As Tactical EV Plans Take Shape, Army Charges Ahead; Marines Stay Cautious

By Hope Hodge Seck

GM Defense photo

When green energy entrepreneur and researcher Tom Holm invited Defense Department personnel to a first-of-its-kind tactical electric vehicle expo he had organized in San Diego last September, some 500 stakeholders and decision-makers from across the military services showed up, eager to hear from panels on swift charging advancements and expeditionary fleet electrification challenges.

The event was so well received that it’s expanding in 2024 with a transition from TEVx to TEVCON: a full-blown convention for those invested in the challenge of weaning the vehicles that carry troops into combat off their conventional fuel sources in favor of more green and sustainable electric power.

Following the conference, an associated roadshow will bring militarized electric vehicle and battery demonstrations to bases across the country.

This show of interest comes despite clear misgivings from the Army and the Marine Corps — the Defense Department’s primary purchasers of tactical vehicles — about the readiness of tactical EV technology and the way forward to development and acquisition.

Last June, Lt. Gen. Ross Coffman, deputy commanding general of Army Futures Command, said “the technology does not exist” to create an all-electric tank that can charge in the “tactically relevant” 15-minute time window the service wants. The 17-megawatt generator such a tank would need to meet this target would burn more than 1,200 gallons of diesel per hour, according to analysis from the Institute for Energy Research.

For its part, the Marine Corps maintains it still has no requirement for an all-electric tactical vehicle, preferring to invest in fuel-saving retrofits and cautiously develop a hybrid truck while waiting for technology to mature.

At the same time, the services are under pressure from within and without to solve these problems and make serious headway toward total electrification of their fleets. In 2022, when the services were more bullish on the timeline for adopting electric tactical vehicles, the Pentagon adopted a sustainability plan laying out steps to move toward the White House’s goal of making every vehicle in the U.S. military climate-friendly.

The Army doubled down on the challenge, publishing its own climate strategy the same year with a 2035 deadline to field purpose-built hybrid tactical vehicles and a 2050 target to field fully electric tactical vehicles.

A poignant 2022 image from Russia’s war on Ukraine is creating a different kind of pressure while changing the conversation on vehicle electrification. The aerial photo, which depicts a 40-mile truck convoy stalled out and vulnerable en route to Kyiv due to gas shortages, underscores the extent to which fuel-dependent vehicles remain a liability, demanding dangerous resupply missions and stops. These problems are exacerbated in urban warfare, where vehicles stopped and exposed for any amount of time are a target, and in dispersed operating areas like the Pacific, where refueling missions may be especially risky and costly.

“The war in Ukraine and the growing recognition of the threat we have in the Pacific have disrupted the old model of how to think about war and how to prepare for war,” Brandon Newell, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and founder of the military-focused design firm DCI Next, told National Defense. “What I’m encouraged by, that I am seeing across all services, is that they do recognize that electric vehicles unlock new warfighting capabilities.”

With a ticking clock and a fresh sense of tactical urgency despite meaningful technological challenges, which service, then, will be first to the goal of fielding an all-electric tactical vehicle?

On one hand, the answer seems obvious. The Army in October stated it was ready to begin prototyping of a future Electric Light Reconnaissance Vehicle, or eLRV, which would, if an all-electric design is chosen, be alone in the running for first tactical EV in the U.S. fleet. Army Futures Command and the service’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center have also spearheaded research and prototyping efforts that could ultimately benefit the entire Defense Department.

Moreover, developing hybrid engines and alternative fuels is a main objective of the service’s Contested Logistics Cross-Functional Team, which stood up last spring in response to vulnerability concerns raised by the Ukraine war.

Dean McGrew, the Army’s branch chief for ground vehicle power and mobility at the Ground Vehicle Systems Center, in a recent interview said work to define what the Army wants out of the recon vehicle is well underway. Experiments with existing electrified commercial SUVs at Michigan’s Joint Maneuver Training Center and Georgia’s Fort Moore, he said, allowed engineers to get a sense of how much power they’d need to execute the target of a 50-mile all-electric range through soft sand and other challenging surfaces.While all options remain on the table for vehicle specifications, he said, officials quickly began to realize that their desires for larger vehicles necessitated a “pretty big battery.”

“We had unanimity within the leadership team that, if we’re going to tackle electrification, we’re going to learn a lot no matter which way we go,” McGrew said. “But it’s going to be a heck of a lot easier for us to start on a small vehicle, leveraging commercial capability, than trying to go it alone on a big, heavy tractor. That’s how eLRV got to be where we want to launch from.”

McGrew described it as a 12,000-pound scout vehicle, likely a battery-dominant hybrid small enough to avoid the charging pitfalls that make the idea of an all-electric tank or armored vehicle so unwieldy. He estimates that while such a vehicle would typically have a 250-to-300-kilowatt power system, a 30-kilowatt system would do the job and be rechargeable by a portable generator.

Add in a range extender — an add-on auxiliary power unit — and “we’re really kicking the can on these huge megawatt charging stations down the road quite a ways,” McGrew said.

Crucially, he said, the Electric Light Reconnaissance Vehicle should be able to execute its primary mission unhindered by its power source. The hybrid or electric power system will give the vehicle extended silent watch capabilities, meaning it can stay quietly on station in “surveillance mode” without ever needing to start up the engine, all the while emitting a heat signature much lower and less detectable than a comparable conventional scout vehicle. McGrew added that such a vehicle should burn 25 percent less fuel in idle mode, since it will be able to do everything but drive with the engine off.

“It’s better for the climate because we’re going to end up consuming half the fuel for the same amount of job,” he said. “But we’re here to win wars, and it’s more about operational duration. If I can go twice as long on the same amount of fuel, our logistics tail is less predictable.”

If fiscal year 2024 appropriations materialize as anticipated, contracting actions could begin on the nascent program as early as this summer.

Other Army efforts aim to retrofit the existing tactical vehicle fleet incrementally with Navy-approved lithium-ion batteries that will power the cab and other functions while a vehicle is on station. Crucially, McGrew said, these kits will be able to maintain temperature control — heat and air conditioning — at levels as good or better than those made possible by keeping the engine on idle.

“We do not want to motivate a warfighter to defeat the system,” he added.

To date, the anti-idle kits, which take several days to install per vehicle and realize a fuel savings of about 20 percent, have been added to about 20 of the Army’s 60,000 Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles machines, he said. Pending funding — money for scale production of retrofit kits is expected to materialize in 2025 — the anti-idle installation effort will be in process for years to come.

Observers suggest that the Army is ill-positioned to win the race against its own 2035 and 2050 deadlines. Richard Tannery, the founder of Parabolic Strategy and an independent consultant in EV manufacturing who attended last year’s TEVx, estimated it will take the Army three years to downselect competitors’ prototype vehicle designs. Considering the Army began industry demonstrations on candidates for the eLRV in early 2021, he’s not optimistic about the service’s ability to reach its fielding target.

“We’re already starting behind the curve,” he said.

For its part, though, the Marine Corps remains a deliberate observational distance behind the Army.

“I actually have it on my wall,” Reginald Thomas, head of the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Energy Office, said of the Army’s vehicle electrification roadmap and deadlines chart. “I love that they put a spot on the wall, and they aspire to get there. But that’s nothing the Marine Corps has adopted.”

In 2023, GM Defense, one of the military’s primary industry collaborators in the electric vehicle space, brought an electric-optional prototype version of the Army’s Infantry Squad Vehicle to the Modern Day Marine expo in Washington, D.C., anticipating a tactical electric vehicle requirement the service had yet to articulate.

In addition to the logistics concerns surrounding charging EVs, Marine Corps Systems Command points to another issue they consider prohibitive: the amphibious service’s tactical vehicles all have a built-in requirement to be able to drive through small bodies of water at depths of up to 60 inches, or five feet. While commercially available EVs — without exhaust pipes or air intakes — have demonstrated the ability to drive through standing water without issue, there have also been instances of EVs catching fire in floodwaters due to “thermal runaway” following battery damage.

Despite these misgivings, the Corps now has a candidate for its first hybrid tactical vehicle. It’s planning to build the technology into the future Medium Tactical Truck, expected to hit the fleet before the family of Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacements, or 7-ton trucks, reaches its 2042 retirement date.

It will have an on-board power generator and the ability to operate independent of its internal combustion engine for an unspecified period and completed the preliminary design process last year. The Office of Naval Research, in collaboration with the Nevada Automotive Test Center, is now building a technology demonstrator for the 10-foot vehicle, and the Marine Corps expects to award Other Transactional Authority contracts this fiscal year to two unspecified vendors to solidify baseline and objective-level requirements.

It’s also working on fuel-saving retrofits for its existing MTVRs, installing on one a parallel hybrid drivetrain that will incorporate a 100-kilowatt battery to extend range and improve fuel efficiency. While it’s not committing to the electric squad vehicle concept proposed by GM Defense, the service is moving forward on an experimental effort this year to develop a hybrid-electric platform for the body of its Polaris MRZR all-terrain vehicles, used by Marine reconnaissance, infantry and logistics units.

“Next year, we’re actually going to take that same design and replace the engine with a hydrogen fuel cell to see what kind of benefits that would provide,” Capt. David Lorio, an engineer with the Marine Corps Expeditionary Energy Office, said.

Undergoing testing as well at Maryland’s Aberdeen Test Center is an anti-idle kit for the Corps’ existing Logistics Vehicle System Replacement, which would power the truck’s cab and command systems without requiring the internal combustion engine to fire up.

As both the Army and the Marines invest in anti-idle retrofits, the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit is working to break down silos between the services with development of a standard battery that meets military performance specifications. Its Jumpstart for Advanced Battery Standardization, or JABS, program contracted with GM Defense in September 2022 to develop a battery pack based on its commercial Ultium platform.

Four additional companies have since been contracted for prototype development. While one goal of the program and the accompanying Family of Advanced Standard Batteries is a “menu” of tested and approved batteries that can be used to hybridize tactical vehicles, an ultimate objective is standard military performance specifications for the batteries it needs to procure for a range of platforms.

“How can we use batteries that are being developed by the commercial sector and stay away from bespoke, complex, one-off battery systems?” Andrew Higier, director of DIU’s energy portfolio, said in an interview. “We don’t typically do very well at keeping up with the private sector … so it’s about how can we leverage that technology?”

Under the DIU program, GM Defense has analyzed the difference between commercial and defense standards for lithium-ion battery testing and completed critical safety tests to meet Navy standards, which govern military battery requirements, Sonia Taylor, the company’s director of communications, said via email. The next phases will culminate in the integration of a high-voltage battery pack into the utility variant of the Infantry Squad Vehicle, as teased at Modern Day Marine. This pack will be optimized for austere environments and will provide charging power for counter-drone systems and soldiers’ wearable power systems as well as silent watch operations, she said.

Ultimately, “JABS is the initial step to getting high-voltage lithium-ion battery certifications to support a variety of usage across DoD platforms while helping to streamline testing and validation of future electrified solutions,” Taylor said.

While the Marine Corps arguably has the most compelling use case for shedding tactical vehicle fuel dependency with its Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations vision for operating forward in the Pacific and elsewhere with light, dispersed teams in austere environments, the service is simply too small to take a more frontline role in tactical electric vehicle development, officials and outside experts said.

“I don’t think there’s a scenario where the Marine Corps leads this,” said Benjamin Richardson, former director of the energy portfolio at the Defense Innovation Unit and vice president of energy storage company Our Next Energy. “It makes a lot more sense for them to be second and follow” the Army.

As the Army acknowledged, though, when it sidelined electric tank development in favor of a platform with more modest energy requirements, the way to tactical vehicle electrification success will likely be through the Silicon Valley concept of “minimum viable product,” or the smallest possible package in which to validate a new concept. And through this lens, the Marine Corps may still be the first over the tactical EV finish line, thanks to a project underway that’s an order of magnitude smaller than anything else in development.

In response to a recent urgent need statement out of the Corps’ 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, the Expeditionary Energy Office is looking into internal development of lightweight battery-electric dirt bikes that could carry Marines quickly and relatively quietly across a range of terrains.

This follows a year of experimentation by the West Coast-based 1st Reconnaissance Battalion with a self-procured fleet of eight battery-powered MMX dirt bikes by California company Zero Motorcycles. The lithium-ion batteries on these bikes hold a maximum capacity of 7.2 kilowatt hours; can get a range of 79 miles in the city and up to 155 minutes of “aggressive tactical riding”; and charge to 100 percent in six hours using a relatively modest 1-kilowatt charger, according to spec sheets.

While the timeline for this experimentation and development effort has yet to be defined, it may prove to be the quickest moving of the tactical electric vehicle projects underway.
“It’s a very small battery,” Lorio said. “So, electrifying that system size may be feasible in the near future. But anything above a motorcycle to go battery-electric for the next couple of decades will be very challenging.” ND

Topics: Army News, Marine Corps News

Comments (3)

Re: As Tactical EV Plans Take Shape, Army Charges Ahead; Marines Stay Cautious

Not to throw water or gasoline onto the discussion, but:
A) It is easier to keep a battery pack topped-up on a trickle charger while in storage than to resurrect a diesel with accidental fuel issues.
B) Anti-idle is an excellent use of current technology while awaiting the next generation of battery technology.
C) It is quite common for military electronics to be hardened against E.M.P.
D) Just a reminder -- Ukrainian recon personnel adored electric bikes to keep track of the enemy.

Everett Puterbaugh at 4:04 PM
Re: As Tactical EV Plans Take Shape, Army Charges Ahead; Marines Stay Cautious

EV military. Stupidity seems to have no limits with environmental wackos. The first few things that come to mind.
Unpredictable demands
More complicated
Electronic destroying devices EMP
About of charging power available

We are very good at building internal combustion engines

There is plenty of better ways to spend money on the military .

Oh one other thing for those idiots . Most military vehicles probably spend 95% of there time sitting in the motor pool.

Jim Ewing at 8:35 AM
Re: As Tactical EV Plans Take Shape, Army Charges Ahead; Marines Stay Cautious

There is only one theater of war that EV's will be practical and that's the country they are sold to for defense.

Skeptical Taxpayer at 11:25 PM
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