As the first person to hold the job, Burke said she is cautious about keeping her goals realistic and making sure she isn't driven by her inbox to move too quickly.
"It's not every day in the Pentagon you have a chance to establish a whole new organization," she said. But at the same time, she wants to move fast enough to make sure that future strategies, war games and funding reflect the need to move toward a more fuel-efficient future.
DOD's energy landscape is changing, she said. "What is new is how energy-intense our military is, and the kinds of wars we are in where we are not always going to be behind our front lines. The lines are everywhere," she said.
Contracting: ripe for improvement
Burke fancies herself a matchmaker -- identifying needs and marrying them up with possible energy solutions.
In the short term, she said, her plans to "unleash troops from the tether of fuel" won't come from sending a deluge of prototypes of smart microgrids and solar-paneled tents to the front lines.
Instead, Burke said she plans to take stock of proven, off-the-shelf technologies to save on fuel and energy needs and lighten air loads.
"I know it's not as satisfying as being able to say we are going to put an entirely new thing in theater and it will change everything," she said. "I hope that's possible, but right now I think we need to focus on what we know we can do right now, and that will actually add up to quite a bit," she said.
Initial fixes, she said, could range from engine upgrades to material upgrades or changes to the body of a system or its wheels. As gear, weapons and Humvees cycle back to the depot to be refitted and refurbished, that's an opportunity to retrofit equipment with efficiency upgrades, she said.
Dan Nolan, the founder and CEO of Sabot 6, a defense consulting group, said a specific area that could use some of Burke's attention would be creating financial incentives for contractors to be more energy-efficient. Nolan was part of the team that put DOD's Power Surety Task Force together -- the group that pushed the Army to insulate more than 6 million square feet of tents in Iraq and Afghanistan with spray-on foam, saving $1.5 million a day in fuel savings, according to Army numbers.
Contractors perform a lot of DOD's long-term support work in the field. If they were required to buy their own fuel within their contracts and were told they could keep any savings, that could motivate them to slim down their energy needs, he said. Such changes could be where the "greatest impact could happen in the shortest amount of time," he said.
'Climate change will shape our future'
From her previous perch as a senior fellow and then vice president at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center for a New American Security, Burke helped shape research focused on the intersection of security threats and energy issues.
She started grappling with security issues in the Pentagon years ago. Early in her career, she served as a Presidential Management Fellow in the Pentagon, getting to know the building and serving in its different offices for two years. Since then, she has hopscotched through civil service and political appointee jobs at the State Department and Defense Department and also worked at Third Way, a progressive think tank, where she advised candidates and members of Congress on national security issues.
Burke has championed ramping up consideration of climate change and energy considerations into national security strategy.
"National security capabilities can take decades to build," she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year. "We need to design the ideas and equipment and recruit and train the personnel to protect and defend the nation 10 to 40 years in the future, and it is clear that climate change will shape our future," she said (E&E Daily, March 22).