For many people, a dead cellphone battery simply results in a boring commute where they are not able to read exciting articles about military technology. However, for soldiers, a dead battery is a much larger issue. If a soldier loses their ability to use their radios, scopes, robots, or other electronics, they lose a critical capability. And just as King Richard III lost a battle because of a horse, future armies can lose a battle because of a dead battery.
Batteries are necessary to power the electronics that allow soldiers to shoot, move, and communicate on the modern battlefield. Last week’s Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Annual Meeting showcased (albeit virtually) a broad array of robots, sensors, and advanced equipment that will eventually make its way down to the soldier. However, before these devices can be used, the Army has to tackle a separate issue – how to power them.
The power burden on the soldier has increased dramatically over the past twenty years. At the start of the Global War on Terror, a dismounted infantryman only needed a small Ziploc bag of batteries for a long duration mission. With the current suite of equipment, the battery weight has increased substantially. Take for example, the PRC-154 Rifleman Radio. The radio has a battery life of 7 hours and each battery weighs 0.8 lb, so a 72-hour mission would require 8.8 lb of batteries just for that radio. When accounting for all of their equipment, it is not uncommon for a soldier to need 15 to 20 lb of batteries over a mission.
The showcase of technology at AUSA indicates that the energy requirements for the soldier will continue to increase. This trend is necessary, as enemy forces have access to a broad range of commercial electronics, and typically electronics are required to fight electronics. Take for example, in 2017, ISIS forces used commercial quadcopters to drop grenades on Coalition forces. The Army countered the ISIS drones with a “cyber rifle” which sends a signal to the quadcopter that causes it to lose its command link. Though useful, this technology would result in soldiers having to carry even more batteries.
At the surface, the easiest solution would be to give soldiers better batteries. Indeed, power management would get significantly easier with an arc reactor (i.e. a device with infinite power in a small compact form factor). But not only does such a device not exist, but even if it did, a single malfunction could result in the device releasing all of its stored energy, acting like a massive bomb. Even modern lithium-ion batteries are quite volatile,