- The U.S. Army recently held a technology event to showcase the state of the art in electric vehicles.
- The service, which owns tens of thousands of internal-combustion vehicles, has a vast incentive to back the most cost-effective vehicle power system possible.
- The army doesn't seem to think it's time to go electric just yet, and heavy armored vehicles like tanks and fighting vehicles may take even longer.
The U.S. Army, which owns one of the largest vehicle fleets in the world, is keeping a watchful eye on the progress of electric vehicles.
The army must carefully weigh the trade-offs of traditional internal-combustion engines against evolving EV technology. While the service is eager to cast off the disadvantages of ICE, such as shipping vast quantities of fuel to the battlefield, it doesn’t believe larger armored vehicles, particularly tanks, will go electric any time soon.
During a recent U.S. Army–sponsored technology day, manufacturers showed off their latest EV tech, including an electric version of the new Infantry Squad Vehicle, which GM Defense developed in just 12 weeks. The army is reportedly considering hybrid vehicles and a new technology that cuts fuel consumption while idling, but it isn't ready to make the jump to electric just yet. Larger, heavier armored combat vehicles powered by electricity are even further away.
The Army operates a staggering 225,000 vehicles of all kinds, from Humvees to 70-ton Abrams tanks. All of these vehicles use internal-combustion engines, which are reliable but also consume enormous amounts of diesel and gasoline fuel. In combat, just one armored division could require up to 500,000 gallons of fuel a day, which would often have to be shipped and then trucked into the battle zone on supply lines stretching thousands of miles.
Meanwhile, EVs are gaining ground against their ICE rivals. In 2020, EVs accounted for just 2.6 percent of global car sales, but that included a 40 percent increase over previous sales. Countries like France are eliminating internal combustion by 2040, while California and New York are banning most ICE engines by 2035. It’s increasingly likely that the future belongs to EVs.
But the Army is in a complicated position when it comes to ICEs vs. EVs. The service wants the best-performing engines to provide mobility on the battlefield, and for more than a century, ICE has been the only game in town. The Army has learned to live with drawbacks of internal combustion, particularly the need to ship fuel to distant corners of the globe. Other issues include noisy engines and fuel that can ignite when a vehicle is damaged or disabled, often with deadly consequences.
EVs, meanwhile, offer intriguing possibilities. Electric engines don’t require diesel fuel, and an all-electric-vehicle fleet can make one of an army's largest and most vulnerable fuel supply lines simply go away. Electric engines are also whisper quiet, making vehicles easier to conceal on the battlefield. And they don't contain a reservoir of flammable liquid that can make battle damage infinitely worse for the crew.
The problem? EVs vehicles still have sizable limitations.
A diesel-powered Joint Light Tactical Vehicle can be refueled in a matter of minutes, while a similar vehicle powered by electricity would require more time to fully charge its batteries. Liquid internal-combustion fuel still has a much higher power-to-weight ratio than batteries, meaning the army would need to ship more pounds of batteries than pounds of liquid fuel. The army could recharge batteries in theater, but that requires a generator powered by diesel fuel—or nuclear power.
The U.S. Army can't plan to stick with ICE forever, but it also can’t move entirely to EVs just yet, because the technological limitations are too great. If the army hesitates and doesn’t transition alongside the civilian sector, it will end up paying greater prices for maintenance and fuel. While a family or small business might be able to get by driving ICE in an electric world, multiply that cost by 250,000 and the U.S. Army's problem becomes obvious.