Electric cars are environmentally friendly, which is why there is such a strong incentive to switch to them. However, environmental concerns are simply not there when we are talking about military equipment. And yet several countries are thinking about making electric combat machines. Why? What kind of advantages would electric military armoured equipment have?
Let’s clarify something – technology is not here yet. Batteries will have to improve for electric tanks to be possible. They have to be reliable, reasonably light and easy to charge in remote military camps. At the end of the article we will list conditions that have to be met for the introduction of electric armoured equipment to be possible.
And the world will not suddenly switch to electric military equipment. Before battery-powered tanks emerge there will be some sort of hybrid machines. And they won’t even be that new – back in 1917 American company Holt introduced its Gas-Electric Tractor prototype. This machine, which was basically a tank, had a 4 cylinder 90 HP (67 kW) engine, mated to a General Electric generator, which produced energy for two electric motors. This configuration was supposed to simplify the design of the tank, making it slightly more maneuverable. It didn’t quite work, but it was essentially the first hybrid military machine.
Fast forward to the 21st century and we have a Turkish company Otokar making Turkey’s new main battle tank Altay. It will have a strong multi-fuel 1500-1800 HP engine. However, officials from Otokar said that there are plans to make an electrified version of Altay as well, using the running gear from the company’s electric busses. It may not be fully electric, but it’s an interesting idea regardless.
And Turkey is not the only country thinking about electric armoured vehicles. Back in 2019 Australia’s mjr. Matthew Wood stated that the future of the military equipment lay in electric and hybrid technologies. US Army officials have spoken a similar opinion as well. But why would someone be interested in making electric tanks and other kinds of electric armoured military machines?
Main benefits of electric combat vehicles:
No more fuel. You cannot make fuel in military camps, but you can make electricity.
Fewer supply chain issues. A single US Army armoured division can burn as much as 2 million litres of fuel per day when it’s on the move. That’s a lot of fuel, which has to be delivered to the military bases, many of which are temporary by nature. It is a huge logistics challenge, especially because supply caravans are attractive targets for the opposing forces.
Easier maintenance. Electric vehicles have fewer moving parts, which typically means that they do not need as much maintenance. No oil changes, fewer filters, fewer quickly wearing parts. Again, this also simplifies logistics in dangerous remote areas.
Better survivability. Electric systems can be modular, which means that some blocks of the system can be disconnected when damaged. One vehicle can have several electric motors and several separate batteries, which offers redundancy that ICE-powered machines simply cannot match.
Easier modernisation. Aforementioned modular design would make it easier to repair and update military vehicles. A battery block could be changed for a newer version, motors could be replaced with something better as well. This can be done already in ICE-powered vehicles, but electric powertrains would make it that much easier.
Better acceleration. Electric cars accelerate much more rapidly than ICE-powered ones. And military machines could enjoy the benefits of quick acceleration as well, which would certainly be helpful in a combat situation.
Energy for other systems and weapons. Electric machines could be used as mobile power banks that could provide energy for some tools and even weapons. For example, electric tanks could have laser guns.
Adaptability. Electric tanks would be computer-controlled, which would allow having several different modes for different situations. For example, a transport mode, an off-road mode, an energy-saving mode and so on.
Ability to ford deep waters. Electric motors, unlike internal combustion engines, do not breathe air, which could allow electric tanks to continue moving while completely submerged. Fewer bubbles too.
Smaller acoustic and heat signatures. This is probably the biggest advantage of electric vehicles in military – they are simply sneakier. Electric vehicles do not produce as much heat and do not have exhaust systems, which would make them more difficult to notice using current thermal cameras. They could also be a lot quieter, which is especially true for wheeled machines that do not have noisy rattling tracks.
That’s a lot of advantages and we probably could list some more. However, electric armoured equipment is not going to be coming up in the nearest future. Why?
What would make electric military machines a reality?
Portable small modular reactors. You can make electricity in many different ways, but if you want to charge hundreds of batteries every night you pretty much need to have a compact nuclear reactor that you could take to different hot spots in the world. They would essentially replace high-power generators, but would only need refueling every decade or so. And portable small modular reactors are already on the way – this technology is about to emerge.
Compact and very safe batteries. Military machines would need solid state batteries that would be very durable and wouldn’t start fires when punctured.
Cheaper tech. At the moment cost is a huge limiting factor – it would be too expensive to make thousands of electric tanks and other kinds of machines. No one wants to replace two diesel tanks with one electric machine.
Despite all of this, we can be sure that electric military machines are going to come along in the near future. Ultra small military machines, such as combat robots, can already be electric. It will take time, but as trucks and buses become electric, technologies will become cheaper and better and will eventually reach the military sector. Electric powertrains will make military machines easier to maintain, quicker and stealthier.