Some key military weapons systems are being updated with new power sources as a result of Defense Logistics Agency partnerships with Army industrial sites and battery manufacturers.
Engineers from DLA’s Battery Network research and development program are working on the development of a new lithium ion-based power system for the TOW 2 anti-tank missile system and new lead-acid batteries used on armored vehicles such as the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
Lead-acid batteries currently used in the 4HN and 2HN configurations were common in the 1950s and 1960s to keep cars running, said Matt Hutchens, an industrial engineer who leads the BATTNET program.
They require users to deal with the messy and potentially dangerous task of opening the cells and refilling them with acid.
Today they have been replaced with safer, more powerful alternatives.
“Industry got away from what’s called a liquid electrolyte and moved to a gel or glasslike material that’s solid. It actually lengthens the life of the battery and takes away the hazardous issues of dealing with acid. They also charge quicker, hold the charge longer and have fewer issues in terms of disposal,” he said.
In 2017, the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center reached out to DLA inquiring if it was possible for the 4HN and 2HN batteries to be replaced with ones made with new absorbent glass material.
“Part of the problem was we couldn’t find any of the big producers of lead-acid batteries that wanted to fool with these military-unique batteries that DLA buys only 1,000-2,000 of a year,” he said.
The interest from the Army spurred DLA to search for such a manufacturer. Hutchens found a company that produces green lead-acid batteries and owns some of the original patents for a glasslike material that has become an industry standard. Earlier this year, DLA awarded the company a contract to engineer, design and assemble new 4HN and 2HN lead-acid batteries that DLA can procure.
The project will be executed in two-phases, beginning with the production of 10 handmade prototypes that will be tested by TARDEC. Once the design and prototypes are approved, the contractor will provide 10 batteries built on its production line for TARDEC qualification.
The BATTNET program is also behind major improvements in the battery used to power the TOW 2 anti-tank missile system. The current battery is comprised of a nickel cadmium assembly with a detached charging system that was designed in the 1970s and failed to meet war fighters’ performance goals.
“The customer wasn’t happy with the number of missile firings they were getting. Ideally, they wanted to get over 90 missile firings, either live or simulated, in one charge. They weren’t getting anywhere near that, and it takes time to recharge the batteries,” Hutchens said.
DLA partnered with U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command and a design team starting in October 2016. After more than a year of tests and design improvements, a new lithium-ion based power system is expected to be in production this year.
The new system has several benefits, including a reduction in weight by about 120 pounds and potential procurement savings of $8 million a year.
“One of the things we were able to do was consolidate all the electronics that you need for charging management into the existing battery format. So the old charger went away, the power conditioner went away and the battery for the night vision sight went away,” he added.
The customer wanted to maintain the battery box’s size so it could slide into the current guidance system. The customer also recognized during the project’s initial stages that the box was large enough to hold two BB-2590 lithium-ion batteries. Two BB-2590s could meet all the power requirements of the missile guidance system and the night vision sight.
“The BB-2590 is a standard-issue battery that’s already qualified and used in a lot of different systems run by the Army and Marine Corps. It’s one of our major logistics items, and DLA has multiple qualified suppliers,” Hutchens said. “The new design can also use two BA-5590 non-rechargeable batteries if necessary.”
DLA’s BATTNET program was created in 2010 to address sustainment problems, improve manufacturing capabilities and bring new manufacturing technologies to DLA’s supply chain. By investing time and funds in the research and development of batteries, it helps the agency provide better products to customers and it benefits the military services, which usually put their money toward new equipment rather than solving sustainment problems.
“DLA R&D doesn’t design a new weapon system or its components,” Hutchens said. “We’re just looking at existing components and saying: ‘What kind of problems are we seeing? And are there some things we could work with the services to solve?’ That frees up their money for more critical needs.”
Beth Reece is with the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency.