Future Wars: Oil

In the second in a series of articles on future warfare, this article will look at the possibility of wars being fought over the last oil reserves. While it may seem strange at first to fight over oil, it is important to remember petroleum provides 39 percent of the world’s energy consumption. During the Gulf War, Coalition forces used up to 19 million gallons of oil per day.

Frontlines Fuel of War
Combat in “Frontlines: Fuel of War”

It is a scenario which has been played out numerous times in fiction, such as the video games Mercenaries: World in Flames, Tom Clancy’s Endwar and Frontlines: Fuel of War to the book Red Storm Rising which feature conflicts over oil spiraling out of control. In the years following the Iraq War, it’s a scenario which is also claimed to be the cause of the conflicts in the Middle East. And as the world’s supply of oil is finite, many continue to study what would happen as oil supplies continue to dwindle, especially since the entire world’s economy depends on oil.

However, although this is a scenario which experts theorize could happen in the future, the idea of conflicts motivated or determined by oil have many precedents throughout history.

For example, before the attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan had several reasons to enter World War II, such as militarism and a nationalist government. But the main catalyst which prompted Japan to go to war with the United States was an August 1941 oil embargo by the U.S. and Europe, which was brought upon by Japan’s invasion of China and French Indochina. Japan itself could not produce oil domestically, but still had a large industry, air force and navy which required large amounts of petroleum.

Japanese Empire
Areas occupied by the Japanese in 1942

To support its imperialist goals, Japan decided to seize the oil reserves in the Dutch East Indies and British Southeast Asia (referred to by the Japanese as the Southern Resource Zone), which the Europeans were unable to defend themselves due to the war with Nazi Germany. The only obstacle was the U.S. Navy, which the Japanese hoped to cripple early on. However, by 1945 the U.S. submarine blockade and aerial mining of Japanese waters made shipping oil back to the Japanese home islands almost impossible, and eventually contributed to Japan’s defeat.

Other examples throughout history show the effect oil has had on wars. In World War II, Adolf Hitler divided his forces to capture both Stalingrad and the oil reserves in the southern Caucasus region, an operation called “Case Blue.” The oil fields at Baku in the Azerbaijani S.S.R.  alone produced 80 percent of the Soviet Union’s oil, although by dividing their forces the Germans were unable to accomplish either objectives.

During the Yom Kippur War, President Richard Nixon authorized Operation Nickel Grass which provided weapons and supplies to Israel during its war with Syria and Egypt (which was supported by the other Arab nations) after the Soviets began provided weapons to the Arabs. In October 1973, because of the U.S.’s support for Israel, the Organization of Arab Producing Exporting Countries (OPEC) declared an oil embargo. By March 1974, the cost of oil rose from $3 per barrel to $12, resulting in the embargo being known as the 1973 oil crisis. Despite Iran at the time being a close ally to the U.S., the Shah of Iran said:

“It’s only fair that, from now on, you should pay more for oil. Let’s say ten times more.”

Although oil has been proven as a major factor in previous wars, and possible areas for oil conflicts include the Arctic, the East China Sea, the Caspian,and the eastern Mediterranean, some experts argue there is little chance of wars breaking out solely over oil. In particular, the cost of fighting over oil compared to the costs saved after attaining that oil often make such conflicts infeasible, which can be determined by four particular obstacles.

Kuwaiti Oil Fires
Coalition aircraft fly over Kuwaiti oil fields during the Gulf War

The first are invasion costs, which include damage to the oil fields and infrastructure attained when capturing the oil reserves. The second are occupation costs, which arise from local resistance to the invaders, and can (again) result in the resistance damaging either the oil fields or the infrastructure. The third are international costs, which result from the international reactions to the invading country’s occupation, such as sanctions, embargoes or even military intervention. The fourth are investment costs, or the costs involved in attracting foreign capital and expertise to the occupied oil fields.

Even if oil is not the cause, oil can still affect wars fought for other reasons, as well as affecting the global economy. In the ongoing fight against ISIS in the Middle East, some sources claimed ISIS was making about $20 million a month in 2016, leading Coalition forces to adjust their airstrikes toward their oil refineries. Hopefully, a war between the major world powers will be avoided or alternative methods of fuel can be discovered before oil totally runs out.


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