WASHINGTON ― Israel’s Tank Development Authority is expected to begin field trials of advanced, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that developers claim will change the way ground forces operate and maintain tanks and armored vehicles.
Developed in partnership with the Israeli Ministry of Defense by Epsilor-Electric Fuel, an Israel-based subsidiary of Aerotech of Ann Arbor, Michigan, the NATO standard-sized batteries are designed for so-called plug-and-play replacement of traditional lead-acid batteries that currently support Israel’s Merkava and most other main battle tanks and heavy vehicles worldwide.
With three times the energy density of traditional batteries and an electric surplus system that prevents batteries from dying, even when drained, developers are claiming a maintenance-free, 10-year lifetime that obviates the need for costly and often high-risk resupply missions.
Moreover, Epsilor executives say their lithium-ion batteries will perform at high capacity for 12 hours at a stretch without recharging, allowing for prolonged, so-called Silent Watch missions where vehicles can hunt for targets in the dead of night without having to power up their main engines and subsequently expose their positions to enemy attack.
“Armored forces often need to disguise themselves at night, particularly in asymmetric warfare where the enemy operates within a civilian population. This means operating all the complex, high-energy surveillance, targeting and communications systems while the vehicle engine is shut down,” explained Felix Frisch, Epsilor vice president for marketing and sales.
He noted that typical main battle tanks or wheeled infantry combat vehicles have between eight to 10 lead-acid batteries providing, at most, 14 kilowatt-hours of energy. “This is barely enough to enable the vehicle to perform a four- to five-hour Silent Watch mission, while a typical Middle Eastern night lasts 10 to 14 hours from darkness to dawn.”
In short, said Frisch, with traditional batteries there are essentially two choices, neither of them good: “Either you power up every several hours and give away your position; or you stay silent and your batteries drop dead. Either way, you become a sitting duck.”
Ori Kost, Epsilor’s large battery program manager, noted that armored vehicles are also called upon to support dismounted infantry. “During hot summer nights, the crews want to keep the air conditioning running; and these vehicles are often tasked with recharging batteries of infantry forces. All these needs must be met by batteries with full-night endurance to support all the complex systems of the vehicle itself and the ancillary mission of supporting dismounted soldiers.”
According to Kost, the batteries to be tested soon by Israel’s Tank Development Authority are designed with residual capacity to ensure that, even when empty, there’s enough power to restart the main engine. Moreover, they provide an automatic alert to crews when batteries are drained.
“With the old technology, batteries will drop dead and you’ll need another vehicle to come and recover you. But with the lithium-ion technology, they don’t die. They won’t work, but they don’t die. And there’s always spare capacity for several engine starts so you won’t get stuck in the field,” Kost added.
At a maneuvering warfare conference in Israel last May, defense and military officials mapped out armored vehicle modernization plans, which include improved versions of Israel’s front-line Merkava Mark IV tank and Project Carmel, a technology demonstrator that will assist in designing Israel’s future tank to be deployed more than a decade from now.
The MoD’s Didi Ben-Yoash, a retired brigadier general and former chief armored officer who manages Project Carmel, cited hybrid power as an essential feature of Israel’s modernization plans.
Crediting what he called “the Tesla effect” of Elon Musk’s electric car that has energized the commercial automotive industry, Frisch estimated that the cost of automotive lithium-ion batteries is expected to drop by half in the coming five years from today’s price of about $200 per kilowatt-hour. For context, he noted that just five years ago, average costs ran about $500 per kilowatt-hour. At the same time, energy density of lithium-ion cells has improved from 200 watt-hours per kilogram a decade ago to about 270 watt-hours per kilogram today.
“Commercial vehicles are just the tip of the iceberg as far as the [lithium]-ion revolution is concerned. Militaries that embrace this revolution early on will be the first to benefit from the way electric power can be used to change the way armored vehicles are used and supported in the field,” Frisch said.
Israel, he added, is among the small number of countries actively moving forward in “this new world of electrically powered military vehicles,” which includes Denmark, the United States, Italy and most likely Australia. Epsilor, he noted, is among the handful of global providers ready to support needs of this nascent market.