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REF striving to save energy, lives on battlefield

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Oct. 19, 2011) -- Meeting the energy needs of Soldiers at the "tactical edge" of the battlefield is a top priority for the Army's Rapid Equipping Force, said its director.

The needs of Soldiers at combat outposts in Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan served as examples of the types of power supply problems that if solved could start to minimize the dangerous and expensive resupply missions that sometimes mean loss of life.

A hand touches electronic gear on a table. Several boxes and other devices are wired together and sit atop a flexible solar panel.
Equipment on display in the Pentagon's courtyard, Oct. 18, 2011, is designed to let Soldiers recharge the batteries in the equipment they carry using solar power. The result is that Soldiers will need to carry fewer batteries.

Col. Peter A. Newell, director of the Army's Rapid Equipping Force, talked Oct. 18 at the Pentagon as part of a panel on energy security. Just back from Afghanistan, Newell said he visited seven brigade combat teams there to meet with commanders and noncommissioned officers to discuss the challenges of sustaining Soldiers at the "tactical edge" of the battle field -- where delivering fuel and water are the most difficult.

"At virtually every stop, command sergeants major and commanders alike brought up the issues they had in providing sustainment to some of these outposts and small combat formations that are the farthest away from them," he said.

One combat outpost, in the mountains near the Afghanistan and Pakistan border, was manned by about 14 Soldiers. They had a small energy requirement there -- a handful of radios, some intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment, and some hygiene needs. All that, Newell said, powered by a single 5kw generator running at about 20 percent of its capacity.

A smaller generator, perhaps, would require less fuel to run the OP, and require less sustainment deliveries. Delivering sustainment to those remote units, Newell said, "takes combat power."

"That combat power is taken out of the hide of missions that are designed to do other things," he said. "In many cases, delivering those resources to those units comes at a detriment to force protection in operations that are really designed to get after stopping the attacks. At the tactical edge, we will likely measure the savings we will get in energy in terms of lives, not gallons saved."

Providing "spot power," at such units is something Newell said he heard a lot about during his visit in Afghanistan.

A solution, "technologically probably sounds like a mini/micro/nano grid," he said. "[We] provide a storage capacity to a power management source that allows you to plug and play different sources of power -- one is a small generator that provides just enough power to recharge the batteries, while you have highly portable clean energy technology like wind or solar or in some cases a fuel-cell generation that can provide the day-to-day usage and you only touch that generator when you absolutely have to."

Newell said the Rapid Equipping Force is also focused on finding ways to charge batteries for the many devices Soldiers carry in the field so they don't have to carry so many backups with them.

"Not just for the radios and devices that are on them, but for every piece of kit and gear we buy," he said, citing equipment to support ISR systems, unmanned aerial systems and robots.

The colonel also said the REF is "looking hard" at doing energy transfer between devices.

"We know that it is possible to provide wireless transfer of energy between a platform and a system," he said. "We think that same premise will eventually apply to Soldier-worn devices. You simply have a power source that provides the energy required for Soldier systems, without having to string wires and other things all over the body."

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