Ray Mabus_US Navy
U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus speaks to employees of General Dynamics NASSCO during a visit to the ship building operation in San Diego, Calif., on Jan. 9, 2014. Reuters/Mike Blake

The U.S. Navy -- an institution not often celebrated for its efficiency -- is turning to green energy to deal with severe funding cuts and the very real prospect of budget sequestration.

“We’ve got SEAL teams in the field that are very close to net zero in terms of energy and water [use], so they can stay out almost indefinitely without being resupplied,” Ray Mabus, the secretary of the Navy, told International Business Times during an interview at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York.

For Mabus, who had come to New York for Fleet Week, the real story was taking place on the drawing boards, where the Navy is being transformed into a lean, self-sufficient fighting force through the use of alternative-energy technologies.

That effort isn’t just about going green, though that is an added attraction. Nor is it merely about reducing costs, though that, too, is a factor, given that the Navy’s annual budget for fuel alone is around $5 billion. At the heart of Mabus’s transformation of the Navy is the idea that the last thing anyone wants when chasing an enemy is to have to stop for gas.

Mabus started his political life as a state auditor -- and later governor -- in Mississippi, and has numbers to support any argument he makes, including this grim statistic from the war in Afghanistan: For every 50 convoys of fuel delivered to U.S. forces, one Marine died. And there is this: “If you change the light bulbs on a ship to LEDs, it saves 2 percent or 3 percent of total energy on that ship. The same with hull coatings -- making the ship go through the water with less friction. The same thing with stern flaps behind propellers.” Even the planning of tours has changed, with Navy ships now more closely following tides, currents and the wind rather than simply steaming from point A to point B.

In his nearly five years in the job, Mabus has been the catalyst for change for a force that wasn’t just losing its global reach when he took the helm, but its size and reputation. Mabus, who served as a naval officer in the 1970s, grew up far from the sea in north Mississippi, and after graduating from Harvard in 1976, embarked upon a political career. He served as Mississippi’s state auditor from 1984 to 1988, then governor from 1988 to 1992, and revealed a powerful bent for wise public spending and for holding people to account. During his stint as auditor, he helped send 55 supervisors in 25 counties to jail as part of a huge FBI sting that recovered millions in misspent and stolen public funds.

After losing his bid for re-election in 1991, Mabus embarked upon various global business endeavors before being tapped by Obama to be secretary of the Navy. Once on board, he left no doubt as to his priorities: He was determined to ensure that the Navy dominates the high seas far into the foreseeable future, even in the face of significant budgetary constraints.

“On 9/11, 2001, the Navy stood at 316 ships,” Mabus observed. “By 2008, after one of the great military buildups in American history, we were at 278 ships and had 49,000 fewer sailors.” The decline of the Navy occurred partly because the U.S. was involved in two land wars, and although both relied heavily upon the Navy’s Marines, in budgetary terms this branch of the military more or less took a back seat.

One way Mabus proposed making the Navy stronger was by making it more energy autonomous, which in turn makes it easier to keep ships where they need to be. Even the use of portable solar panels, he noted, can reduce the number of soldiers who must be assigned to dangerous fuel supply lines.

Energy efficiency doesn’t come cheap, but the ultimate budgetary payoff is undeniable, in fuel savings.

Mabus has meanwhile used his expertise in auditing to ensure that procurement processes are clean. During his tenure, he scrapped expensive open-fee contracts that allowed for major cost overruns.

The result is that the Navy has undergone a slow but steady revival, in part because it was forced to think smarter and greener due to the shift in resources and a shrinking budget.

It hasn’t been a simple process, Mabus concedes. Changing the institutional approach to big defense contracts is precisely like turning an aircraft carrier around. It required political savvy and a new approach to institutional culture.

Mabus pointed to the Navy’s new hybrid ships that use regular diesel for speeds above 12 knots and electric drive for anything under that, and noted that on its first deployment, the U.S.S. Makin Island was given a budget of $33 million for fuel yet came home with $15 million of that unspent. “Part of it was a hybrid drive and part of it was a change of culture on the ship,” Mabus said. “The engineering officer I met said he had sailors and Marines coming up saying, 'I figured out a way to save some fuel, save some energy.'”

The U.S.S. America, a large amphibious ship built in 2012, also has a hybrid drive, as will the yet-to-be-completed U.S.S. Tripoli. A new Zumwalt-class destroyer will be completely electric.

Aside from the more obvious benefits to the environment, ships out at sea are less vulnerable to attack as well as those near shore that are taking enemy fire. The U.S.S Cole (which, coincidentally, was among the ships on parade during Fleet Week) was docked in Aden, Yemen, on a routine fuel stop when it was bombed by al-Qaeda in 2000, resulting in 17 deaths.

On land, the use of rolling solar panels reduces reliance upon electric generators, “And, as one SEAL team commander told me, once you turn off the generator, you can hear, so you don’t have the target on you and you can hear people that are trying to sneak up you and do bad things,” Mabus said.

Adjusting its fuel requirements has given the Navy more flexibility in how it positions its fleets around the world. Lately, Mabus said, fleets have increasingly been positioned in the Pacific Ocean, partly because of the political and economic tilt toward Asia. The Navy will soon have about 60 percent of its fleet based in the Pacific, including at a new home port in Singapore for four ships on a rotational basis. Homeporting means crews can be flown to the ship rather than transported by the ship, he said.

Similarly, he said, more ships will be stationed permanently in Guam, Japan and Hawaii. Meanwhile, the Navy has stationed 1,000 Marines in Darwin, Australia, and expects that number to eventually double.

Elsewhere, the Navy has recently stationed Marines in the Black Sea and in Romania and Bulgaria to address concerns regarding Russian aggression, and in Spain and Italy in response to piracy and terrorist threats in Africa. The latter, Mabus said, is particular cause for concern.

“We’ve been fighting pirates off the Horn of Africa,” he said. “It’s going to be a long-term concern for the world, [especially] the Gulf of Guinea on the western coast of Africa. It’s got a lot of headlines lately because of Boko Haram, but if you look at that whole thing, piracy is on the upswing, extremism on the rise, poaching on the rise to fund extremism or to fund wars.”

Even with procurement reforms and energy savings, it is stunningly expensive to operate a navy that needs to be everywhere, all the time, and to deal with every major threat – not only to the U.S. but to its allies. And Mabus is well aware that funding is in short supply and will be in even shorter once sequestration kicks in for eight years starting in 2016. Sequestration will seek to wipe $1.2 trillion from the overall national debt over 10 years from 2014. The military's contribution will be $500 billion in cuts over eight years from 2016, something that Mabus said the Navy will struggle to meet.

This year the Navy requested a budget of $148 billion for 2015, down from the $155.8 billion it asked for in 2014 and $160 billion in 2013. But Mabus contends that the point is not to trim; in fact, he argues, the Navy is too small and that sequestration is “just a dumb way to cut.” Instead, he’d like to see the Navy grow -- to 306 ships.

The likelihood of that happening will be directly influenced by politics. A recent White House memo warned the House Armed Services Committee that the budget as currently proposed would be vetoed unless it includes basic cuts laid out by the Pentagon. Not surprisingly, Congress – which values lucrative defense contracts in its districts – is loath to cut back on such funding. So, while the Pentagon wanted to cut back the Navy’s fleet of aircraft carriers from 11 to 10 -- shaving billions off an overall military budget that needs to cut $500 billion in 10 years -- Congress balked. In fact, current law stipulates that there be 11.

For the most part, the five ships paraded at the annual Fleet Week represent the old guard. The ships that represent the future of the Navy are deployed elsewhere, still under construction -- or are under debate.