Cutting the Fossil Fuel Tether

Rising gas prices, along with environmental concerns and governmental regulations, have amplified interest in reducing fossil fuel consumption, in part by transitioning to electric vehicles. A CTMA collaboration has helped America move closer to accomplishing this goal.

Launched in 2021 and scheduled to wrap up in early 2023, the collaboration—Electric Propulsion and Storage Technologies to Increase Reliability and Reduce Reliance on Fossil Fuels—analyzed the costs and logistical hurdles involved with transitioning entire fleets to partially or fully electric-powered vehicles. It brought together the expertise of several research and development and acquisition units within the US Army, Marine Corps, and Special Operations Command, along with industry partner QinetiQ, Inc.

The project focused on vehicle electrification, defined as the use of electrical power for the primary operation of automotive drive trains, auxiliary systems, turret motors and drives, and other mechanical subsystems using either hybrid-electric (HE) or all-electric (AE) solutions. With the objective of advancing vehicle electrification technologies in both commercial industry and in the military, the project team conducted a feasibility study that investigated technical aspects of electrification and potential crossovers between the civilian and military domains.

The team’s primary researcher, Greg Lee, a program manager at QinetiQ, has twenty years of experience as an Army armor officer. After writing an Army Futures Command white paper, “Electrification of U.S. Army Ground Force (An Evolutionary Revolution),” he began working with QinetiQ on this CTMA project. Along with a small team of engineers and researchers, Lee created a campaign plan to transition the Army to AE vehicles.

“Both industry and policy are driving the Army towards electrification,” said Lee. “No later than 2035, the Army wants to have its entire non-tactical vehicle (NTV) fleet be all electric and should have fielded its first purpose-built HE tactical vehicles.”

Lee and his collaborators conducted a feasibility study to determine the operational and maintenance benefits associated with electric propulsion and energy storage systems for medium-duty and heavy-duty vehicles. By using the Army’s tactical wheeled vehicle (TWV) and combat vehicle (CV) fleets as a surrogate, the team demonstrated how it could be possible to transition to electric propulsion and energy storage systems within the medium- and heavy-equipment commercial sectors.

Through a market survey and a trade study, the team completed a comprehensive investigation into twenty-one companies that build, supply, and support electric vehicles (EVs). This research
focused on vehicle architecture trade-offs, supply chain capabilities, and access to strategic materials. The initiative examined the process of transforming the Army’s TWV and CV fleets to HE or AE platforms. Ultimately, the team produced a campaign plan for the electrification of the Army’s TWV and CV fleets.

Because HEs are well-positioned to be the transition point from internal combustion engines (ICE) to AE, the team recommended that the Army acquire its next TWVs and CVs purpose-built as parallel hybrid electric (P-HEs) with an upgradable configuration to AEs. The collaborators determined that P-HE vehicles would produce the most benefit for TWVs and CVs, because P-HE vehicles an use either the ICE or the motor/generator to power the vehicle if one of the systems is damaged. This can save future funding dollars with near-term investment and provide the ability to ease the transition from fossil fuels to electric.

“My mantra is ‘cut the fossil fuel tether,’” Lee said. “The Army is focused on the tactical benefits of electrification. But electrification also provides operational and strategic-level benefits. I built a plan focused on readiness and logistics. We had to shape the logistics trains [for TWVs] before we could focus on electrifying combat vehicles.”

The study further recommended that the purpose-built P-HEs contain a supercapacitor (SCAP) hybrid system where supercapacitors are used to store energy and then disburse it to electrical components. Supercapacitors are best when used with kinetic energy recapture systems (KERS) and provide redundancy for emergency maneuvering or battlefield damage assessment and repair
(BDAR). SCAP hybrid systems, when paired with KERS, have the capability to self-charge in austere environments.

While electrification has many benefits, this process also presents challenges and risks. At the top of the list, the ability to recharge a fleet of vehicles in austere regions will require access to a substantial amount of power. Until higher capacity batteries that can last substantially longer are developed, AE combat vehicles would be restricted to regions with an established power grid. Beyond the power issue, when the team examined the supply chain for EVs, they emphasized a strategic vulnerability: America effectively relies on imports for 70 percent of its strategic metals, including those used in HE and AE batteries, as indicated by a 2017 USGS report. Moreover, China is home to at least 90% of the world’s capacity to process rare earth ores
into material that manufacturers can use for EV batteries, according to research firm Adamas Intelligence. The US must adjust regulations to secure its electric battery supply chain.

“The big risk of going all-electric,” Lee said, “is that we need to solve the production of rare earth minerals, and its manufacture into products, in order to close a major strategic vulnerability to China.”

Additionally, the software is a critical component in EVs, so the code and embedded code on microchips must be protected from cyberattacks and hacking.

The team concluded their work by making six recommendations. First, the US should increase its investment in advanced electrification technologies immediately. Second, the Army must lobby the
DOD to assist the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency with modifying regulations and securing the electric supply chain and rare earth materials. Third, the team produced a campaign plan to tie the modernization of nontactical vehicles, TWV, and CV fleets together. Fourth, the Army should aim at producing HE and HE upgradable to AE (HE-AE) TWVs within the next ten years. Fifth, the Army must invest in battery storage technology development. Finally, the Army should invest in R&D into KERS to provide backup or emergency recharging methods.

The findings from this project will help crystallize the approaches needed to advance vehicle electrification in the auto industry. The average EV in the US today produces the emissions equivalent of a gasoline car that gets 73 miles per gallon, and the emissions performance of EVs will only improve over time. Electric vehicles can save commercial industry and consumers on maintenance costs—an estimated $1,500 over the life of the vehicle, compared to a gasoline-powered version of their vehicle. Increased use of EVs in the medium- and heavy-equipment commercial sectors will produce far fewer emissions than traditional gasoline/diesel-powered vehicles, decrease noise pollution, improve air quality, and reduce public health impacts. Overall, EVs are
estimated to cut US oil use by 1.5 million barrels a day by 2035.

The team’s research found that if the Army converted its light wheel fleet of 110,913 vehicles to HE it could save in fuel, parts, and maintenance at between $3.19 billion and $5.40 billion annually. If the light-wheeled fleet is upgraded to AE, then the savings increase to between $6.43 billion and $7.39 billion annually. These savings will not be unique to the military and
industry potentially will find a higher cost-benefit.

The Army can use the fossil fuel savings and reinvest them into AE vehicle development and acquisition. Electrification brings the Army in line with reducing its carbon footprint and potentially achieving a net zero garrison footprint in the US. In addition to cost savings and reduced reliance on fossil fuels, major benefits of modernizing AE TWV and CV fleets
include increasing strategic and operational flexibility, achieving tactical silent capabilities, reducing logistical convoys and personnel, and requiring smaller fuel depots. Electrification has the potential to unlock strategic, operational, and tactical advantages for decades to come.