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The world's single largest purchaser of oil is the Pentagon. All those tanks, planes and ships guzzle about 340,000 barrels per day. But as NPR's Jeff Brady reports, higher prices affect the Pentagon differently than the rest of us.

JEFF BRADY: If you want to understand why the military uses so much oil, Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs is a good place to start. A bulky C-130 transport plane is firing up its four propeller engines.

(Soundbite of plane)

BRADY: It's impossible to talk near one of these things, so we're going to head over to where a relatively quieter jackhammer is tearing up concrete.

(Soundbite of jackhammer)

BRADY: Senior Master Sergeant Glen Blackmann looks back at the C-130. The aircraft also is called the Hercules.

SENIOR MASTER SERGEANT GLEN BLACKMANN (Peterson Air Force Base): So the back of the plane opens up here. It looks like you could almost fit a truck in there or something. You can take a small one, Humvees, things of that nature.

BRADY: The plane has six fuel tanks. Two are shaped like footballs and hang from the wings.

Senior Master Sgt. BLACKMANN: These aren't bombs, these are tanks, fuel tanks. Those are your left external, your right external. Altogether, I think it holds about 53,000 pounds of fuel.

BRADY: I have a calculator here. Fifty-three thousands pounds divided by 6.7 pounds per gallon - that's just under 8,000 gallons of fuel that the C-130 can hold.

Senior Master Sgt. BLACKMANN: That will get us from here probably to St. John's without refueling, St. John's, Newfoundland.

BRADY: Twenty-six hundred miles away. So that's three gallons to the mile. Not three miles to the gallon, three gallons to the mile. There are more than 500 of these C-130s in the Air Force in reserves. And that's just one machine in one branch of the military. The Army's Abrams battle tank weighs 60 tons and needs about two gallons to travel a mile.

When I called the public relations folks over at the Defense Department to ask how higher fuel prices will affect the military, I can almost hear them scratching their heads. Michael O'Hanlon with the Brookings Institution explains why. He's a former Defense Department budget analyst.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Brookings Institution): The military, despite using all this oil, despite spending billions a year on its oil, is nonetheless perhaps the user that's at least risk in our whole nation of having its fuel supply cut off or having economics really crimp its ability to fill up the gas tank.

BRADY: After all, in a time of war can the Department of Defense really say, well, let's not fly that mission this week because gas prices are too high? No, it really can't, says O'Hanlon.

Mr. O'HANLON: So I don't think we have to worry too much about the current oil price increase causing a big problem for DOD. It is, in the short-term, a management challenge, and there many Pentagon comptroller types who are staying up late into the evening figuring out how to make this work.

BRADY: When Congress considers the next appropriation for the military, fuel costs likely will not be high on the agenda. The bigger challenge for the military, says O'Hanlon, is what the price hikes represent, a tightening between demand and supply that could cause problems for the military down the road.

What happens when such an oil-hungry institution can't get oil? That's why the Defense Department is conducting all kinds of research on alternate forms of energy and more efficient machines. So what's next, you ask? A hybrid tank? It's already in the works.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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