Panel: Army Needs More Electrical Power To Counter Long-Range Missile Threats

Chinese Type 022 Houbei-class fast attack missile firing missiles. People’s Liberation Army Navy Photo

The Pentagon is in the ‘shocking and telling’ position of needing more electrical power to protect distributed naval and ground forces from long-range attacks at a time when China dominates global production of needed advanced batteries to fulfill this mission, a panel of security experts said Thursday.

Heather Penny, a senior researcher at the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute, said as a pilot, “electricity was just as important as jet fuel” in crafting and reviewing missions. Yet she pointed out that China’s dominance in production goes hand in hand with its control of mining companies extracting cobalt, lithium and manganese essential to making advanced long-life batteries for the electrical energy in combat.

Speaking at the Hudson Institute’s online forum, Bryan Clark, director of Hudson’s Center for Defense Concepts and Technology, said, “This distribution [to spread out forces] has a lot of costs” to operate them during and after an attack. Advantage comes by complicating an opponent’s attack plans.

Clark added that the Department of Defense “hasn’t really thought about the different ways to distribute energy” under the altered conditions of long-range missile threats to positioning forces.

The pressing question for future logisticians involves the Pentagon figuring out how to distribute that energy when threatened with attack, he said.

As retired Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley put it, “the range, lethality and targeting” the Russians employed to attack Ukrainian forces in 2014 and quickly take out three battalions of defenders en masse provide a lesson that the Pentagon must learn to operate. in Eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific.

For distributed operations, “batteries are independent power sources.” They can also be hung up and used when needed, Wesley said.

While fossil fuels will still be needed to fly manned aircraft and to use them in hypersonics, Penny said Project Pele’s mobile truck-mounted nuclear reactors, now funded at $61 million for research and development development, could be the key to supplying distributed unit batteries. Batteries and nuclear power could be used to power swarms of unmanned aerial systems.

Panelists agreed that modular transportable nuclear power is a realistic and safe option for theater commanders to use. But they added that the reactors should be kept some distance away and hidden from the most contested areas.

Clark pointed out that, as inefficient as the military logistics supply chain may be, it already moves products for ground vehicles, aircraft and ships as needed, so it is a challenge that can be met if it is identified.

Noting the success of Elon Musk’s Tesla electric vehicles in the US market, Wesley said his company would have failed had he not considered the need for charging stations to keep vehicles moving.

Wesley, the former deputy commander of Army Futures Command, said that meant Musk considered the full range of what was needed before starting production to increase his chances of success.

The auto industry’s shift to electric vehicles poses a host of challenges for the Pentagon as the department continues to use internal combustion engine vehicles.

Wesley estimated that it would take the Pentagon 30 years to transition to electric vehicles. During this long transition, parts for internal combustion engines would become more difficult to obtain and the supply chain would have to meet the demands of both types of engines in terms of energy and components, he added. .

As for the future of applying advanced batteries to national security needs, Clark said the Pentagon needs to look beyond its usual contractual base for possible breakthroughs in such technologies outside of its usual vendors.

“How do you incentivize program offices…to pursue an electrified option,” Clark asked rhetorically. There are also questions about how to standardize requirements without losing sight of what is needed to address specific threats. He and Wesley suggested creating a pilot program or a program manager or a program executive office in the department to do this and add these issues to the war game.

“Sometimes we really have to be pushed,” Wesley said.

He used the example of the army questioning cavalry officers in the 20th century about the best use of trucks for service. Riders said they should be used to transport horses.

Hudson embarked on a nearly year-long study of securing America’s national security innovation base. Hudson’s report on advanced batteries and truck-mounted modular nuclear reactors, Project Pele, is part of this ongoing study.

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