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Capabilities and SpendingClimate ChangeShort Read

Energy is a Land Capability, not a Commodity

Resilient battlefield energy is a critical enabler to all operations. Simultaneously, it is expected that the power demands of the Land Forces will only increase over time and that the future energy transitions associated with Climate Change and Sustainability will be fast, fragmented and chaotic.

The right energy solutions play a crucial role in delivering critical operational capabilities such as dispersal, signature minimisation, reduced sustainment, interoperability and resilience. Additionally, it is mainly impossible to be sure what future fuels will rise to challenge the hegemony of fossil fuels.

Currently, the Army (and the UK Ministry of Defence as a whole) considers energy as a commodity to be expended, mainly in the form of fossil fuels, rather than a capability of its own. There is neither a focal point for the governance of energy as a capability nor the tools to understand the end-to-end use, performance and cost of energy use. These aspects are critical to drive investment decisions and organisational change at the pace of relevance.

Energy capabilities and climate change

It is essential to stress that energy capabilities are not merely some by-product of the wider Climate Change, Environmental or Net-Zero agenda. Instead, they are critical battle-winning functions in their own right. Every operational activity undertaken by the MOD depends on energy in some way (generation/storage/management/distribution, etc.); therefore, advancing ways of better producing, using, and managing energy will deliver operational advantage.

A close analogy to trying to think about “energy as a capability” is how militaries consider another critical, cross-cutting enabler on the battlefield, namely “information/data”. Taking inspiration from this approach, an end-to-end view of operational energy “bandwidth”, “desirable features” and “interconnectivity” in the Land Environment is advantageous to understand the totality and characteristics of “energy flows” between interfacing soldiers, vehicles and bases.

A key point here is that ideally, if all inter and intra-platform energy flows could be measured or defined, it would be possible to identify critical points where near-term capability improvements can also be made. We could also identify the critical transition steps the Army needs to make in future equipment capabilities to deliver “energy advantage” and make them as agnostic as possible of whatever the energy used is.

Data

Unfortunately, beyond coarse fuel consumption data, the Army has very little information about its actual energy use. This is an issue because fuel consumption does not necessarily correlate to energy usage. Power/Energy is not a topic that can be explored easily under existing Force Development processes. As a result, the MOD does not culturally consider its end-to-end energy use. Thus, change can only be achieved piecemeal on a project-by-project basis, and it is challenging to build the case for more strategic cross-platform interventions whose value extends beyond the boundary of a single project.

It should be noted that this issue extends far beyond the equipment domain. The energy behaviours of MOD personnel are an essential complimentary issue here, as perverse incentives can often inhibit the adoption of better technologies or procedures. A good example is the oversizing of power generation capabilities “just in case” on operations. While this adds a measure of resilience, it leads to significant inefficiency, excess fuel consumption, and a higher logistics burden and risk due to a fundamental lack of understanding of an operation’s energy needs.

Field battery charging. Credit: MOD.

A final common significant complicating factor for the MOD’s thinking in power/energy is the NATO Single Fuel Policy. The desire for interoperability is almost singlehandedly the main reason why there has been no transformative change in military energy in recent history, whether this be increases in engine efficiency or emissions compliance. There is still crucial military value to the Single Fuel Policy, but it should not be used as a simple reason to never change our approach to energy.

In summary, the complicated governance of such a cross-cutting subject as energy and the general lack of understanding of energy use make it difficult to evidence a balance of investment decisions to improve energy capabilities. Especially as the delivered benefits always extend beyond the bounds of a single project/formation/organisation and are hard to incentivise when not considering decisions at a systems-of-systems level. These factors also make Defence susceptible to the risks of the energy transition, where traditional fuels and associated internal combustion drivetrains are expected to get much less available and more expensive, whilst simultaneously, the introduction of new fuels is expected to be fragmented and disruptive.

But what do I mean?

To make the case for the Army to consider “Energy as a Capability seriously”, I believe it is worth illustrating a handful of technologies with significant energy benefits. The following are three examples of technologies that are already receiving significant investment from the commercial industry and maturing rapidly. As such, they can be adopted readily.

48V Direct Current (DC)

48V DC power distribution is the natural improvement on previous 12V/24V/28V low voltage DC standards. It is being increasingly adopted across wide areas of commercial industry, from data centres to vehicles. Higher voltage allows greater power requirements to be supported at lower levels of current (P = V*I), improving efficiency through lower levels of electrical resistance and reducing cable diameters and, therefore, weight/cost.

Adopting 48V DC would allow greater efficiency and size/weight gains for the military user. It would also unlock the ability to power more energy-intensive DC systems, such as heating/air conditioning, eliminating the need for inefficient AC/DC conversion. There are also specific ICT interface technologies such as USB Power Delivery (USB-PD) and Power-over-Ethernet++ (POE++) that can utilise the extra power available to deliver militarily valuable capabilities such as single cable data & power connections for ICT and rapid charging of small-UAS and personal equipment. Single cable ICT connections could, for example, significantly reduce the set-up time for HQs, increasing their survivability. Rapid equipment charging could increase operational tempo and reduce the need for battery re-supply.

Adoption of 48V DC would be new to the Army, and to unlock its benefits, preparatory analysis must be resourced by the MOD to update power standards and requirements before projects could be taken forward. However, the lack of governorship of energy capabilities means it is very unclear who in the MOD would commission such work.

Hybrid Electric Drivetrains (HED)

HED technology on vehicles has enormous potential to deliver significant advantages to platform mobility, survivability, and lethality. Still, it facilitates the broader delivery of systems-of-systems energy capabilities into the battlefield. There are already increasing numbers of military HED vehicles entering the market, and the Army has already conducted its own demonstrations of the technology.

It is important to note that whilst there are significant benefits to the vehicle’s capabilities itself, e.g.:
– Increased power and torque, coupled with enhanced traction control (torque vectoring) which, improves acceleration, mobility, and reduces driver training and fatigue.
– Silent running modes that will mitigate signature management burdens (acoustic and thermal) and thus maximise survivability.

There are also significant benefits of HED that extend far beyond the scope of the individual vehicles and help enable broader formation capabilities, e.g.:

  • Enhanced platform power provision to support the needs of complex mission systems and release power for external export, reducing the reliance on standalone generators.
  • Greater fuel efficiency, increasing mission endurance and reducing sustainment needs.
  • Reduction in moving parts, leading to improved reliability, availability and maintainability, and opportunities for commonality of HED components across multiple platform fleets.
  • Allows the vehicle to be more agnostic of future fuels as an electrified drivetrain has the adaptability to accept energy from multiple potential sources.
  • Mitigates the reduction in the industrial supply chain availability and growing support cost of traditional internal combustion mechanical drivetrains.
  • Supports wider UK industry, especially as they navigate the effects of the energy transition.

To fully unlock the broader benefits of HED, it is, however, necessary for the MOD to resource complimentary activities. Examples include vehicle fleet programmes structured around common mobility sub-systems, modern power grids that can support and exploit bi-directional charging, and modular, scalable battery standards.

The lack of Energy governorship means it is very unclear who in the MOD should direct such work. Adopting HEDs could be faster, but they are only considered on a project-by-project basis. This does not fully take into account the broader systems of systems benefits.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is racing ahead and leaving us behind.

Microgrids

Microgrids refer to a system comprising several power technologies interlinked and controlled intelligently as a single “grid” to optimise power availability. This is valuable to the military because traditional deployed infrastructure relies on diesel generators for power, which are inefficient when operated at low electrical loads, are high signature and often represent a single point of failure.

By contrast, a micro-grid can be optimised to reduce fuel consumption and simultaneously provide resilience through;

  • Demand management of power amongst assets connected to the microgrid.
  • Exploitation of advances in renewable energy sources and energy storage.
  • Intelligent generator management to ensure they are used most efficiently.

The micro-grid concept is very mature and has been shown to achieve 30-40% fuel consumption savings. The digital nature of microgrids also intrinsically supports valuable features such as energy usage data capture and remote system monitoring.

At a systems-of-systems level, deployable field power solutions such as microgrids are the foundational layer on which all broader energy capabilities can be built. They deliver vital functions such as power distribution, storage, conversion, and data capture that are critical to supporting increasingly power-hungry capabilities. However, the Army’s portfolio of field power equipment is already increasingly obsolete, and its transformation will not receive the resource priority that other equipment areas receive because the MOD does not consider the subject from the viewpoint of formation of “Energy Capabilities”. Therefore, the potential operational advantage cannot be achieved.

Conclusions

Energy, across its generation, storage, management and distribution, is integral to all capabilities in the Land Environment. However, capability development and research on the subject is fragmented, incoherent and lacking in strategic direction.

There is mature technology available today to deliver both enhanced military capability and mitigate the risks of the future energy transition. However, the Army’s organisational structure is not optimised to consider cross-cutting change programmes such as energy capabilities.

This article proposes that the Army/MOD seriously consider “Energy as a capability, not just a commodity”. A future move to Energy as a capability should encompass the establishment of new governorship but must first begin with a mindset change:

– Energy is not just Fossil Fuels.
– Energy capabilities are not just about Climate Change and net zero.
– Energy use is fundamental to all military capabilities and should be managed.
– Energy Capabilities leverage significantly more value at the systems-of-systems level and, therefore, should not be left solely to the management of individual programmes.

Christopher Chin

Chartered Engineer and Scientist working for the last 10 years within UK MOD Science and Technology, with a specific focus on Army Land Equipment, Complex Systems Integration and Power Architectures.

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