Do current Government budgets match the urgency of the message when it comes to defence vehicle electrification?
Comments from two of the world’s leading nations in their published approaches to climate change.
“We face all kinds of threats in our line of work, but few of them truly deserve to be called existential. The climate crisis does. … Climate change is making the world more unsafe, and we need to act.” – Christine Wormuth, US Secretary of the Army
“Now firmly a defence problem, climate change is a significant challenge. Without adequate assessment of its effects, we leave ourselves exposed. We cannot let our capabilities become less effective against vulnerabilities we cannot see clearly. We have to afford to keep up with the pace of change.” – Lt Gen. (Retd) Richard Nugee, Climate Change and Sustainability Review Lead in UK Defence
Nations from around the world reached significant agreements on climate change at the much-publicised COP26 event held in Glasgow late in 2021.
These agreements are not limited to the commercial world. Defence stakeholders must take note and start acting if the target of zero emissions is to be achieved by 2050. This demands a radical re-think.
At the IAV Conference in Twickenham in January, the importance of climate change in the defence space figured significantly. It was the dominant topic, and a large section of the agenda was dedicated to the subject. Informed speakers from the user community, MoD and Industry spoke at length about challenges, solutions, and roadmaps regarding the greening of the defence sector.
In addition to the drive to reduce carbon emissions, we heard about the growing demand for onboard vehicle power to support the future systems these vehicles will host. We heard about the potential for micro-gridding and how an electric truck could power a field hospital for 8 hours, the equivalent of 8 diesel generators. We also heard how it cost US$500 to transport 1 gallon of diesel to Afghanistan and how the US Military suffered 2000 casualties amongst personnel directly involved in logistics resupply. The potential benefits of electrified defence vehicles appear to be far reaching for the environment and human life. Discussions focused on operational or capability enhancements resulting from electrification including reductions in operational costs.
Gen. Nugee was a key speaker at IAV, both in his own right and as part of a panel discussion involving experts from Industry, MoD and the Army. He spoke passionately about potential early mover benefits and the exponential effect that rapid action will have on carbon emissions. He emphasised urgency and he was compelling in his message.
What we didn’t hear during the event was how this journey would be funded and what really needs to happen to ensure that solutions are delivered within a timeline aligned to the urgency of the overarching message. The inference seemed to be that MoD was primarily looking to Industry to solve this problem.
Defence development for the last century has mostly been centrally funded by Government but since the late 90’s we have seen a major change to this model. Although Government funded programs still exist, there is now an expectation that Industry will fund most of the development, and right now, vehicle electrification appears to sit firmly in this category.
Speakers at IAV made the point that electrification of vehicles for defence applications is not a single “one size fits all” problem. Arguably, vehicles fall in to three different categories, each having a different set of challenges:
- Lighter utility vehicles (low GVW 4×4’s) and logistics trucks are likely to utilise mainstream automotive technologies in the future. The passenger car and truck sectors are developing electric vehicle solutions for the mass market that will ultimately become hardened and adapted for electrified defence applications.
- Electrification of heavy armoured vehicles/MBT’s remains a topic of debate. Future vehicles may be unmanned/autonomous and if so, this potentially introduces a paradigm change with vehicles being designed in a different way and becoming lighter. It begs the question, should we try to find a zero emissions solution for this class of vehicle? If the answer is yes, then there is a large level of development required.
- Medium category armoured vehicles such as APC’s will undoubtedly require specialist technologies. They are heavier than civilian vehicles and will require special features and capabilities that are unlikely to be found in the commercial electric vehicle market. Given these vehicles are the mainstay of a military force, there is a strong argument for electrification. This is where the most pressing developmental challenges will be addressed.
The defence vehicle community has diligently gone about its business of developing new vehicles and vehicle systems and has embraced the “Industry funded” commercial model. The reality is that armoured vehicle development has been incremental since the emergence of the first tank over 100 years ago. Threats have increased, armour has become heavier, engines have become more powerful, and management of mobility has been required.
Technological advancements have been made in many areas and todays vehicles are light-years ahead of the early tanks. However, fundamental technologies at the core of vehicle designs remain consistent and the development cycle has continued at an organic pace following a reasonably predictable path.
We are now on the verge of the greatest technological revolution Industry has seen in over a century. However, a huge obstacle to progress, is that the commercial landscape that allowed the current development model to thrive is no longer there.
Industry progresses to the beat of a commercial drum and commercial enterprises take decisions based on justifications derived from a commercial business case. Although there are MoD funded programs in the UK where defence vehicle electrification is being explored, with modifications made to Foxhound and Jackal by NP Aerospace and to MAN SV by RBSL, these were largely integration projects utilising available technologies to demonstrate a basic level of electrified vehicle performance rather than advancement of the fundamental technologies. The great work done by the respective companies has certainly showcased possibilities and increased awareness. Despite this, the projects are not directly linked to genuine system level evolution or a clear route to widespread usage.
On a broader level, Industry developments continue in the areas of battery technology, hydrogen fuel cells and associated infrastructure as well as the key architecture that will replace the mechanical drivelines that we have become accustomed to for the last 100 years. A great example being the in-hub electric drive and suspension module recently unveiled by Texelis and QinetiQ (also at the IAV conference). Software development, data analytics, connected systems and cyber security are close bed mates and essential aspects of the future vehicle.
Technological challenges remain and are not to be underestimated but, in many instances, Industry’s obstacles to genuine progress at an acceptable pace are commercial rather than technical.
Companies with suitable technologies need support. They need adequate funding, real programs, and clear pathways to genuine usage requirements to underpin a business case justifying internal investment. Without this, we seem destined to be working around the fringes of the technology and making limited advancement until the conditions align.
This will not deliver the progress necessary to achieve the early mover benefits that Gen. Nugee so passionately called for in Twickenham.
To quote Gen. Nugee one last time, “Defence is on the threshold of innovation and modernisation through the Integrated Review. The climate change and sustainability strategic approach is about embracing essential elements of this modernisation which Defence cannot afford to ignore. The imperative could not be clearer: Defence must and will act now,”.
If this statement holds true, we need to address the following fundamental questions:
- Is this hugely important area adequately funded to ensure achievement of targets?
- Are user communities and Government stakeholders sufficiently involved in Industry development of essential enabling technologies?
The answer is most likely “No” in each case. Governments need to invest significantly in Industry now to support the move to decarbonise the military or we will indeed miss the targets.