The Army’s alternative energy aspirations

Service leaders want more efficiency, better batteries, and anything else to take supply convoys off the road in Afghanistan.

Here’s the trick to staying out of political trouble for military service leaders who prize alternative energy: Just stay away from the biofuels.

As Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and the Navy Department have been enduring waves of attacks over their goals for the Navy and Marine Corps, Army leaders have been just as public about theirs. The difference seems to be that the Army focuses more on high-tech solutions for soldier gear and camps, rather than new blends of fuel for Army vehicles.

For example, Army Secretary John McHugh cited “shower re-use” and “mini-grids,” as two ways soldiers could save money downrange, according to an official story. Seventy percent of the Army’s convoy loads are fuel and water, so the more efficient troops can be, the fewer convoys the Army needs to run, meaning less risk to the troops who run them.

“If you’re an Army at war, the last thing you want to do is add to the risk that the soldier takes,” McHugh said. “For every 44 convoys we put on the road in Afghanistan, we lose one soldier. Anything we can do to take a convoy off the road is a good thing.” He continued: “Today in Afghanistan, if a platoon is going on a 72-hour patrol — kind of an average patrol — they have to take 400 pounds of batteries with them,” McHugh said. “So more high-efficiency batteries, rechargeable batteries, these things are critical to getting a load off of the war fighters.”

The Army isn’t just looking into the future for these kinds of capabilities; it’s evidently trying to field them today. According to another official story, soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team got special training this month on equipment that the brass will start to take a bite out of today’s logistical tail:

[The soldiers] received training on multiple hybrid energy capabilities that will increase generator efficiency, improve renewable energy harvesting, and reduce the soldier load by improving battery recharging capabilities. The intensive training curriculum served to increase soldiers’ capabilities and survivability once deployed through a suite of sustainable options. They learned maintenance, system capabilities and detailed operating instructions to prepare them for fluid integration into daily use while in Afghanistan.

Today, fuel consists of over 50 percent of the load carried by supply convoys in Afghanistan. These convoys are especially attractive targets to adversaries, and are regularly attacked. Statistics show that the U.S. loses one soldier for every twenty convoys through attacks consisting of improvised explosive devices and/or direct fire ambushes. There will be over 3,000 resupply convoys in 2012.

That works out to 150 troops killed, according to these numbers, or 69 troops killed, according to McHugh’s. Either way, the Army has a clear incentive to keep getting better at conserving fuel and water.

This emphasis on energy does not yet extend to the Army’s tactical vehicles, although at least one big player wants it to: BAE Systems’ design for the Ground Combat Vehicle would use hybrid-electric drive, which the company says could wind up being a big money-saver for the Army. The vehicles would use about 20 percent less fuel than a comparable big armored personnel carrier, BAE says, and they’d be easier to repair with their fewer moving parts.

General Dynamics’ GCV, however, would run old-fashioned diesel engines. So does that mean it doesn’t stand a chance in today’s double-green Army? Not necessarily. The Army that will select a Ground Combat Vehicle might not be the Army of today — with an ever-smaller presence in Afghanistan, it might put less of a premium on the kind of efficiency that costly war required. (Logisticians probably pray they’ll never have to support operations in another place so expensive and irksome to reach.) And the Army might want a GCV enough that it picks something less efficient but theoretically more affordable upfront, given the high priority of the program.

No way to know yet, but in the meantime, the service’s favorite buzzwords now appear to be “sustainable,” “renewable” and “rechargable.”