Electric battlefields: powering a new generation of logistics support

Electric initiatives have become increasingly topical in civilian life, but few have made it into the battlespace so far. However, electrification and renewable power initiatives offer immediate benefits to both operations and logistical support argues Jeff Pike, head of aerospace & defence strategic programmes and initiatives at IFS.

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When walking the floor at DSEI 2019, I was struck by the volume of conversation around battlefield electrification – perhaps not unexpected with environmental factors one of the dominating news items of 2019. When the topic 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 same challenges of civil electrification of vehicles apply in terms of limited range, cost, weight and the fact battery technology has been slow in its evolution and hasn’t kept up with aspirations. So, we are probably at least ten years or more away from this eventuality.

The more realisable and often overlooked near benefit of electrification comes with the strategic change to battlefield support assets and unmanned vehicles (sea, land and air), coupled with a focus on logistics support and the military supply chain.

The fossil fuel challenge

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 here – the US DoD, for example, is the largest consumer of fossil fuels in the world.

For every tank there are three tankers chasing it. The US Army can use as much as 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 $400 by the time it arrived in the remote locations where US troops were operating.

“Look at the successful modern conflicts of recent times: all the victorious sides had air superiority.”

All this military ‘logistics’ comes with challenges far beyond its civilian equivalents. Look at the successful modern conflicts of recent times: all the victorious sides had air superiority. Gaining this superiority comes at a cost, as air bases require a huge logistics footprint which opens up attack vulnerabilities. But, without air superiority the logistics footprint is a massive vulnerability.

Consider fuel alone. 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, too. US Army Environmental Policy Institute figures indicate the casualty factor for fuel resupplies in Afghanistan was 0.042 casualties for every fuel-related resupply convoy – or almost one casualty for every 24 fuel resupply convoys. When you consider the number of US-only fuel convoys required in Iraq in FY2007 was 5,133, the casualty count is quite alarming.

Electrification benefits: 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.

Battery life becomes a quickly limiting factor if we look at battlefield electrification in terms of entire vehicles. In the short term, it is far more likely we will see point electrification of support and secondary systems as the initial military focus.

Forward operating bases consume vast volumes of electricity, often thousands of kilowatt-hours per day. This demand is currently met almost entirely by generators fuelled with diesel, which brings forward the supply chain concerns around efficiency and safety.

“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.”

Take one use case from the US Army’s Operation Nimroz in Afghanistan. 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 very 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 time also saved per week. This meant engineers could focus their time and efforts on more pressing maintenance concerns.

Longer-term transformation: electric unmanned vehicles

We are already seeing electric unmanned aerial, land and sea vehicles entering service. Research from IDTechEx shows that electric vehicles for military, security and police duty will make up 15% of the total market in 2022. The bulk of this demand has been for aerial vehicles and is now for military vehicles on land; the water and airborne applications alone will each become businesses of well over one billion dollars yearly within the decade.

The US Army has set out a ten-year goal for full electrification of its assets and equipment, including its Next-Gen Combat Vehicle programme, a prototyping effort underway at the Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center which promises two prototype tanks by 2022.

There is a considerably reduced logistics footprint associated with these electrified and often unmanned assets. Electric vehicles, in theory, weigh significantly less, are significantly less mechanically complex, use easily routed cables to deliver 4-wheel power instead of vulnerable drive shafts, are simpler to maintain, run on renewable energy and have much lower failure rates.

Combine this with the switch toward unmanned sea, land and air vehicles in many operational functions and there is a distinct electrification opportunity that large, protected man-limited vehicles cannot realise. Most are genuine cases for realistic electrification.

Supply chain and asset management software must enable change

So, the already complex, multi-layered, multi-tiered, support model across military operations and the broad portfolio of equipment and inventory types is about to broaden further and increase in complexity. Defence and in-service support organisations need to prepare for these eventualities in both the short and long term.

There are significant advantages in electrification, but realising these benefits now and into the future requires systematic change of supply chain and logistics processes, control of transformation through stages of implementation and the inherent ability to cope with variable equipment types.

Flexibility and transformational agility need to be driven into the processes: the reality is that information support systems are the key to success and optimisation. 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 is 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, right through to frontline maintenance and support.

Electrification of support is realisable now

The success or failure of electrical technologies in defence will depend on the quality of the infrastructure behind them, not just charging points but the multi-faceted supply chain, the IS processes and equipment visibility and much more. We are probably some years from effective electrification of major equipment or weapon systems as there are some major engineering challenges to overcome and battery technology needs to have an evolutionary moment.

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 problem. Linking this with the move of operational delivery toward unmanned capabilities means electrification is hitting the battlefield and things are changing now –and will continue to do so for good strategic reasons.