Defense Media Network

Power Hungry

In the 21st century it's beans, bullets... and batteries

Two hundred years ago, Napoleon defined the nature of military logistics, as it had been from the creation of the first army through the late 20th century: “An army marches on its stomach.”

But in the 21st century, while tending to warfighters’ needs for food and water remains a top priority, a new rule now defines warfighter requirements and military logistics: “An army marches on its batteries.”

The personal- and squad-level power requirements of the modern Marine Corps dwarf even those in effect on 9/11 – much less Operation Desert Storm, the first Gulf War, a decade earlier – and give every indication of becoming even more demanding with each new year.

“In 1990, an individual Marine carried a flashlight with two D-sized batteries and, unless you were a specialist, that was it,” according to Expeditionary Power Systems Program Manager Michael Gallagher from Marine Corps Systems Command (SYSCOM), which is responsible for acquisition and sustainment of all USMC war-fighting systems and equipment. “Today they are very reliant on the use of batteries due to a host of individual pieces of equipment – optics, communications, surveillance, flashlights, GPS, situational awareness, etc.

“All of those systems require a combination of military and commercial batteries, so individual Marines carry a large number of batteries into combat. The largest battery they use is about 1 kilogram for the largest radio systems; the smallest would be down to about half the size of the AA, which are used on a host of optics, situational awareness devices, and small communications. The very small batteries are non-rechargeable alkalines and lithium – traditional commercial format-based; the larger batteries use unique military formats that can be either one-time use or rechargeable lithium-based.”

What each Marine actually carries – the Table of Equipment (TE) – varies from unit to unit and mission to mission, based on what is needed to prosecute a given mission. However, the typical gear each individual Marine carries into combat, along with the power requirements for each, includes:

• AN/PVS-17 Night Vision Weapon Sight – AA batteries

•AN/PVS-14 Night Vision Pocket Scope – AA batteries

•AN/PAS-13D Heavy Weapon Thermal Sight (HWTS) – AA batteries

•AN/PEQ-16A Mini Integrated Pointer Illuminator Module – DI-123A batteries

•AN/PRC-148 OR -152 hand-held Multiband Inter- Intra-Team Radio – unique military batteries

•AN/PRC-153 Integrated Intra-Squad Radio – unique military batteries

•Hand-held Flashlight – AA batteries

•MIOX Water Purifier – AA batteries

•Quiet Pro Headset – unique military batteries

•Squad Digital Camera – unique military batteries

•AN/PSC-13 Dismounted Data Automated Communications Terminal (D-DACT) – AA or unique military batteries

•Defense Advanced GPS Receiver (DAGR) – AA batteries

•AN/PRC-117F Multiband Manpack Radio – BA-5590/BA-5390/BB-2590 batteries

•Rugged Laptop – unique military batteries

The BA-5390/U is a lithium/manganese dioxide primary (non-rechargeable) battery, and, with 50 percent more energy, is an alternative to the lithium/sulfur dioxide BA-5590/U battery, the most widely used military battery in the U.S. armed forces. The BA-2590 lithium-ion rechargeable batteries are gradually replacing some primary batteries in military equipment.

Maj. Sean M. Sadlier (left) of the U.S. Marine Corps Expeditionary Energy Office explains the solar power element of the Expeditionary Forward Operating Base concept to Col. Anthony Fernandez during the testing phase of this sustainable energy initiative. The ExFOB is designed primarily for use by small Marine Corps units at forward operating bases in Afghanistan. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Maj. Paul Greenberg.

Military policy since shortly after combat operations began in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been to use rechargeable batteries whenever and wherever possible, especially in training and routine base operations in the United States and other non-combat facilities. But rechargeables also are seen as offering significant advantages in combat.

Although initially more expensive than disposables, they are considered more cost-effective in the long run. In addition, rechargeable batteries help reduce a unit’s logistic footprint, improve safety in transport and disposal, and provide power independence for the front-line war-fighter when primary (throwaway) batteries are in short supply. They also reduce the overall weight of a Marine’s pack.

“Every mission is different – length, focus – so it’s difficult to say what the [total battery] weight actually is. The mission dictates how much power they need to carry – and they always have backup in case the mission goes longer. Each individual Marine, based on individual loadout, also will be carrying different types and quantities of batteries,” Gallagher said.

“Probably the biggest changes [since Desert Storm] are the individual communications suite, where everyone now has a personal radio, GPS devices, water purification pens, individual optics, and aiming devices on their weapons. The growth in firepower, situational awareness, and communications has driven up power requirements.”

In addition to ensuring the batteries installed in each device are fresh or fully charged before leaving their forward operating base (FOB), each Marine also must take along some method to recharge non-disposable batteries. The longer the mission, the more batteries must be carried. And modern military protocol says every battery that leaves the FOB must be returned to it, even dead ones, because field disposal is prohibited.

As the 21st century Marine has become more dependent on new electronic devices, the Corps also has made it policy to bring warfighters into the process, from determining the value and combat viability of a new device to ensuring every Marine is well trained on new equipment before deploying.

“The lab works very closely with the Marine Expeditionary Rifle Squad at SYSCOM, which routinely works to ensure the suitability of what Marines carry. They also are passionate about training Marines on new equipment before it is fielded. And PM-MERS has moved that ball light-years down the field,” according to Vince Goulding, director of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab’s (MCWL) Experiment Division.

How to reduce the number and weight of personal and squad-level power systems, extend the useful charge, find power sources other than traditional batteries, and so on are among the research efforts at the MCWL at Quantico, Va., which also keeps a close eye on what is now available or under development by other military services, government agencies, and commercial industry.

“One project we just finished – Enhanced Company Operations – involved small unit power; that was about a two-year effort, looking at how we might replace a large number of batteries used by a squad,” Maj. Patrick Reynolds, head of the Logistics Combat Element Branch at MCWL, explained. “Almost everything a Marine carries now seems to require some sort of power source, so we also were looking at fuel cell technologies in the market.”

One fuel cell put to the test during Limited Objective Experiment (LOE) 3.2 at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in December 2009 was the 25-watt Ultracell XX25™ Fuel Cell. That device was integrated with a rechargeable lithium battery and two receptacles to charge batteries, from AAs to the unique batteries used by portable radio communications (PRC) devices. The fuel cell was set up to turn on and off as the battery was drained down.

“A company set up one squad with this system, another as currently outfitted and a third with lithium [batteries],” Reynolds said. “We found providing each Marine with a fuel cell was too much, but one per fire team probably would be beneficial, doing hub-and-spoke battery charging. If you give it to all of them, the patrols would have to be out for two or three days to see a weight savings.

An Ultracell fuel cell powering AN/PRC-148 and AN/PRC-153 radios. Marine Corps Systems Command photo.

“There also are a lot of people working on a JP-8 fuel cell, which isn’t ready for prime time yet. The [Ultracell] fuel cell we worked with was reformed methanol, but that would just add one more fuel to the battlefield and an additional logistics requirement, while JP-8 is common across the battlefield. And we aren’t going to wean ourselves from JP-8 in the near term, so having a man-packable fuel cell using JP-8 would be valuable.”

While fuel cells have shown promise, the technology has not yet reached a point where SYSCOM is ready to send them into the field as a standard component of individual Marine and squad power systems.

“Right now, we do not have a requirement for a fuel cell device, although we do have requirements for power sources, and the fuel cell is an incremental capability in a continuum of power sources, from the smallest batteries to the largest generators,” Gallagher said. “We are working with the Warfighting Lab and the Army to evaluate fuel cells, but we do not have a fuel cell program in the acquisition command for the near term.”

Some of the alternative energy devices being looked at by the lab are considerably less high tech than others.

“We also have a new initiative, called the Foot Mobile Charger, to leverage some lessons learned in the last experiment,” Reynolds said. “The goal is to develop a smaller package that could be given to each individual Marine to limit the number of batteries they have to carry.”

The FMC operates just as the name indicates – a Marine would pump the device with his foot, generating enough power to recharge most batteries or even directly run some small electronics.

Sometimes, however, even a small commercial market change can be extremely useful in a combat theater. One such change is the charge indicator built into many new batteries, showing how much power remains in each battery without taking it out of its device and placing it in a hand-held battery checker.

Reynolds said that resolved one problem that had led to still-useful batteries being discarded or, less often, under-charged batteries being kept in service: Marines returning from patrol did not know how much charge remained in each of their dozens of individual batteries and so took the road of caution, discarding all but the rechargeables. That added cost, weight, and numbers to the logistics tail.

Another alternative energy source, with potential application as both a direct power supply and, more often, a recharging capability, has grown significantly in the Corps’ interest: solar.

“Solar power collectors are a big piece of our XFOB [Expeditionary FOB] project, which is a multi-organizational effort. The lead is MCWL, but you also have the Office of Naval Research, Marine Corps Systems Command, the [USMC] Training and Education Command [TECOM], and the commandant’s new Expeditionary Energy Office,” he said.

Solar already constitutes “a good success story” as the Corps has investigated and developed three levels of renewable energy capability, principally in solar power collection, for individual Marines, squads, and FOBs, Gallagher added.

“The first is Solar Power Adapters for Communications Equipment [SPACE], which is a man-portable solar blanket that collects photovoltaic energy, then used to recharge a portable battery or directly power a radio. This is a 10-pound-or-less adapter that we are now getting ready to field to the Marines later this year. We’ve already got some in Afghanistan for demonstrations,” he said.

“The second is a Ground Renewable Expeditionary Energy Network [Green]. That is a transportable-sized assembly, meaning two Marines can lift it from the bed of a tactical vehicle, put it on the ground and unfold it to collect solar energy to recharge batteries and run lights in the tent, as well as computers and other situational awareness devices. Each module weighs 100 pounds or less and, when combined, you have a photovoltaic system that can be deployed from any vehicle, set up in about 20 minutes, and be a renewable energy source to support a forward operating unit. We plan to start fielding that capability in FY 11.

“The third system we investigated with ONR was the Deployable Renewable Energy Alternative Module [DREAM]. That is a 4,000-pound trailer-mounted system, towed behind any tactical vehicle, utilizing solar panels, batteries, and a small diesel generator. It could be deployed to support a FOB and provide uninterrupted power for 15 to 30 days without refueling. The small generator is for backup; the main energy system is the solar power system. That was an R&D program only, investigating the technologies to feed potential requirements, and there is no requirement now to take that system forward.”

While the growth in powered equipment carried by each Marine and squad has been unprecedented during the past decade, continuing advances in technologies that will improve warfighter capability, lethality, and survivability continue to make their way from the military labs and commercial marketplace onto the battlefield. And with each new item comes yet another personal power requirement.

“As new equipment is fielded, we try to provide as many solutions to power requirements as possible, whether rechargeable or disposable batteries; some devices can use rechargeable more than others,” Gallagher explained. “One thing we’ve done recently is field hand-held radio power adapters, where we have allowed portable devices to run off the power of a single larger battery rather than every item having its own individual battery.

“We’ve also looked at advanced chemistries, working with different operating forces in the schoolhouses to explain what those are and how to more efficiently use power sources. Recently, under the Marine Enhancement Program [MEP], we investigated and tested the L91 Energizer battery. The power density of that battery provides a multi-fold increase in energy to run their optics. We were then able to work with the training commands to say what different power sources are available and what they cost and the most cost-effective way to bring to the battlefield the energy they need.”

The Marine Corps, as the smallest of the military services, has limited funds and facilities for cutting-edge research, even with the assistance of Navy, Army, and Air Force R&D facilities. So the Corps – indeed, all the services – rely heavily on commercial product developments, especially in longer lasting, more reliable batteries and other power sources developed for cellphones, portable computers, and the new category of digital readers, such as the AmazonKindle and Apple® iPad™.

“There is no silver bullet system for all the different systems Marines utilize, which require a full span of capabilities and solutions,” Gallagher concluded. “We want to minimize the number of unique power sources and improve capability inside different form factors. We also emphasize safety, making sure the chemistries in the batteries or fuel systems are safe to move by all modes of transport and safe for the Marines who carry and utilize them.

“If we were to be telegraphing to industry what we need, it’s a full-spectrum power solution, from one-time use to rechargeable batteries in different form factors for different types of equipment. We need different sizes of renewables – man-portable and transportable. More than anything else, we need lighter weight, on both vehicle and Marine-carried. On battery size, even up to generators, we need more energy density – lighter weight putting out more electric power.

“But we also need the devices that use this power and energy to work as energy efficiently as possible, to smartly manage their power, similar to what we have seen over the years with computers. We are working with our systems, such as more efficient optics, in an effort to make those batteries last longer.”

This article was first published in Marine Corps Outlook: 2010-2011 Edition.


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...