Could the Army make all its vehicles electric in the future? | Army Modernization Priorities

Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley of the Army's Futures & Concepts Center explains "electrifying the brigade" and what it could mean for the Army's future vehicle fleet.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army is seeking to power its brigades using electric and hybrid sources in order to break free of the burden of fuel and disposable batteries that bog down its logistics tail and limit mobility and reach, a general with Army Futures Command has told Defense News.

Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley, the director of the Futures and Concepts Center within the command, said in a recent interview that it’s one thing to power a vehicle electrically, but quite another to work out an entire enterprise that would support fleets of electric vehicles and other capabilities.

“Let’s be clear. We’re behind. We’re late to meet on this thing,” Wesley said. “If you look at all of the analysis, all of the various nations that we work with, they’re all going to electric power with their automotive fleet, and right now, although we do [science and technology] and we’ve got some research and development going on and we can build prototypes, in terms of a transition plan, we are not there.”

For instance, the Army tested a hybrid Chevy Colorado — fitted with a hydrogen fuel cell and electric drive — with several units, but nothing amounted to the effort.

Buying an all-electric Tesla vehicle, Wesley said, is easy, but “the Army has to think about it much bigger. What is the cost of replacing your entire fleet? We know we can’t do that. There’s got to be a steady transition.”

U.S. soldiers evaluated the Chevrolet Colorado ZH2's operational effectiveness as a hybrid vehicle. (Jerome Aliotta/U.S. Army)
U.S. soldiers evaluated the Chevrolet Colorado ZH2's operational effectiveness as a hybrid vehicle. (Jerome Aliotta/U.S. Army)

There will likely be a time where vehicles that use fossil fuel and ones that are all-electric share the battlefield. “What is the distribution plan that enables that?” Wesley wondered. “That is much more complex when you look at the implications for an entire enterprise.”

So Wesley’s outfit is preparing a proposal for the head of Army Futures Command that will address how the service might accomplish such a big, but important endeavor that could change the paradigm of the logistics and sustainment tails as well as enhance force mobility.

The proposal will make a business case for the Army electrifying the formation, discuss the technical feasibility and describe how a transition process.

There are three major reasons it’s important the Army embark on this now as opposed to just dabbling with electrification capability, Wesley said. The service knows it must build a fleet more reliant on electric power than fossil fuels. While the Army previously dealt with prototypes and knows it can make electric vehicles, the service must get its arms around the capability “in a much more holistic way,” Wesley stressed, and that will take time to work out.

The entire automotive industry is going electric, Wesley said, so the Army will have to do the same or risk problems with resources and supply chains down the line; if industry no longer builds parts for fossil fuel-reliant vehicles, availability of those parts will diminish and their cost will increase.

The Army also views electrically powered brigades as advantageous when considering how it expects to operate in the future. The service’s emerging doctrine Multi-Domain Operations requires units to operate distributed and independently for longer periods of time in potentially contested environments.

“We have to operate distributed, which means you have to have organic power that is readily available,” Wesley said. “Another aspect of Multi-Domain Operations … when you think about it, a lot of technology is being distributed at lower and lower echelons, and the question is always: ‘How are we going to power these different tools that we use in operations, highly technical tools, that we use to integrate domains? How are you going to power those?’

Buying an all-electric Tesla vehicle, Wesley said, is easy, but “the Army has to think about it much bigger. What is the cost of replacing your entire fleet? We know we can’t do that. There’s got to be a steady transition.” (SpaceX via Getty Images)
Buying an all-electric Tesla vehicle, Wesley said, is easy, but “the Army has to think about it much bigger. What is the cost of replacing your entire fleet? We know we can’t do that. There’s got to be a steady transition.” (SpaceX via Getty Images)

“Electrification allows you to have access to readily available power to distribute not only for the vehicle but for all those different systems that I have.”

And other benefits abound, he added, including dealing with less parts. The general noted that a Tesla’s moving parts are a few dozen while the number of moving parts in an internal combustion engine can be in the thousands. In the electric vehicle, the parts are also modular and don’t break down due to interaction with each other, but rather individual failures, Wesley said, so that means broken parts can easily be replaced.

In addition, batteries from one vehicle to another would be similar or exactly the same, so parts across the fleet would have more commonality, he said. Electric vehicles are also quiet and have a low heat signature, which means they are less likely to be detected by opposing forces, he added.

While a transition to electrically powered brigades would have a substantial price tag, the cost of one would be much lower than the cost to power the brigade with fossil fuel now, he argued.

The Army is also considering powering its capabilities with other forms of energy such as nuclear power — a technological leap that isn’t far off, according to Wesley.

The Pentagon is investing roughly $400 million across the next five years in an attempt to develop prototypes for mobile nuclear power. The idea is to “pelletize” nuclear fuel encased in such a manner “to preclude the escape of radioactivity that allows you to leverage nuclear fission in such a way that it becomes safe,” Wesley explained.

The three-star general said there are at least nine vendors interested in building a prototype that could be built in the next two to three years, which would provide enough power to provide energy to an entire forward-operating base for an extended period of time.

“Imagine a mobile nuclear power capability that can fit on the back of a truck. Now you’re generating your own energy.”