A wave of new energy technologies is sweeping the commercial landscape. Some of these technologies have been available for twenty years (hybrid cars), others are newer (batteries for grid storage), while others are still in development (flying urban taxis). But what they have in common is an opportunity to fundamentally change how energy is created, moved, and consumed for military operations.
DoD is certainly pursuing many different efforts to incorporate new energy technologies into its force structure and installations, but the department could do better—much better. John Conger, an assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations, and the environment in the Obama administration, recently described the attitude within DoD for new carbon-reducing technologies, saying, “Yeah, people would pursue it, but let’s say I didn’t necessarily see enthusiasm across the department.” Of course, commercial technologies do not always translate well to the military sphere, and any new technology should be approached cautiously. But the simple facts are these: there is the potential for revolutionary benefits from new energy technologies, but these are most likely to be unlocked only by a more aggressive approach by DoD. While some applications are infeasible in the near or mid-term (e.g., an all-electric tank), those cases should not preclude the applications that are feasible.
It is because these benefits are potentially revolutionary that they are challenging to imagine, which in turn lowers the incentive to pursue them. A series of hypothetical tactical scenarios, however, offers a useful tool with which to tease these benefits out by tying technical specifications to real-world equipment, either in service or in development.
A More Resilient Base
A massive cyberattack crippled the electrical grid across large portions of the United States ten weeks ago. The depth of the damage, combined with its scale, meant the prospect of returning to normal would be months away. One small Army National Guard readiness center in the upper Midwest was better prepared than most. Several years earlier it had become independent from the grid by installing solar and battery arrays, eliminating the need for backup generators and associated stored fuel.
The facility’s managers designed its solar array to handle its typical demand plus additional factors. An adjacent small field, about half the size of a football field, provided the room needed for the solar array. Two factors helped keep the array’s size modest: the facility managers opting for the most efficient solar panels on the US commercial market (22.8 percent efficient), and the abundant sunshine in the region. This, combined with the battery array, supported night operations, but also accounted for stretches of bad weather reducing the array’s output. The feasibility of the solar and battery systems for a modestly sized facility was greatly aided by the large reductions in costs for both technologies during the 2010s, with solar panel prices dropping by 65 percent between 2010 and 2017, and those of lithium-ion batteries by 80 percent during the same period.
The facility’s independent power capability also helped with transportation. As part of the upgrade, the managers purchased a handful of electric nontactical ground vehicles and small electric vertical-takeoff UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). The electrical demand for these vehicles was accounted for in the “average daily demand” and “surge” components of the system’s design.
The electric ground vehicles were for general-purpose transportation, on and off base, for missions that didn’t require the capabilities of a tactical vehicle. The managers were confident the electric ground vehicles would have fairly long lifespans as they each came with a hundred-thousand-mile warranty on their battery packs. The National Guard personnel were experienced using these vehicles because their dramatically lower maintenance costs (80 percent less than conventional vehicles) were a powerful incentive to use them. Aside from hauling people and cargo, the vehicles were also used to move energy, to recharge smaller electrical devices far from base.
The fleet of small electric UAVs, all capable of vertical landing and takeoff, gave the facility an airborne capability, and personnel used them for airborne communications relay, reconnaissance, and cargo delivery—up to 140 pounds and out to thirty miles from the readiness center.
The net result was a major increase in resilience—the importance of which was proven since the cyberattack—versus a facility employing traditional backup generators and only conventional vehicles. The facility needed less frequent fuel deliveries (for tactical vehicles), had no need to constrain base operations during the blackout, and possessed an airborne capability rare for such a small facility. These capabilities significantly reduced the off-base support required to operate and maintain the electrical system and allowed this readiness center to become an island of resiliency, while most civilian functions were faltering, in a time of dire need.
Ground Recon with More Reach
The United States had again gone to war with a Middle Eastern regional power, and again Marine Corps light armored reconnaissance units were at the tip of the spear. One key difference this time, however, was that these vehicles were upgraded with several key energy technologies. First, they were hybrid versions of the long-serving LAV-25, employing small battery packs and electric motors to reduce fuel consumption and extend their unrefueled range by 25 percent. The entire hybrid system added a modest 3 percent to the overall vehicle weight. A second modification was the addition of several small electric quadcopter reconnaissance UAVs per ground vehicle, stored folded up inside the vehicles.
To perform their reconnaissance mission, the Marine units operated their vehicles well ahead of most other elements of the force, putting them beyond the reach of fuel truck convoys, which in turn necessitated aerial resupply. That was a problem, because the opponent possessed advanced long-range air defenses that made fuel resupply via C-130 or helicopter risky, both to crews and those expensive platforms. While the Air Force had an extensive campaign to suppress enemy air defenses underway, it needed time to work.
The solution was to employ unmanned, unpowered, disposable GPS-guided gliders to deliver fuel to these forward Marine units. The reduced fuel demand of these vehicles made this approach viable. Launched out the back of C-130s at high altitude, the wooden gliders could fly up to seventy miles, each carrying a seven-hundred-pound payload—around a hundred gallons of fuel or other cargo. The Marines abandoned the gliders after the cargo was recovered.
Beyond the standoff distance this gave the C-130s delivering the gliders, the Marine units forward also benefited. The quiet, small, wooden gliders had much lower radar, heat, acoustic, and visual signatures than any manned platform, making it less likely a resupply delivery would reveal the recipient’s location.
The Marines’ vehicles had larger battery systems associated with the hybrid drivetrains, which helped in four ways. First, they lowered the amount of fuel consumed while underway (via regenerative braking). Second, their larger capacity relative to the battery on a conventional vehicle allowed the Marines to operate the vehicle communication and sensor systems for longer while stationary before having to idle the engine. Third, that reduced time at idle made the vehicles quieter while stationary, and gave them a lower heat signature, both of value at night. Lastly, the bigger battery allowed the small UAVs to be recharged many times, transforming the larger vehicle’s battery and fuel tank into surrogate fuel sources for the small UAVs.
The small UAVs supported the unit’s primary mission, reconnaissance. Each UAV carried several lightweight sensors and could fly out twenty miles from parent vehicles before returning. The quadcopters were slower and had less range than fixed-wing UAVs, but were easier to launch and recover from the vehicles and able to land and observe, reducing their energy consumption and thus extending the period of observation. The UAVs proved key as they often discovered threats or obstacles before the parent vehicle was in the line of sight of a threat. Their size and quiet electric propulsion allowed them to often see enemy forces without being seen, which dramatically increased the reconnaissance footprint of each vehicle while presenting a small and manageable additional energy demand. The UAVs were also used to shuttle messages between vehicles, like high-tech carrier pigeons, when the crews wanted to minimize their electronic signatures.
The net result was a reconnaissance capability that surprised the enemy and undermined its anti-access / area denial capabilities (A2/AD). Enemy commanders assumed their long-range surface-to-air missiles and long-range artillery systems would combine to create a bubble that would keep out American airpower and pose an unacceptable risk to American truck resupply convoys. This in turn would keep American ground forces on a short logistical leash. But the longer reach of these Marine light armored units allowed them to penetrate this bubble and erode it from inside. Their presence, combined with their greater reconnaissance capability, allowed them to send back targeting information for long-range precision strikes, and on a few occasions to directly engage high-value enemy systems maintaining the A2/AD bubble. The Marine light armored units ultimately repeated history, achieving results much like that of Israeli ground forces that degraded Egyptian air defenses in 1973, paving the way for their airpower to unleash devastating effects.
CASEVAC for High-Threat Environments
It’s three days into the “big one,” and the US military is fighting a near peer in Europe. The conflict represents a stark shift from the counterinsurgencies of the 2000s and 2010s. For Alpha Company, a dismounted US Army infantry company, it had been relatively quiet, so far. Their mission was to hold a small village, situated in a heavily wooded area with only a single narrow unpaved road for access. They had been delivered there by truck eighteen hours earlier, but the vehicles had withdrawn due to the threat from enemy long-range artillery. Having no vehicles of their own, the company had very limited mobility. That had not been an issue with their static defensive mission—until now.
The solider was injured in a fall from a second-story window. The exact nature of the injuries was unclear, but they appeared life-threatening. The attending medic advised the company commander an urgent evacuation was essential. In this case, the typical Plan A from Afghanistan—evacuation via helicopter—was not viable. Facing a foe with world-class air defenses, Alpha Company’s commander had to deal with an environment not seen by the US Army since World War II, operating without the umbrella of air superiority. Plan B was to evacuate the soldier by ground vehicle, but it was a ninety-minute trip, each way, to get to the closest battalion aid station. When the commander asked the medic if the solider would survive that long, all he got was a grimace and shrug.
Fortunately, there was a Plan C. The Army had expanded the casualty evacuation toolbox a few years earlier. Anticipating the need for rapid casualty evacuation by air in high-threat environments, the Army had augmented its medical evacuation helicopter fleet with electric flying casualty evacuation pods. Commanders deployed these pods along the front, generally ten miles back. These deployments accounted for units located where ground evacuation was least viable and the location of proximate medical facilities. The units with the pods were dispersed, each consisting of two trucks, each truck towing a trailer containing four of the 350-pound pods. Once on station, the personnel in the trucks would set up the pods for quick-response missions. Each truck carried internally a hundred-kWh battery pack for recharging pods after flight. The truck’s direct-current quick-charging system could recharge a pod from 20 to 80 percent of the pod’s battery capacity in forty minutes and could complete ten recharges before the truck’s engine would have to be run to recharge the battery. Having a total of eight pods allowed the unit to cover many simultaneous evacuations at different locations and retain its mission capability even if several pods were lost to enemy action or mechanical issues.
Based on a commercial, one-person, electric aircraft capable of vertical takeoff and landing, the pods themselves had two small fixed wings at a 45-degree angle, each wing hosting four small electric motors with propellers on the forward edge. The pods flew autonomously to the pickup location, where personnel there loaded the casualty and then pushed the “go home” button. No inputs were needed from the casualty at any point. The pods had a range of forty miles and a flight speed of eighty miles per hour, giving a response time of within fifteen minutes from fifteen miles away. Any small open space, even a rooftop, could serve as a pickup or offload point.
Given the high-threat nature of the environment, no aircraft was safe, not even the Air Force’s best fifth-generation fighters. But Army planners judged the risk acceptable for operating the evacuation pods in such an environment. The pods flew low, were small, and had carbon fiber airframes, mitigating the risk from advanced radar-guided surface-to-air missiles. At least while inbound, losing a pod that cost about the same as a luxury car to an expensive enemy missile was a favorable exchange. Once loaded, the implications of losing a pod were obviously greater, but still far less than losing a much more expensive medical evacuation helicopter with its crew. The pods were quieter than the typical car on the highway, and the electric propulsion gave them a minimal heat signature, both factors that lowered the risk from other types of low-altitude air defense threats.
The commander of Alpha Company decided to request an evacuation by pod, and the aircraft was flying three minutes after the radio call was made, arriving eleven minutes later. It took several minutes for the soldiers on the ground to load the casualty before another fifteen-minute flight to the battalion aid station. From the commander’s decision to request evacuation to the pod’s arrival at the aid station, only about half of the “golden hour” had expired.
The net result was the Army had extended its rapid casualty evacuation capability into high-threat environments, saving lives, bolstering morale, and preserving commanders’ freedom to deploy personnel to dispersed locations and away from the road network.
There is a revolution underway in commercial energy technology, with potentially major implications for DoD tactical activities. Of course, these scenarios paint a picture of what could be, not how to get there—they do not address how DoD would go about developing and adopting these technologies. But one should first decide if the destination is worthwhile before diving into route planning.
The scenarios also emphasize how many options are available in the near and mid-term. While DoD should continue to pursue research and development to address military-specific applications and adapt commercial technologies to battlefield conditions, it should also look to the commercial energy sector for new technologies with potential value to military activities, and adapt them where they make sense. Perhaps planners should consider that for the next wargame they’re involved in planning.
Dr. Alec Wahlman has been a national security analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Virginia for over twenty years, researching a broad range of topics, to include the battlefield use of energy. He holds a PhD in military history from the University of Leeds (UK).
Dr. Terry Heuring has been a national security analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Virginia for over twenty years, researching many topics, to include the development of technology for battlefield use. He holds a PhD in physics from the State University of New York (Stony Brook).
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Airman 1st Class Clayton Wear, US Air Force