height of its involvement in Afghanistan, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff calculated that one U.S. marine was killed or wounded for every 50 supply convoys.
Alain Beltran holds a teaching qualification in history and a Ph.D. in arts. He is currently a research director at France’s National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS), working at Sorbonne IRICE, a mixed research unit specializing in identity, international relations and European civilizations. Since 2006, he has also chaired the Committee for the History of Electricity and Energy. Authored works include “Histoire(s) de l’EDF, comment se sont prises les décisions de 1946 à nos jours”, with J-F Picard and M. Bungener, (Dunod) and “La fée Électricité”, (“Découvertes Gallimard / Sciences et techniques” collection).