With the move towards electrifying the military’s tactical fleet, as outlined in the Pentagon’s Army Climate Strategy and various climate adaptation plans, the effectiveness and reliability of battlefield charging systems have been cast into the spotlight. The move to all-electric and hybrid vehicles is also supported by combat theory, with electric drivetrains allowing for greater undetected movement and locally sourced energy (like wind or solar) reducing the risks associated with JP-8 supply chains.
Battlefield charging systems are available in various forms to suit different situations, and the military is still in the process of standardizing solutions. Battlefield charging systems are currently assessed on several parameters, including efficacy, energy source, and externalities.
One of the primary comparisons that battlefield charging systems face is how quickly they can fully refuel a vehicle compared to JP-8. For example, an Abrams tank takes six minutes to refuel with JP-8, while one 2021 study put its all-electric battery charging at 15 minutes.
The Abrams example also raises another issue for battlefield charging systems: the study used portable nuclear power sources. These, and many mobile alternative power sources, take up more space than conventional diesel tankers, creating issues with transport and finding available space within a base.
Different energy sources for battlefield charging systems have different energy densities and viability in certain locations. Hydrogen fuel cells, for example, have a similar energy density to JP-8 but have other considerations in terms of scalability and the maturity of the tech. Other sources, such as solar and wind, can be utilized on location but may not yet have the capacity to meet all needs or provide reliable 24/7/365 coverage.
Current and future battlefield charging systems must support a mobile army, which means they need to be as mobile as the vehicles they’re charging. Modular battlefield charging systems, such as the Mobile Tactical Battlefield Recharger (MTBR), can achieve this. MTBRs support vehicles and weapons systems from a unit that easily fits on the back of a common tactical truck.
Several tactical considerations arise from using battlefield charging systems, including heat, noise, and structural vulnerabilities. These can affect a system's viability in different battlefield situations and the information it provides to enemies about a critical target.
Below, we’ll examine how battlefield charging systems have evolved over the years, their challenges, and the latest technological advances in mobile energy solutions.
The Evolution of Battlefield Charging Systems
The first electrical systems on tactical vehicles appeared around the middle of the 20th century and were primarily powered by the vehicle's own internal combustion engines. As the complexity of these systems, such as radar, comms, and targeting, increased, so did their need for power. This led to the introduction of Auxiliary Power Units (APUs). These APUs allowed vehicles to idle their main engine while still being able to power on-board electronics systems.
Hybrid systems, which combine internal combustion with battery-powered electric motors, began to appear in commercial and military settings at the start of the 21st century. Advancements in energy storage enabled the deployment of all-electric light tactical vehicles and increased consideration of hybrid and all-electric feasibility across the military’s entire fleet.
This utility is enhanced through innovations such as Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G), whereby vehicles can contribute to a base’s power supply. The biggest steps in the next few years will be in battery efficiency, as physical size and energy capacity are the major obstacles to increasing electrification. In theory, these issues can be overcome by solid-state batteries and by using batteries with a different chemical makeup.
Challenges Facing Battlefield Charging Systems
The climate adaptation plans and the move towards greater electrification are necessary adjustments that also provide operational benefits. However, they are not without their challenges, including retrofitting and the creation of universal standards.
Commercial vs. Military Innovation
Consumer-focused corporations and the military have aligned interests in charging innovation, somewhat easing the military's burden. However, this only goes so far. Engagement with commercial actors is vital for successful military EV proliferation. Fortunately, there are signs of that, such as GM Defense’s $35 billion investment in electric vehicle R&D.
The military already has hundreds of thousands of vehicles and associated means of refueling them. Any greater electrification will have to involve at least some retrofitting of the current fleet and support systems, as it would be impossible to completely replace them in such a short timeframe. The viability and effectiveness of these retrofitted technologies have yet to be tested on a grand scale.
Creating Universal Standards
A core goal of military procurement is consistency of quality and part compatibility across vendors and with allies. During such a period of high innovation, the military may, at some stage, have to commit to a certain standard in EV and battlefield charging technology, which could become obsolete relatively soon.
JP-8 has obvious vulnerabilities in transport and storage, but this doesn’t mean any replacement technologies will be vulnerability-free. For example, any mass hydrogen storage creates a considerable risk of explosion, while renewable sources (wind turbines or PV panels) can be fragile and easily damaged by enemies.
As the military moves towards greater electrification of its tactical fleet, considerable research and investment will need to be done to create battlefield charging systems to support it. The future of mobile energy in combat zones will be decided along several significant parameters, including physical size, transport requirements, energy source, and refueling efficiency.
The good news is that the recent evolution of battlefield charging systems shows rapid improvements in important tech, such as battery capacity, size, and speed. However, several major challenges remain, including how much the commercial sector will be able to contribute, what future standards will be decided on for our military and allies, and the new operational risks posed by different refueling/recharging methods.
At Enercon, we have extensive experience working with the military and are proud to have several former service members among our senior staff. We specialize in creating efficient electrical engineering systems for military contexts, including microgrids and mobile charging units. To learn more about how Enercon can assist you with military electrical environments, contact us today.