COMVEC 2022: Electrification Is the Future for Defense Vehicles
Despite infrastructure challenges, electrified and automated military vehicles will save fuel and lives, said Allison’s VP of Defense Programs.
The M1 Abrams main battle tank developed for the U.S. Army in the late 1970s remains the best tank in the world, according to Allison Transmission’s VP of Defense Programs, but it does have an Achilles’ heel: It needs 0.7 gallons (2.65 L) of fuel to travel a mile. “You don’t have to be an engineer to know that’s a problem,” Dana J.H. Pittard said to a ballroom full of engineers during the opening keynote of the SAE COMVEC 2022 conference in Indianapolis.
Pittard is not an engineer, but his remarkable real-world experiences make him eminently qualified for his role at Allison. Before entering the commercial sector in 2015, he served in the United States Army as a major general and retired after 34 years of active duty – with assignments that included leading a tank company in Desert Storm and serving as military aide to the President of the United States and carrying the nuclear ‘football.’ “My perspective really comes from being a former soldier,” he said. “I’ve seen firsthand what innovation means to soldiers like me and so many others. It helps to get the mission done and save people’s lives.”
Fuel efficiency, autonomous and unmanned vehicles and electrification in defense vehicles were the main topics of Pittard’s conference keynote. To illustrate the importance of fuel efficiency in a military setting, Pittard recalled the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when news reports showed Russian tanks and vehicle convoys stalled north of Kyiv, stretching dozens of miles, waiting on resupplies – especially fuel. Ukrainian forces took advantage and eventually repelled that portion of the invasion.
“Fuel consumption is huge for the military,” Pittard stressed, “especially since the United States Department of Defense is the largest single consumer of fossil fuel in the world.” Improving performance and reducing logistical requirements for the DOD’s 170,000 commercial vehicles and 250,000 tactical vehicles is now an emphasis of development, he said. “Becoming more fuel-efficient allows deployed formations to carry less fuel or to move further with the fuel that they have. Higher fuel efficiency means fewer fuel trucks on the road.”
An area where the commercial sector is “much more mature” in its development than in the defense market is autonomous and unmanned vehicles. He noted that unmanned drones, piloted remotely both in the region and from thousands of miles away, were key in supporting the Iraqi security forces in defeating ISIS between 2014 and 2018. “The only autonomous or unmanned ground vehicles we had were the ones that cleared roadside bombs – and they were effective, but technology has improved so much since then,” Pittard said. Experimentation with leader-follower trucks has led to soldiers being able to issue digital commands for autonomous vehicles to form into convoys, drive in formation and retrieve loads.
“That’s a start,” Pittard said. “Where we want to eventually get to, though, is when you see tanks or infantry fighting vehicles moving on the battlefield, you should have no idea whether or not they’re manned or unmanned,” he asserted. But there are challenges – the most significant being autonomous off-highway driving with no infrastructure such as roads or buildings from which to orient. “These complex tasks will require powerful sensors, precise algorithms, and artificial intelligence to make the task that much more routine, preventing operator cognitive overload. That is the future,” Pittard said.
Electrification is another area in which defense lags the commercial market. The U.S. Army has recognized the need to change, Pittard said, and has established “reasonable time horizons” for hybrid-electric and fully electric vehicles: 2027 for a light-duty commercial EV, 2035 for a hybrid-electric tactical vehicle, and 2050 for a tactical EV. “But the basic challenge is still, can we field an all-electric tactical vehicle on an immature battlefield with no charging infrastructure?” Pittard said. “We will eventually get there, but that’s a reach, at least in the near term.”
Hybrid-electric is a more promising near-term solution. “Allison has self-invested in a new electric hybrid cross-drive transmission, the first of its kind, that will be produced in America to meet requirements for infantry fighting vehicles and main battle tanks in both the U.S. and around the world,” Pittard said, noting that the hybrid transmission is Allison’s largest investment in a defense product in the company's 107-year history.
Allison has teamed with the Army’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center (GVSC) to develop the next-generation electrified transmission. The initial model has been built to meet requirements for the Army’s Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMFV), which will eventually replace nearly 3,000 aging legacy Bradley vehicles. Pittard announced at SAE COMVEC for the first time publicly that the propulsion solution is called eGen Force.
American Rheinmetall Vehicles has selected the hybrid transmission for integration into its OMFV offering. eGen Force features a 220-kW electric motor and associated inverter for onboard vehicle power and parallel hybrid-electric operation. In addition to power generation, the system provides “true engine-off mobility that reduces detection, both acoustic and thermal – silent mobility to an extent, as silent as you can get with a tank,” Pittard said. “It’ll increase soldier survivability.”
“Electrification is truly the future of defense vehicles,” Pittard stressed. Highlights of the Q&A session that followed his keynote:
What are the advantages of all-electric vehicles in the battlefield?
Well, huge advantages. A big one is fuel – less fuel. We watch fuel trucks get hit by enemy fire, blowing up, and seeing vehicles stranded because of that. So that can be helpful. Now there’s another side to that, and that is the battery dilemma – for an Abrams tank, the number of batteries it would take for it to be all electric. There are ways around that as far as charging those batteries. We know some militaries – competitors – are out there completely moving out the battery pack and just putting a new battery pack in these huge vehicles. That [battery swapping] is something that hopefully the U.S. Army is also looking at doing. There are pros and cons, but to be all-electric, you would save so much logistically as far as just fuel.
Are there other areas of technology that defense is investing in?
Heck yeah, a lot of things, whether it's hypersonics, cybersecurity. Cybersecurity really is the next battlefield overall. One more thing on that, the Department of Defense is also investing in people – it’s people who are needed to do this. Right now, there’s a slight crisis as far as being able to recruit the people that are necessary to be able to man these kinds of systems.
Will alternative fuels and biofuels have a greater role in defense applications?
The answer is yes, ideally in the future. Fuel-cell technology can certainly help – anything that can lighten the logistical load. For the U.S. military its expeditionary force must move to different places around the world. If you can lessen the load on a logistical tail, that will make a difference.
How do you view connected and autonomous vehicles in defense, in automated platoons?
Autonomous is the idea behind it. And it could be remotely piloted – I’ve seen it from the aerial side. When we were striking targets all over Iraq and Syria, I was talking to drone pilots that were in Nevada. At first, early on in 2014, the drone pilots could fly very well, but they couldn’t hit a whole lot – they had to work on their targeting. The technology and the training have increased. The idea of using unmanned systems, remotely piloted, can work. On the ground, a platoon of four tanks, for example, could in fact move together and maybe only one is manned and the others could be piloted remotely, or one day we could have the autonomy that we really want, using artificial intelligence. That’s a leap right now, but at least remotely piloted – that’s the whole idea behind the Army’s new Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle.
How does the process for defense differ from advancing commercial technology?
What we’re seeing is, and I’ll use the OMFV as an example, there is a desire by the Department of Defense to really do it. You have to put money behind it, or it won’t happen in the defense space. Allison’s been involved in the EV space now for nearly 20 years; we wanted to see the U.S. military move in that direction for years with trucks. But because it wasn’t commercial and because there wasn’t an overall desire – and desire is always equated to budgets and putting money behind it – OEMs said, ‘No thank you, not interested.’ It is a different process on the defense side, it’s based on threats. If other countries see a threat, boom, they’ll jump on EV. But the U.S. is probably the leader in EV right now, along with Israel and a couple other nations.
Which is more important, making current technology more efficient, or future technology innovation?
That’s a balance, you’ve got to do both. We can never forget about our own modernization, but at the same time, it’s also modifying current systems that we have. If we do nothing but look at future technology, then right in the present, you have something like Russia invading Ukraine, and we may find ourselves into a war with what we have. So there’s got to be a balance of improving our current systems and then looking farther out in the future. And you see the budgets reflect that, at least for the defense.
What will be the basis for way-finding for autonomous off-road vehicles?
Well, that was my challenge to you [the engineers in attendance]. That’s the difficulty of it. Is it completely GPS driven? But we’ve got to be careful because we have competitors who can have anti-satellite technology and take out the GPSs. So how do you do that? I don’t have an answer; I throw that to you, our engineers of the world, to figure that one out.