Eric Shields, an engineer with the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Carderock Division, never thought he would have to monitor the use of a microwave oven in Afghanistan.
But that is exactly what he and his colleagues have been doing to gauge how much power Marines are using in theater.
“If the microwaves and coffee pots are turned on at the same time, it could trip your generator,” Shields told a recent Institute for Defense and Government Advancement symposium. Sometimes a generator is left on too long, and the temperature inside the tent drops so much that Marines are forced to take their cots outside to sleep.
The military over the past decade has been grappling with the issue of power and its effects on everything from the mundane — like microwaves and coffee pots — to the sustainment of troops on foot patrols. But after years of study and laboratory work, troops still need a multitude of batteries to power their many devices, all of it adding weight to sometimes already intolerable loads.
In 2004, an Army platoon needed 889 batteries of seven different types that weighed about 160 pounds to power 13 individual systems during a five-day mission. The demand for power has increased since then.
“We’re using more energy per soldier than ever before,” said Army Col. Bruce McPeak, director of materiel systems development at the Combined Arms Support Command. “The fastest growing requirement on the battlefield today is electric power.”
Part of the problem is that energy demands on the front lines are growing quickly and technology can’t keep up. But military leaders also are beginning to reflect on how their own policies contribute to the dilemma.
“Weight is the problem,” said Army Maj. Mark Owens, assistant program manager for power at Program Executive Office Soldier. He suggested that one way to deal with the quandary would be to “take an appetite suppressant on the amount of capability we put out there.”
Soldiers in Afghanistan have to power and carry around radios, GPS, day and night scopes, range finders and more. The Army is now bringing smartphones and new radio sets into the fold. Officials recognize that additional capability can translate to added pounds and confusion on the battlefield, where members of a single battalion could be in 40 different locations. The more soldiers and Marines are asked to do, the more equipment they are given, the more energy they need and the more weight they have to carry from place to place.
“Everybody has fantastic capability, but what is it going to do for our power paradigm?” said Dave Schimmel, lead engineer for power systems at PEO Soldier.
Military scientists constantly struggle with this issue. Jack Obusek, director at Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Massachusetts, likened it to beating his head against a wall.
“We’ve been making lightweight stuff for 50 years,” he told National Defense last year. “How come we still load soldiers to 120 pounds?”
Retired Marine Corps Col. James A. Laswell, technical director of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, echoed these sentiments at the symposium.
A 120-pound load weighs the same if it is comprised of a few pieces of heavy gear or a bunch of lightweight gadgets, he said.
It is accepted wisdom that a soldier effectively can carry about 30 percent of his body weight. Once his load eclipses 70 pounds, his effectiveness begins to wane. Still, there are 175-pound men carrying 140 pounds on their backs, Owens said. The problem is severe with the most forward of soldiers, the ones running up and down mountains far from any electrical outlets or vehicle plug-ins in places “only an animal can get,” he said.
A number of initiatives are aimed at developing technology that fits seamlessly into a soldier’s uniform and can power all of their devices. Army scientists are working on electronic textiles that would take the place of cumbersome cables. This kind of power-producing webbing would “just fade away into [a soldier’s] tactical load so it’s not there,” Schimmel said.
But the technology isn’t ready yet.
The Army has deployed conformal batteries that soldiers can use for any of their devices. These batteries are shaped like an armor plate and can fit into the same location in a soldier’s vest. The goal is to have all of the gear connected to one power source that can also display data readings for the users. Industry trying to develop similar power managers should take note: The Army wants them measured in ounces, not pounds.
“I already have 100 pounds on me, I don’t need a one-pound brick,” Schimmel said. “I need a quarter-pound brick . . . You can make the greatest widget in the world, but if it sticks out like a brick, the guy’s not going to want to wear it.”
The service wants to do away with disposable batteries and is making strides in this area. In 2010, the Army bought more rechargeable batteries than primaries for the first time. Officials are trying to streamline the many batteries and chargers that troops use. They are looking into forms of wireless charging and using solar blankets to juice up devices. Soldiers should be able to share power on the battlefield the way they do ammunition, officials said.
“We want one product that does everything,” Schimmel said.
Batteries aren’t the only part the equation that needs to be improved, McPeak noted. He gave the laptop computer as an example. Battery life for laptops has gone from minutes to hours. There were improvements to the batteries, but the real step forward came from reducing the energy drain on the laptops, themselves, he said.
“Maybe we need to start looking more closely at the items that are being powered as opposed to figuring out how to produce more power,” McPeak said.
The Marine Corps has primarily been a land force during the war in Afghanistan and shares many of the Army’s power requirements. It also has seen a similar spike in energy use. The cost of batteries for a Marine rifleman company on a three-day patrol has increased nearly 30-fold in the past 10 years. There has been a 250 percent increase in the amount of radios that Marines use and a 300 percent increase in the number of information technology devices. Along with that comes a 380 percent increase in the weight of batteries they have to carry, according to statistics officials presented at the symposium.
A new defense strategy seeks to shift the focus of the Marine Corps back to the sea, but this change will not reduce power demands, Laswell said.
“I think that the emphasis on energy is going to be no less than it has been in the past as we go back into our roots as a sea-based power projecting force,” he said. “We’re finding this is remarkably similar to the issues we were facing in Afghanistan when it comes to power.”
Both services have discovered that fuel cells may not be the answer for their infantries. These devices have not been wildly successful in tests with ground troops, officials said. They do not provide enough energy to justify their weight, and the ones currently available do not use the Army’s common JP-8 petroleum, Owens said.
Marines are trying out a handheld drone that is powered by a small fuel cell that runs on propane.
“It’s a little tough to get an infantryman like me to want to carry propane around,” Laswell said.
Other concepts have been around for some time, such as those that use the body’s natural movements to create power. One system is installed in a boot heel. Each step sets off a rotation inside the device that generates power. Another relies on knee braces to do the same. The Marine Corps has looked into “lightning packs” that produce electricity as the person wearing it walks. More wattage is generated if the person runs.
“Some of these things have been talked about for years but are just beginning to become efficient enough . . . to be actually useful,” Laswell said.
Solar technology also may be on the brink of breakthroughs, said Phillip Jenkins, head of imagers and detectors at the Naval Research Laboratory. Companies are making flexible arrays light enough for troops to wear on their helmets and uniforms, thin enough to roll up like window shades and strong enough that they continue working if they get bent.
The Marine Corps is considering putting solar cells on Marine packs and helmets. The problem is generating power in places where the sun is not as glorious as it can be in the desert, Laswell said. The Marines need something that can be folded up and put into a cargo pocket, something flexible that can take a cut, deal with partial shading and still provide power, he said.
The Air Force would like to add solar cells to the Raven unmanned aircraft that is a favorite of ground troops, Jenkins said. This would give the hand-launched drone nearly indefinite endurance when the sun is shining, he said.
But daunting issues remain with the tactical use of solar power. When it comes to the growing field of organic photovoltaics, which can be flexible enough to wear and less expensive to produce, there is the irony that the cells actually degrade in sunlight. Another obstacle is color. The Army has been studying flexible solar cells for about 20 years, and scientists often have spoken about being able to make uniforms from them. But for now, solar panels do not come in camouflage, Jenkins said. They are black and rectangular and can be spotted by adversaries.
Despite all of this innovation, the realization of the self-sufficient soldier still is a long ways off. The problem is such that PEO Soldier is laying the groundwork for a soldier power program of record. But it will take that effort about two years to get up and running thanks to bureaucratic red tape, officials said. Still, the greatest gadgets in the world will mean nothing to a soldier if he still has to carry 100 or more pounds, they said.
“I think we can solve this issue better with brainpower rather than backpower,” McPeak said.