Battery Supplies Ran Dangerously Low in Iraq

By Geoff S. Fein

The scramble to find batteries and get them to troops fighting in Operation Iraqi Freedom is leading to a policy review of non-rechargeable batteries, as well as an examination of alternative power sources, such as fuel cells and solar panels.

Inadequate inventories of military batteries almost led U.S. forces to cease operations or alter tactics during Operation Iraqi Freedom. But several U.S. manufacturers helped avert a potential crisis by slowly replenishing stocks of the non-rechargeable BA 5990 battery, said a Navy official.

Navy Capt. Clark Driscoll, the Defense Contract Management Agency liaison to the Joint Staff, said lack of funding had left the inventory of BA 5590s in “bad shape for a long time.”

The BA 5590 is the military’s most widely used portable power source, operating a variety of communications devices.

“We literally [came] within days of running out of these batteries—where major combat operations would either have ceased or changed in their character because of the lack of battery support,” Driscoll said in remarks to the Tri-Service Power Expo, in Norfolk, Va.

The challenge is for the military to increase funding for batteries and do better planning, Driscoll said.

“Given the near-term disaster on batteries, [we are] now in a formal battery requirement determination process to validate future requirements,” he said. “The lessons of the past are far too painful to repeat.”

Driscoll would also like to see the Department of Defense give the same attention to batteries as it does to guided munitions.

Tom Nycz, from the Army Communications and Electronics Command, said that lack of funding has led to the battery shortage. “[We’ve] been shorted for so long, because budgets are so constrained,” he said in an interview.

“[We were] given money to buy [batteries based] on historical usage,” Nycz said.

What kept the military from running out of batteries and from having to change battle plans were a quick war, conservation measures and dedication from battery manufacturers, Driscoll said.

The shortage first surfaced when Central Command’s maintenance branch began packing supplies for an anticipated war with Iraq. Because it initially appeared the war wouldn’t start for a few weeks, batteries were sent by ship, from Charleston, S.C., through the Suez Canal, past the Horn of Africa and up the Persian Gulf to Kuwait. More vital cargo, such as fuel, was sent by Air Force cargo planes, said Lt. Cmdr. John LaTulip, of the U.S. Central Command’s maintenance branch.

“[The] problem was we didn’t think we’d go into combat that quickly, so we initially put that stuff on the boats,” LaTulip said. “After one to two shipments from [the] depot, [we] realized we could not make it.”

Eventually, batteries were loaded onto Air Force cargo planes. Each day, one planeload of BA 5590s would leave Charleston for Kuwait. Those flights were expected to end in mid-July, LaTulip said. Then, batteries once again, were to be shipped across the ocean to Iraq.

Even with planeloads of batteries making their way to Kuwait, the shortage remained severe. In fact, only units engaged in direct combat could get batteries, LaTulip said.

“It was a difficult time for us. ... [It was] probably one of the most difficult times for us with any commodity,” he said.

LaTulip, stationed in Kuwait, was responsible for battery allocation and distribution to all the services.

Compounding the problem was that no one knew exactly how many Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio Systems (SINCGARS) radios, Javelins, or nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) alarms were in theater.

“We went into this [bind] in about early April,” LaTulip told industry and military officials at the Power Expo.

Everything the BA 5590 powers is “systems critical in the battlefield,” LaTulip said.

Javelin (a portable shoulder-fired anti-tank missile), for example, was used during a battle with Iraqi forces, who were firing on U.S. troops from behind a building, LaTulip said. Javelin was used to knock the building down.

“Your battery [helped] take that building out. We appreciate that,” he told battery manufacturers.

Nuclear, biological and chemical alarms ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from the moment troops hit the ground, LaTulip said.

SINCGARS, a VHF-FM combat net radio which is the primary means of command and control for infantry, armor and artillery units, also ran 24 hours a day. LaTulip said the radios really went through batteries.

Two weeks into Operation Iraqi Freedom, troops out in the field were using up batteries at a staggering pace, he said. Four months after the start of the war, LaTulip said he still doesn’t know how many batteries troops require.

The Marines were using 757 packs (each pack contains four batteries) or 3,028 BA 5590s, per day.

“That’s half the requirement of the entire battlefield,” LaTulip said.

LaTulip said he doesn’t know what drove the usage rate or how the numbers for all the services were derived.

“[The] numbers have to come from those individual units and right now they are too busy to gather data for us,” he said.

In order to meet the demand for batteries, manufacturers were asked to increase production. The companies went from two shifts a day for five days a week to operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week just to keep up with the military’s demand.

LaTulip said industry efforts were nothing short of miraculous.

“[The companies] all supported the war fighter. [We] could not have done what we did without [them],” he said.

Mark Warner, of Ultralife Batteries Inc., said employees worked 13 straight days before taking a day off.

“We’re still doing it. The demand is still there,” he said in an interview. “We added [production] lines at our own expense to meet demand.”

Ultralife is one of a handful of companies that supply the BA 5590 batteries to the Defense Department. Other suppliers include Bren-Tronics Inc., EaglePicher Technologies, Electric Fuel, SAFT and Matthews Associates.

Battery supplies have been on the mind of defense officials for some time, Warner said. Since Sept. 12, 2001, Ultralife representatives have been asked what it would take to ramp up production.

“We reacted quickly to that. We had the technology in place,” he said.

Manufacturers also were asked not to ship batteries through depots, LaTulip said.

“The depots ate up three days of travel time,” LaTulip said. “We were literally living off of hand and mouth. [We had] one to two days of battery life on the battlefield.”

Another challenge for Central Command was how to get the batteries to forward units. About 95 percent of the BA 5590s were flown into Kuwait. Until U.S. forces moved into Baghdad, Kirkuk and Umm Qasr, all in Iraq, there was no safe place to land planes near forward troops. When the 173rd aviation brigade out of Italy got a foothold in northern Iraq, it allowed planes to fly in supplies of batteries from Ramstein Air Force Base, in Germany, LaTulip said. Those shipments were transferred onto other aircraft and delivered to troops north and east of Baghdad, he said.

“What hurt [was] not being able to get batteries to guys ... where there was no physical way to get batteries out,” LaTulip said. “They’d have to wait for their shipment out of Ramstein.”

In addition, batteries were reloaded onto large, medium speed roll-on/roll-off ships in the Persian Gulf and shipped to Karachi, Pakistan, for eventual transfer to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

“[It] was a logistical nightmare,” LaTulip said.

Because of the shortage of BA 5590s and not knowing how much equipment was in theatre, LaTulip and service personnel in his command began scouring the globe for extra batteries. That meant a lot of other units from all branches of the military around the world went without batteries, he said.

“We took them all,” LaTulip said. “We took everything that was available on a shelf.”

LaTulip, at first, planned to only take amounts of 500 or more from any depot or base offering to give up its supply of batteries. But things got so bad that if a depot volunteered as few as 100 packages of batteries, he took them. He’d have the batteries sent by Federal Express to Charleston and then flown to Kuwait.

For its part, the Marine Corps queried more than 30 nations for batteries. In addition, manufacturers outside of the United States were contacted, Driscoll said.

“We drained inventories. We took them off offshore stations, ships and depots,” he said. “[A] huge amount of work went on at [the] strategic level in coordination with the Joint Staff [and the] services, in February and March, to mitigate a disaster.”

The efforts, however, were not enough to abate a potential run-out date, Driscoll said.

Adding to the problem were soldiers in the field disposing of batteries well before they had run down, LaTulip said.

The BA 5590 does not have a charge indicator.

Driscoll said he wasn’t sure how much battery life was discarded inadvertently by changing batteries early.

“[I’m] afraid to say that in the first several weeks we threw away a lot,” he said.

“So what they are doing, at the squad level, about every eight to 12 hours, with a 24-hour battery, [is soldiers] change batteries,” LaTulip said. “That just doubles what you have to produce to meet our demand. If [soldiers] could get a device put on [the battery] that tells them what is left in the charge, then they could use those batteries to full capability. Right now we can’t do that. That is why our demand from all of your factories is so high.”

Warner, of Ultralife Batteries Inc., said there is a demand for either an internal or external battery charge indicator. To put an indicator inside a battery could run as much as $15 per battery he said.

Although $15 may seem like a small sum, it amounts to a huge expense, considering how many batteries troops were using per day. If the Marines were going through 3,028 batteries a day and that was half the requirement of all the services, then it is foreseeable that all four services could have been going through more than 180,000 batteries per month.

With 100,000 troops in Kuwait, it’s easy to see how battery supplies could be diminished quickly. That’s why LaTulip is hoping to wean soldiers off of the BA 5590 and onto rechargeable batteries. Units in Afghanistan are now using only rechargeable batteries, LaTulip said. But even rechargeable batteries have their drawbacks, he added. It takes four to five rechargeables to replace one BA 5590.

Each BA 5590 weighs 2.3 lbs. Rechargeables, although slightly smaller in size, still weigh almost the same.

“When you make a change to these batteries, don’t make them any heavier,” LaTulip said.

A soldier normally carries about 65 pounds worth of equipment and supplies in his or her rucksack, LaTulip said. In some parts of Afghanistan, soldiers are carrying upwards of 95 pounds.

Another power source the military is looking at is a small flexible solar panel that could be folded and stored in a soldier’s rucksack. In Iraq, where sunlight is almost always available and temperatures hover near 135 degrees during the summer, a solar panel could be used to recharge batters or even run radios, LaTulip said.

To get soldiers to begin using rechargeables, the units would have to forward deploy a battery charging van. The Army tested one such van, equipped with rechargers. But, during tests, units engaged in combat were not prepared to stop using the BA 5590, LaTulip said.

The van was taken back to Kuwait and fitted with more rechargers. Once the war slowed down, forward troops couldn’t refuse the van.

“[We’re] not giving [soldiers] that option now,” LaTulip said. “It is going forward.”

Getting soldiers accustomed early on to rechargeables and the benefits of the van would help them get used to the idea, LaTulip said.

“[We need to] get soldiers to start training with the van now,” he said. “To just throw the van onto the battlefield, ... [it was] difficult for the soldier to accept.”

Policy and doctrine are not well in place for rechargeable batteries, Driscoll said.

“That’s one of the things, at G4 (Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics and Engineering) and the Joint Staff levels, we are looking at,” he said. “[We are] looking at policy for using rechargeables and how do you program and plan for that.”

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