Military vehicle electrification continues to roll forward, but may face bumps in the road

U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Jason Korn, the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar ordnance chief, explores the Bollinger B2 electric pickup truck during the NavalX SoCal Tech Bridge's Electric Mobility Symposium hosted on MCAS Miramar, San Diego, California, June 24, 2021.

U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Jason Korn, the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar ordnance chief, explores the Bollinger B2 electric pickup truck during the NavalX SoCal Tech Bridge's Electric Mobility Symposium hosted on MCAS Miramar, San Diego, California, June 24, 2021. Gunnery Sgt. Marcin Platek/U.S. Marine Corps

The U.S. military operates more than 174,000 non-tactical vehicles, the second highest number in the federal government.

There has been a lot of news lately about the federal government’s efforts to add electric vehicles to its fleet of cars, trucks, buses and even aircraft. For example, The Postal Service continues to drive ahead with plans to replace most of its vehicles equipped with internal combustion engines that run on gas with fully electric models by 2026. Meanwhile, NASA is trying to electrify airplanes using engines that would be more efficient and much cleaner to operate. And the Department of Homeland Security is working to replace many of its police cruisers with fully electric models. 

The rationale behind most of those programs is to try and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb the negative effects of climate change, of which gas-powered vehicles play a major part. The Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy puts vehicles as the number one source of carbon dioxide emissions, comprising 51% of all emissions. The next highest source of emissions is appliances, which is all the way down at 26%. According to the agency, highway vehicles release about 1.4 billion tons of greenhouse gasses every year, with each gallon of gasoline burnt creating 20 pounds of greenhouse gasses. If a vehicle goes through 250 gallons of gas in a year, then it also puts five tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

It's clear that gas-powered vehicles generate a lot of greenhouse gasses, and the federal government has a lot of vehicles. According to the General Services Administration’s federal fleet dashboard, there are about 656,700 government vehicles in active service. The Postal Service owns the most at just over 232,000. But the military is a close second, with more than 174,000 non-tactical vehicles serving across five service branches, the Coast Guard and various defense agencies. So, with USPS’s efforts to convert its fleet to electric vehicles fairly well defined, the attention is now turning to the military to try and replace the gas vehicles of their non-tactical fleet. A non-tactical vehicle is defined as anything not designed for direct use in combat, like a tank. Those aforementioned Homeland Security police cars would be a good example of non-tactical vehicles.

Both the Biden administration and the Army have plans to electrify non-tactical military vehicles. In December of 2021, the Biden White House published its Federal Sustainability Plan, a massive effort to cut down on greenhouse emissions, 56% of which is attributed to the DOD. There is also the Military Vehicle Fleet Electrification Act before Congress — which would require that all newly purchased, non-tactical vehicles be electric — but it has been stalled for a while and there is no indication that it will pass anytime soon.

The Army, however, is already moving ahead with plans to introduce more electric vehicles into its non-tactical fleet. The Army released its first ever Climate Strategy last year, with a key element being the replacement of gas-powered non-tactical vehicles with electric alternatives. According to the Army, cutting non-tactical vehicle greenhouse gas emissions to zero is an important component of reaching its net-zero emissions goal. And those efforts are already paying off beyond just being more environmentally friendly. The Climate Strategy states that the Army has already replaced 18,000 non-tactical vehicles with electric or hybrid alternatives. That has resulted in $50 million in savings, reduced fuel consumption by 13 million gallons per year, and reduced greenhouse emissions by 12%.

Driving change in tactical vehicles comes with new challenges

As amazing as the military’s non-tactical vehicle efforts are so far, it is in a lot of ways the low-hanging fruit, since a lot of those vehicles are simply being replaced by commercial equivalents. Many more advantages for the military might come once warfighting vehicles are also converted. That is the conclusion of a new report created by the Atlantic Council, an organization that promotes energy security within government.

The report notes that tactical electrical vehicles have several advantages over gas-powered equivalents. For example, they are almost completely silent when in operation and generate very little heat, both of which make them difficult for an enemy to detect — especially when maneuvering around in the dark or behind cover. They also have incredibly high torque, allowing them to accelerate quickly and handle well at all speeds. In general, they have fewer moving parts too, which results in lower maintenance requirements and fewer breakdowns from battlefield wear and tear.

However, according to report co-author Tate Nurkin, founder of OTH Intelligence Group and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, electrifying tactical vehicles comes with unique challenges compared with their non-tactical equivalents.

“Realizing those benefits in the short term with the wheeled vehicle fleet and over a couple of decades with the heavier tracked combat vehicles will require overcoming — or at least reducing the dampening impact of — several challenges, including the continued advancement of power distribution and battery storage technologies, developing concepts for use of EVs, as well as creating a new logistics tether,” Nurkin said. “It’s also critical that the DOD develop more robust and rapid pathways for the commercial automotive, battery development and utilities industries to engage with DOD, as those are the industries where crucial technologies are largely being developed and tested.”

The report notes that all of those challenges can be overcome, and points to tactical electric vehicles already undergoing tests with allied forces. For example, the British Army is already experimenting with hybrid electric drives and has installed them in a MAN SV truck, a Foxhound Protected Patrol Vehicle and a Jackal fire support vehicle. In the recent Army Testing Demonstration 6 exercise, military officials from the UK determined that the electric vehicles showed “improved cross-country performance, easier handling due to instant torque, greater steering precision and training times reduced by 30%.” In addition, it was noted that electric wheeled platforms could turn without moving forward or backward just like tracked vehicles.

Unfortunately, some challenges move beyond just the vehicles themselves. For example, the report notes that to mirror the efficiency of vehicles powered by military jet fuel, like the M1 Abrams main battle tank, the military would need to be able to charge a brigade of 30 vehicles in 15 minutes. That would require 35 megawatts of charging capacity, but the Army currently only has technology with less than one megawatt capacity. So, a new charging infrastructure — or perhaps a more distributed one — would need to be developed. Possible solutions include fielding miniature nuclear reactors, like the kind being experimented with in Project Pele, or perfecting the transfer of energy using directed beams.

Other challenges that permeate the entire spectrum of electrification initiatives involve the need to manage the copious amounts of information that electric vehicles generate and securely tying those data points across a series of siloed systems into secure dashboards that deliver quicker situational awareness and understanding. This will be especially critical for tactical electric vehicles in combat situations or those with additional autonomous capabilities.

One solution on the information side may be a real-time data mesh platform being developed by a company called edgeTI for use with electric vehicles. Called edgeCore, it has generated a lot of interest, including earning a multi-year, indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract from the U.S. Air Force to support its Joint All Domain Command and Control efforts.

“Electrification in the government needs to include the ability to unlock hidden, actionable insights to enable better decisions,” said Jim Barrett, CEO of edgeTI. 

Having more electric combat vehicles in service will open up new tactical advantages for the DOD on the battlefields of the future, so long as today’s technical and logistical challenges can be overcome. And, of course, those vehicles will also be better for the environment and help to curb the negative effects of climate change, making them the next big step once non-tactical military vehicles are electrified.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys