While most discussions about defense technology tend to center on weaponry and transportation, one of the most pressing technological concerns for any military operation is energy. It takes quite a bit of energy to power an operating base of any size, especially expeditionary ones that might be in remote areas or locations without sufficient existing energy infrastructure. The Department of Defense is the largest single user of fuel in the world and accounts for 76% of the United States federal government's total energy usage. Energy costs account for billions of dollars of the DOD's budget each year, and reducing energy costs and boosting both efficiency and sustainability is a key part of its current energy strategy, but it may also be critical to the success of its future operations.
While many new potential energy solutions have been introduced within the Department of Defense (DOD) recently, including beaming energy down to Earth from space and developing new forms of mobile nuclear reactors, the next big revolution in mobile energy production and storage will likely be in the form of solar energy. With that in mind, numerous private companies and DOD-funded organizations are researching and developing methods to leverage the solar system's largest fusion reactor - the Sun - to provide energy for forward operating bases and other expeditionary operations.
As it is now, fuel needs are one of the most significant logistical challenges for sustained military operations. A typical U.S. Army combat brigade has between 3,000 and 5,000 individuals, hundreds of vehicles, as well as equipment and infrastructure to support those assets. Many senior military leaders have in recent years bemoaned the fact that U.S. forces have become too reliant on existing logistical networks and fixed bases of operations, which could be worryingly vulnerable during a major conflict. With this in mind, in 2018, the Army declared it wanted its brigades to be able to operate for up to a week without resupply. At present, three days remains the expectation. So, clearly, there is a lot of work to be done, and it needs to be done fast based on the strategic realities looming on the horizon.
The cost of transporting fuel to its endpoint also adds significantly to the cost-per-gallon the Department of Defense pays for fuel. In 2015, the DOD was paying between $25 and $35 a gallon for fuel supplied from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar to forward operating bases in Iraq and Syria.
To help mitigate or reduce those costs, the DOD's Fiscal Year 2021 Operational Energy Budget Certification Report states that every branch of the U.S. armed forces is researching new methods to harness solar power in order to "increase warfighter capability." At times, though, there has been conflict at the highest levels of government over how much investment the DOD should make into renewable energies. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, solar power currently accounts for close to sixty percent of current planned DOD renewable energy addition. Since most of the current innovation in energy production is occurring in the private sector, as is the case with many emerging technologies, it's likely some of these commercial technologies could soon show up on the battlefield.
As an example of what might soon be deployed, one Poland-based company, MOVEit.tech, has developed highly modular mobile units designed specifically for armed forces applications. Their self-unloading solar systems that fit inside a standard 20-foot and 40-foot ISO shipping container and have been described as a “perfect solution to supply energy to all sorts of military bases and conflict zones.” Aside from uses aimed at expeditionary military use, the company also intends their modular solar units to be used for applications such as irrigation, humanitarian aid, construction sites, and remote oil and gas exploration.
According to their blog, MOVEit.tech offers several configurations of its solar power systems, which are designed to run indefinitely without any need for resupply. Coupled with high-capacity battery systems, all packed in the same container, such a mobile solar power plant could supply a forward operating base in sunny areas, such as the desserts of the Middle East or islands in the Pacific, with a near-constant source of renewable energy. The units can be opened up either automatically or manually using hydraulic actuators that unfold the array in minutes. Several of the MOVEit.tech systems possess sensors that can track the sun’s movement automatically to ensure peak power output. It literally is a 'drop it in and deploy' solution.
MOVEit.tech’s smallest unit, the SunBOX 35a, can produce up to 13.5kW at peak output. One of the most common diesel generators used by the DOD, the MEP-12A, by contrast, can produce output upwards of 700kW, but consumes around 55 gallons of fuel per hour. Clearly, any larger installation depending on these mobile solar plants would require multiple units. Still, eliminating some of the need to transport and constantly be resupplied with gobs of fuel could make such mobile solar units a viable, if not a critical option for expeditionary energy needs.
MOVEit.tech is far from the only group that is developing solar energy harvesting technologies aimed at armed forces use cases. Companies such as Simpliphi Power, OK Solar, and SunWize are all developing systems intended specifically for military expeditionary forces.
There are plenty of solar research and development projects housed within the DOD, as well. The Air Force Research Laboratory has been developing a concept known as the "complete expeditionary microgrid system" composed of silicon solar panels placed on the tops of tents, along with batteries and a command, control, and communication software package that can supply on-site, mobile energy for expeditionary forces.
In a 2017 DOD press release, Air Force 1st Lieutenant Jason Goins, project engineer for the expeditionary microgrid system, said that the concept was intended to be self-sufficient and easy to set up rapidly. “We demonstrated feasibility and where to go next in terms of making complete microgrid systems. Pieces of individual equipment have been demonstrated separately, and by combining them into a microgrid we learned how well they worked synergistically. We are taking what we learned and applying it to a rapidly deployable system,” Goins said. “We are looking at something that will be set up and deployed in an hour. If you can power a shelter in 30 minutes with affordable solar and wind, that’s spectacular.”
Similar systems have been tested on expeditionary bases in East Africa by the U.S. Navy within the last decade and a 2012 Marine Corps case study conducted in Afghanistan found that solar panels reduced diesel demand by 50% at forward operating bases. This is an absolutely remarkable reduction to comprehend when you consider the logistical footprint of moving that much fuel to these forward positions.
It's not even about being able to power everything, either. Just being able to keep critical systems, such as command and control, communications, defensive systems, and medical facilities online for a period of time if logistics become disrupted could be absolutely essential, if not life-saving. This is especially true when fighting a near-peer state actor in a theater, such as the Pacific, where access to huge amounts of diesel will be less assured than pretty much anytime during the Global War On Terror.
Considering the services' emerging plans to rapidly set up bases in austere locations, operate for a short period of time, and then move to a new location quickly, being able to deploy entire solar farms in a shipping container that has very minimal manpower requirements to set up and run would be hugely advantageous. In fact, it may be absolutely necessary. Furthermore, as electricity demands at austere locations grow, with new directed energy weapons, next-generation sensors, and advanced communications systems hitting the front lines, additional and redundant power generation capabilities will be needed.
With all this in mind, there seems to be an opportunity for the U.S. military to embrace solar more deeply as part of a cocktail or alternative energy solutions in order to make its expeditionary operations dreams a reality and to rely less on supply lines that could very well become deeply disrupted during a peer state conflict.
Contact the author: Brett@TheDrive.com