Magazine article National Defense

The Army Wants to Power Up Dismounted Soldiers

Magazine article National Defense

The Army Wants to Power Up Dismounted Soldiers

Article excerpt

* As the demand for power for dismounted troops grows, U.S. military researchers and industry are looking for cutting edge technologies to both supply energy and lighten soldiers' loads. Over the last 15 years, the power consumption of warfighters conducting dismounted operations has skyrocketed. Troops often carry a variety of gear that requires energy, such as radios, GPS, computers, smartphones, night vision goggles, infrared sights and counter-IED equipment.

In the 1990s, "the vast majority of the soldiers in these brigade combat teams weren't carrying hardly any electronics gear at all," said Army Maj. Ronald Schow, assistant program manager for soldier power at program executive office soldier. "As 9/11 occurred, and we've been engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, we've started to address more user needs."

The proliferation of radios and the introduction of Nett Warrior--an integrated situational awareness and mission control system--are the main reasons for the four-fold increase in power needs among squad leaders in recent years, Schow said.

"All of a sudden we went from having hardly anything to [having] multiple power requirements that the soldiers were wearing," he said.

The extra weight that soldiers have to carry as a result of their battery loads is a concern, as troops often lug upwards of 100 pounds of gear on them when they are out on patrol. An infantry platoon currently carries about 700 pounds of batteries (17 pounds per soldier) for a 72-hour mission, according to the Army. The situation is likely to grow worse, officials said, because the Army has a plan to equip troops with a new individual rifleman radio. Doing so would precipitate a significant increase in power demand for the soldiers who carry them, Schow said.

Officials said the Defense Department and industry need to come up with ways to provide additional power while reducing the logistical load on soldiers in the field.

"We've got the warfighter transitioning from a single-shot rifle to [being] globally connected to the tactical network," said Steve Mapes, deputy director for expeditionary operations in the Defense Department's operational energy plans and programs office.

"With that increased capability comes a phenomenal power burden that the warfighter never had before.... We have to come to grips with that," he said at a National Defense Industrial Association power conference in August.

Although the energy density of traditional batteries is improving, it is not keeping up with demand for more power, officials said. Consequently, the Defense Department wants researchers to push the envelope.

"We're looking at trying to take a few more risks and have a little more high payoff, high risk stuff," said Michael Brundage, chief of the tactical power branch at the Army's Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC).

"S&T in general in the military over the last 10 or 15 years has really been shortsighted because it has been focusing on supporting the soldiers that are at war," he said. "The leadership has told us to start going back to the basics and thinking longer term. We want to go out five, 10, 15, 20 years [and] start looking at things that are higher risk, be willing to accept failure if we have to, and do everything we can to try to succeed. But we want to think longer term and really outside the box."

One of the technologies that the military is looking at for soldier power is betavoltaics. Betavoltaic sources generate power from beta particles emitted by radioactive materials.

"They can last a long time [and] you can make them very small," said Tom Adams, an engineer at Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane division, which has contributed to Army-applicable R&D.

But he noted that the industrial base for this type of technology is currently limited. There are only two major betavoltaics manufacturers--City Labs and Widetronix--Adams said. …

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