Electric battlefields - powering a new generation of logistics support

Electric battlefields - powering a new generation of logistics support
Jeff Pike, head of Aerospace & Defence Strategic Programmes & Initiatives at IFS
Published: 17 February 2020 - 12:47 p.m.

When battlefield electrification is first mentioned it perhaps conjures unrealistic visions of fully electrified ships, tanks and aircraft, built as now but without combustion engines, operating in combat environments.
But, the more realisable and often overlooked benefit of electrification comes with the strategic change to battlefield support assets, coupled with a focus on logistics support and the military supply chain.

Fossil fuel consumption comes at significant cost
Military conflicts are becoming increasingly reliant on logistics to underpin the huge undertakings of maintenance and shipping personnel, equipment and supporting resources to often remote, difficult to reach locations and then trying to sustain them. An effective logistics strategy can be the difference between the success and failure of an entire military campaign and fossil fuels play a key role—the US Department of Defense, for example, is the largest consumer of fossil fuels in the world.

The US Army can use 600,000 gallons of fuel a day to run an armoured division. The M1 Abrams tank gets about 0.6mpg and even a cargo vehicle such as the M-1070 semi-trailer, which hauls fuel, delivers approximately 1.2mpg. For context, in the Afghanistan war, Pentagon officials told the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee a gallon of fuel cost the military about US$400 by the time it arrived in the remote locations where US troops were operating.

Balancing vulnerability with efficiency usually means a bloated logistics footprint
Simply transporting fossil fuel to the forward operating base requires a huge convoy of military vehicles. Moreover, fuel stored in remote bases is housed in vast flexi-tanks, difficult to hide and incredibly vulnerable to aerial attack. Then the convoy and broader logistics support machine itself needs security, feeding, accommodation and support, thus perpetuating the need for more personnel who, in turn, need supporting themselves.

All this comes at a human cost. U.S. Army Environmental Policy Institute figures indicate the casualty factor for fuel resupplies in Afghanistan was 0.042, which is 0.042 casualties for every fuel-related resupply convoy—or almost one casualty for every 24 fuel resupply convoys.

Electrification is more than green: it’s reducing the logistics footprint
Switching to electric could deliver strategic battlefield advantages—limiting maintenance overhead and more importantly offering a direct benefit to saving lives.

QinetiQ, a global organisation of scientists and engineers at the forefront of research and commentary on the use of electric propulsion in defence, has produced in-depth research on the state of military electrification. But, the benefits of electrification are more than ‘going green’—they can deliver huge logistical advantages

Short term opportunity lies in secondary support
Battery life quickly becomes a limiting factor when assessing battlefield electrification in terms of entire vehicles. In the short term, it’s more likely we’ll see—and are starting to see—point electrification of support and secondary systems as the initial military focus. Forward operating bases consume vast volumes of electricity, often 1000s of kWh a day, but this demand is currently met almost entirely by generators fuelled with diesel.

Take one use case from the US Army in Afghanistan, called “Operation Nimroz.” The base installation mandated 13 generators, but many were running well below capacity. The Army changed to two generators and two “hybrid sites” which included a trailer with a generator, battery pack and solar panel, to provide power for specific missions.
Total fuel savings for the project came to about 1,600 gallons a week and 30-man hours per week were saved by not needing to refuel, with a further 20 hours of maintenance saved per week. This meant engineers could focus their efforts on more pressing maintenance concerns.

Supply chain and asset management software must enable change
There are significant electric advantages—but for these benefits to be realised now, systematic change of supply chain and logistics processes is required.

Supporting a solar panel farm in a deployed base is not the same as supporting the fossil fuel generator that preceded it, even if the maintenance objectives are the same. As such it’s key that military forces rely on enterprise asset management solutions with built-in adaptability for new assets and logistics principles—from procurement of the asset, through to frontline maintenance and support. Nobody wants the electrification of the battlefield to become an IS project overhead, so choose wisely!

Electrification of support is realisable now
As the QinetiQ report explains, the success of electrical technologies in defence will depend on the quality of the infrastructure behind them—not just charging points but the multi-facetted supply chain, the IS processes and equipment visibility and much more.

But, electrification of support, certainly secondary support, can deliver strategic operational advantages—programme efficiencies and safety being paramount—to any modern fighting force and reduce the fossil fuel supply hydra! Electrification is hitting the battlefield and things are changing now—and will continue to do so for good strategic reasons.

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