Video Above: Soldiers Controlling Robot Tanks
What if an Abrams tank were able to surge forward into enemy territory with much greater range, endurance and offensive combat success due to needing less fuel and logistics support? What if armored vehicles could silently hide from enemy detection without emitting a heat or noise signature? This might enable clandestine scout and reconnaissance missions, enable surprise attack or simply allow focused attention of computing, communications, networking and weapons.
Army Climate Strategy
These advancements are fast-becoming more realistic, in part due to the Army’s recently published Climate Strategy. While the strategy is comprehensive and wide-spanning in its sphere of topics and areas of focus, one interesting and potentially impactful area of focus relates to “hybridizing” commercial, non-tactical and tactical vehicles with electric propulsion and operational technologies. The goal, as cited in the strategy, could be described in terms of interwoven, mutually reinforcing concepts … making constructive environmental changes while also introducing extremely significant new combat advantages to the force.
A perhaps lesser recognized yet impactful element of this initiative relates to the multitude of ways in which introducing the hybridization of heavier combat vehicles could measurably improve tactical performance, perhaps even saving lives in combat.
“While these steps are focused on reducing greenhouse gasses, every one of these steps is going to make us a better and more effective fighting force,” Mr. Paul Farnan, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Army, Installation, Energy and Environment, told a group of reporters when talking about the new Climate Strategy.
Hybridizing Abrams Tanks
A mechanized column of armored vehicles including Abrams tanks, could certainly surge forward into enemy territory to “close with an enemy,” is a much faster and more efficient way should fuel requirements be drastically reduced. Heavily armored vehicles require so much fuel to advance forward, yet they need substantial logistics support in the way of continued fuel and other supplies. Transporting things like fuel of course introduces an element of risk, making advancing forces more vulnerable. An ability to surge farther without needing as much of a logistics chain can therefore introduce very significant tactical advantages, as explained by Farnan.
“What we are looking for is ways to more effectively enhance our force and improve how we are able to fight wars. If we reduce the amount of fuel required, there is less of a logistical tail line that we will have to supply our forces. This enables greater on-station time for forces,” Farnan explained.
There are other tactical advantages as well, such as the prospect of “silent watch.” A hybridized vehicle can operate with the ability to quietly linger in a high-value, high-risk area without emitting an acoustic or thermal signature. This is extremely significant, because of course it allows the vehicle to run while saving fuel, but also helps advancing forces stay quasi “stealthy” or less detectable to increasingly advanced enemy sensors. Should a tank effectively obscure itself from an overhead EO/IR camera using terrain, it would be extremely difficult for enemy drones, satellites and other sensors to detect.
The tactical advantage of this kind of ability is massive, as it could improve success prospects for clandestine missions, scouting and reconnaissance or surprise attack. Typically something like an Abrams in combat would be difficult to hide, but if a tank could linger beneath a thick forest of trees and operate while remaining entirely silent and not emitting heat, the combat advantages would be enormous.
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The text of the Army’s “Climate Strategy” explained this in terms of merging“climate and combat” advantages.
“Contemporary Army ground vehicles must continuously run their engines non-stop to power vital auxiliary systems like communications equipment even when the vehicle is not moving. Introducing anti-idle enables these systems to be powered even with the engine off, allowing the vehicle to serve its critical battlefield functions on “silent watch,” the strategy writes.
Farnan explained that integrating electrical propulsion and functionality into heavy combat vehicles such as Abrams or Bradleys will happen on a “much longer timeline given all the issues that it is going to involve. We are going to push hard to get there but be methodical and deliberate to do it,” Farnan said.
Army Secretary Wormuth’s intent to align climate change enviro-friendly adaptations with tactical, technological and strategic warfighting improvements involves ongoing synergies with the services’ acquisition and modernization communities and the Installation, Energy and Environment units. Some of these efforts, which were referred to by Farnan, include a step by step hybridization and things like the installation of batteries.
This is quite significant and not without some kinds of technological precedent in the realm of Army modernization. For instance, as far back as 15 years ago, the Army’s Manned-Ground Vehicles developed for Future Combat Systems were engineered with electricity and power-generating battery technologies.
While batteries need to be properly cooled in many cases to function in an optimal way, this innovation brought the clear tactical advantage of being able to better power up and sustain on-board electrical systems such as sensors, computing and C4ISR communications systems. This is just one of many examples in which Army innovations explored for Future Combat Systems wound up informing successful modernization efforts in subsequent years.
While the ambitious and in many ways successful FCS program was canceled in 2009 by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, many FCS-inspired technological breakthroughs wound up contributing to and informing decades of continued modernization. In the realm of hybridization of vehicles and electric propulsion systems, this paradoxical dynamic with FCS could help as there are previous successful technological efforts likely able to expedite current developments.
Much of this may take time to evolve, yet there is precedent and previous technological progress which might help accelerate development with both the tactical and combat vehicle fleet. Hybridized vehicles would need to be effectively ruggedized for combat and able to preserve their weapons and warfighting advantages. This enviro-military synergy, however, appears auspicious and promising as something quite realistic, favoring success and already underway.
The Army’s Climate Strategy does speak to this progress, by referring to a number of projects such as its Electric Light Reconnaissance Vehicle, a program slated to begin testing by September of next year. Research along these lines is surging ahead. The strategy writes “
“The Army is researching key questions about hybrid vehicle propulsion and power generation systems, developing advanced technologies, and working with vehicle Program Managers to integrate hybrid electric technologies into future and existing platforms.”
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.