By Michael F. Carmichael
Sept. 15, 2011
Recently Corp! wrote about a new breed of military trucks, the FED Alpha and Bravo, that will be getting at least a 70 percent increase in fuel economy over the ones they’ll replace. In this article we pull back for a broader view of what the military leaders are looking at as national security is transformed from a Cold War mentality to something more closely resembling the insurgent conflict in Afghanistan.
Dr. David Gorsich is the chief scientist at TARDEC, the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center located in Warren, Mich., a northern suburb of Detroit. His doctorate is in applied mathematics from MIT, and he’s putting it to work on behalf of the folks who will have to protect us in the next few decades.
Looking at the Impact of Climate Change
While some politicians are still questioning global climate change, Gorsich and his staff are hard at work determining how it will affect a variety of aspects of national security.
“We’re all looking ahead to what climate change is going to do to us - both in the Department of the Army and [the U.S.] Department of Energy,” says Gorsich. “We’ve looked at various computer simulations of how climate change is going to impact different populations of people and potentially destabilize governments. We’re very aware that there are many of those scenarios that will require us to engage as an army because of climate change.”
With contemporary warfare dependent to a great extent on the mobility of the warfighters (that’s what they call soldiers these days), much of the emphasis being placed on research by the Army and Department of Defense is on the vehicles needed to accomplish that.
Gorsich asks rhetorically, “Is the Department of Defense’s ground vehicle fleet prepared for the different types of conflicts we will have in the future, especially when we won’t necessarily have reliable sources of cheap energy?” Gorsich plans on a strong affirmative answer to that. One benefit the military has, he explains: “We don’t have to worry about emissions, but we do have to be concerned that those vehicles perform and we win on the battlefield. We worry about them having power and energy, about them being mobile, we worry about them being survivable. Those are our primary concerns.”
As with the FED Alpha and Bravo, the key component in most military operations is the fuel for the vehicles.
Fuel is Still a Critical Component in Military Thinking
As an example, Gorsich cites the first Gulf War in 1993.”When we invaded Iraq for the first time and went into Baghdad, we had some 10,000 vehicles and 25,000 troops. Even though they carried more than 3 million gallons of fuel they had to stop and have the fuel trucks go back into Kuwait to pick up more fuel. That put our soldiers at risk. It’s not just the tankers and their defending forces that can get into trouble, it’s the folks at the front lines whose tanks can’t move because they don’t have enough fuel.”
That helps explain in part why Gorsich is so focused on fuel. “Any time we can save fuel, that saves lives. You don’t have to transfer as much fuel out to the forces.”
“We want to maximize our ‘tooth-to-tail’ ratio,” Gorsich says, “where our front-line troops are the ‘teeth’ and all of the support and supply troops are the ‘tail.’ We want to be able to move and fight as much as we can on the least amount of energy.”
That’s been a goal of armies since Hannibal crossed the Alps on his elephants. While hay powered the pachyderms, our military has to rely on some form of petroleum.
“Liquid fuels have the highest energy density in terms of storage,” Gorsich explains. “But, we know in the future we have to be adaptable to different types of fuels. That may be renewable fuels, such as biofuels - or anything else we can create and bring with us.
“We’re working on making the powertrain more efficient so that it can be used with different types of fuels.” Think: General Motors’ FlexFuel-capable domestic cars and trucks as one example.
“We have an alliance with the Department of Energy and the Department of the Army: the Advanced Vehicle and Power Technology Alliance,” Gorsich says. “It’s a way of maximizing our resources to make vehicles more efficient. Can we attack the physics and the chemistry and the overall process of what goes on when combustion occurs in a cylinder by using super-computers to calculate that out. There are things we can do which will break open new doors for us in terms of efficiency.”
And, as so often happens when military research is in the lead, it is anticipated those new doors will also open for civilian applications as well.
Energy Use Reduction Can Take Many Forms
“We’re also looking at lightweight structures, at different types of materials. If we can reduce the weight of a weapons system and still keep it survivable and reliable it will increase the fuel savings immediately. But, we are looking at materials that are cheap - not expensive exotic ones.”
While Gorsich is looking at reducing the need for fuel, he points out that that fuel is still most likely be a liquid one because its ‘energy density’ is much higher than, for instance, batteries.
“Having fully electric vehicles go out there in a battle just isn’t realistic for the Army in the near future,” Gorsich says.
However, he continues, “Hybrids are a very interesting area for us. We’re working with the Department of Energy to decrease the cost of batteries and improve their energy density. The environments we take batteries into are extreme so that makes our requirements rather challenging. We have to take them into the Arctic or the desert and sometimes batteries don’t like that.”
Doing More with (Potentially) Less
With the Congressional emphasis on debt reduction, Gorsich says, “We know that budget cuts are on their way for the Department of Defense. We also know that reducing the cost of deploying a force is really vital - more important for the future than it has been over the last two wars that we’ve had. Maybe,” he ponders, “we should add money to certain programs to reduce costs somewhere else.”
One of the tasks TARDEC is charged with is what’s called “portfolio management.” “We look at things from a ‘community’ perspective in order to make the best winning vehicle we can.” This idea extends not only to the automotive industry - and its broad engineering and manufacturing expertise - but internally within the Department of Defense community as well.
Looking at the (not too distant) Future
“We are actually looking at the way in which we conduct warfare,” Gorsich says. “On the horizon is making systems autonomous by roboticizing these vehicles. For instance, if you take the soldiers out of a fuel vehicle you don’t have to ‘armor-up’ that vehicle. You’re saving soldiers’ lives, you don’t have to bring water and food for them, and you’re greatly improving the fuel efficiency of the vehicle. The more we can add autonomy into our platforms that’s going to make a huge difference in the types of wars we fight.”
The idea of an ‘autonomous’ vehicle is not new, Gorsich reminds us. We’ve been driving them for several years. “General Motors took the first step in roboticizing vehicles with the anti-lock brake system. It’s the first time they put something in a vehicle that took control away from the driver. They knew it would be safer if the computer took over rather than the drivers trying to pump the breaks themselves. They’ve gone on from there with cruise control.”
The Center for Automotive Research, Ford and a number of civilian companies and municipalities are looking hard at establishing an interactive infrastructure for vehicle use that will improve highway safety as well as save fuel.
“We’re going on from [what GM and others have done] with vehicle-to-vehicle as well as vehicle-to-infrastructure communications where vehicles have autonomy,” Gorsich explains. “It’s not a problem of distracted driving - driving is the distraction. People want to text and send e-mails and take their hands off the wheel and let the car deal with the traffic. They don’t want to deal with it anymore; they have other things they want to do in a car.”
That translates easily to military applications. “The same is for soldiers,” he says. “If you add autonomy there’s a lot those soldiers can be doing - like watching what’s going on around them, or protecting something - or just not being in the vehicle at all. Then you can transport everything you want to transport without the added weight and the added complexities of having soldiers in harm’s way.”
Adding autonomy to the existing fleet may well not involve creating “robot trucks” Gorsich says. “We’re looking at ‘autonomy kits’ where you install one in a traditional truck and all of a sudden that truck becomes autonomous - or semi-autonomous at least.
“The technology has been in place for a decade that allows us to have one lead vehicle and a bunch of ‘followers’ - and we’ve done field tests of that successfully,” he continues. “You have a lead truck with soldiers and all the other trucks don’t have soldiers and armor and bam! you’ve got increased fuel economy right there.”
When will those trucks start following each other? “There’s a Defense Authorization Act that calls for about a third of vehicles to be autonomous by 2013. But,” Gorsich cautions, “that’s only an ‘authorization’ without money.
“There are things that we can do to improve fuel usage on a battlefield that are more innovative than, say, improving the performance of an engine a little bit at a time.
“We’re looking at all those things because that’s the future. You’ll see us do more in warfare with less energy.”
More effective “teeth,” more efficient “tail.”