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Electric Military Vehicles: Imagination or Possibility?

Hello Defence Lovers, Electric vehicles are rapidly emerging as the next step in the development of the automobiles industry. They are likely to replace conventional vehicles powered by internal combustion engines in the future. At the same time, the thought of inducting electric vehicles into the military is also gaining momentum. Recently at the inauguration ceremony of Emergency Landing Field in Rajasthan, Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari said that Indian armed forces should also think about replacing their vehicles with electric vehicles.

In this article, we will have a look at the efforts being made globally in this field. We will analyze the possible advantages of electric vehicles over a current fleet of vehicles and also the challenges associated with them. Also, we will look at how Indian armed forces are moving in this direction and what we can expect in the future.

Global Efforts Towards Inducting Electric Military Vehicles

Currently, the US Army is leading in this sector. In April 2021, US Army issued a contract to six companies to study different methods to power a future fleet of 2,25,000 electric military vehicles. American company GM Defense, a subsidiary of General Motors is working with US Army for the development of Electric Military vehicles. Recently the company demonstrated a prototype of an Infantry Squad Vehicle to the US Army. The company is also working on an Electric Light Reconnaissance vehicle (eLRV). Due to its lightweight nature, it will be able to go fully electric with current technology.

As of now, electric vehicles are powered using Lithium-Ion (Li-Ion) batteries. These batteries have certain limitations due to which it is difficult to power heavy combat vehicles with these electric batteries as of now. We shall discuss these problems further. Thus currently the main area of research is improving batteries with new chemical combinations. These new technologies are Ultium technology, Hydrogen fuel cells, etc.

Electric Infantry Squad Vehicle by GM Defense.
Electric Infantry Squad Vehicle by GM Defense.

Advantages Of Electric Military Vehicles

Electric vehicles offer many advantages in military operations over conventional diesel engines. These are as follows.

  • Stealth- Electric engines produce much lesser noise and thermal signature compared to conventional engines. This will make combat vehicles stealthy. Modern battlefields are dominated by acoustic sensors and infrared cameras. They can catch internal combustion engine signatures from a long distance. Thus electric vehicles can survive better in such battlefields.
  • More torque at lower speeds- Electric engines provide more Torque at lower speeds than diesel engines. This will improve acceleration, towing capacity and climbing ability thus improving overall combat capability.
  • Multiple motors- Vehicle can use multiple electric motors instead of relying upon centralized engine in conventional vehicles. For example, each wheel can have its own engine. Thus risk can be minimised. Even if one engine fails or gets damaged, the vehicle can keep going.
  • Better onboard power- Surplus electric energy produced by electric engine than diesel engine can be used to operate power intensive sensors like IR sensors, Radars, Sonars, etc.
  • Hydrogen fuel cells can produce such surplus power in large amount. As per GM Defense, their electric military vehicle, Silverado ZH2 which is under development can produce 100 Kilowatt of power. This can be used to power other equipments like Active Protection System and Directed Energy Weapons. Apart from this, Hydrogen fuel cell produces only water as a by product. In one hour of operating, it can make 2 gallons of water. It can be made potable with some chemical treatment.

All the advantages stated above are related to military operations. However we should not forget the biggest benefit of electric vehicles i.e. reducing environmental pollution. Thus electric military vehicles will also help countries in fight against climate change.

TESLA cybertruck as a combat vehicle. (Render). Credits- Peisert design
TESLA cybertruck as a combat vehicle. (Render). Credits- Peisert design

Challenges For Electric Military Vehicles

Currently, there are many challenges that are restricting electric vehicles from achieving their full potential. Such challenges for military vehicles are as follows.

  1. Packaging and storage of batteries- Electric batteries of today have lesser energy density and endurance than required. For example, as per Brigadier General Glenn Dean of US, if we want to power Abrams tank with purely electric power with current technology, we will need batteries of size bigger than the tank itself.
  • Battery weight- Current batteries are also heavy compared to amount of conventional fuel required to produce same power. For example, 23 gallons fuel of Humvee is equivalent to 1.7 tonnes of batteries. Thus vehicle has to sacrifice upon range, weapons or armour to compensate this weight.
  • Logistical issues- Civilian electric vehicles can have charging stations on highways but can there be such stations on battlefield? Even if we manage to create supply chain of batteries just like fuel, the amount and weight of batteries needed will be still high. If we decide to charge vehicle on field itself, high charging time will make crew and vehicle vulnerable to attack.
  • Safety- Conventional diesel and other fuels are inflammable but Li-Ion batteries also have some risks associated with them. Lithium burns quickly and aggressively. Small amount of physical damage to one battery can cause entire battery pack to catch fire. Thus a single bomb blast near vehicle or single accurate bullet can make entire vehicle catch fire.

However, scientists are working on most of these problems. A lot of research is being done on batteries to have a greater energy density, less charging time, and better endurance. The major issue here is that research will take time. Thus experts and military leaders are saying that fully electric vehicles are not possible in near future. In short term, we can get to see Hybrid vehicles in the military. Hybrid vehicles are those which use both conventional fuel and electric energy. Such vehicles can be developed in the decade to come.

What Are The Indian Armed Forces Doing In This Field?

In August 2019, a fleet of 10 electric cars was inducted into the Indian Army. These cars were Mahindra’s eVerito and were procured for use by officials in New Delhi. Army told that this step was to help curb emissions. This was a pilot project and more cars had to be procured.

Electric cars inducted in Indian Army
Electric cars inducted in Indian Army

This step can be considered as a small first step but much more needs to be done. Indian armed forces can follow the induction of electric vehicles in a phased manner. For example, starting can be done with light passenger vehicles like cars and jeeps.  Armed forces use them in large numbers. It can be done in a decade or so. Then combat support vehicles like Trucks and other transport fleets can be turned electric. This can be followed by combat vehicles like tanks, armoured personnel carriers, armoured vehicles, and even helicopters and fighter aircraft over the next few decades.

As per the current research programmes, the Indian military is going to use conventional internal combustion engines in combat vehicles for at least the next few decades. New platforms like Future Main Battle Tank, Future Infantry Combat vehicle are going to use diesel engines which are already being developed. A new jet engine for aircraft is to be developed in the upcoming decade. Thus conventional engines are going to remain in the Indian military for a long time. However Indian military leaders, scientists and private industries should start thinking about electric military vehicles from now itself. If India starts research at this point of time, it would be able to catch on to the global competition in this sector and won’t be left back like other crucial technologies.

Conclusion

The real challenge is to make heavy combat vehicles go electric. This will need a lot of research which cannot be done overnight. Many Indian research establishments like DRDO, IITs, IISc, and private players are doing research on enhanced batteries and electric vehicles. It is high time that this research also includes the concept of electric military vehicles so that the technology can be developed well in time.

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Prasad Gore

A defence enthusiast. Writing on Defence, Aviation and International Relations. M.A., NET (Defence and strategic studies).

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