BAE Systems' Bid to Design a Greener, Next-Gen 'Tank'

BAE Systems' Bid to Design a Greener, Next-Gen 'Tank'

The U.S. military's efforts to shrink its carbon bootprint have been well documented on GreenBiz. We've told you how the Defense Department is quietly leading the government's green efforts, about the Army's big push on renewable energy projects, the microgrid pilot on the largest Marine Corps base and the Navy's $500 million investment in biofuels and more.

Now defense contractor BAE Systems is in the running to deliver a design for a hybrid-electric, next-generation Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) as part of the Army's effort to modernize its armored fighting vehicles.

Though any vehicle that's big, enclosed and has swiveling mounted guns tends to be called a tank by civilians, GCVs aren't tanks. They are expected to be among the vehicles that carry a squad of soldiers into combat in deployments that can include main battle tanks.

Just this summer, BAE Systems, in partnership with Northrup Grumman, landed a $450 million tech-development contract for the GCV program, and General Dynamics Land Systems, working with Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, won a $440 million contract, according to the Army Times.

Mark Signorelli, BAE's vice president and general manager of weapon systems, talked to me recently about why his firm is focusing on a hybrid electric drive system.

The design under development won't be the first hybrid BAE has offered to the Army.

"We've been pursuing this technology for a long time," Signorelli said. "We actually built 13 different electrical vehicle prototypes for the Army dating back to the early 1980s ... and we built five prototypes for the Army's Future Combat Systems program, which unfortunately was terminated [after running from 2003 to 2009]. So we're very hopeful this will be the first vehicle to make it all the way to production."

This time a confluence of several factors, not the least of which is the DoD's aggressive stance on energy efficiency and sustainability, could favor BAE.

There's a "unique combination of the technology reaching the appropriate level of maturity and the opportunities and timing being just right for those technologies to be widely accepted," said Signorelli.

Here are highlights from my discussion with Signorelli:

Leslie Guevarra: What is BAE is developing and how is it new and different?

Mark Signorelli: BAE Systems was one of two companies that were awarded a technology demonstration contract for the Army's new Ground Combat Vehicle. This is a vehicle that the Army is proposing to develop that would replace the Bradley Fighting Vehicles in its heavy force. GCV represents a whole next generation of combat vehicles.

Bradleys [manufactured by BAE subsidiary BAE Systems Land and Armaments] have been wonderful vehicles. But they are approaching the point at which the technology that was built into those platforms really is reaching the end of its lifecycle. So the Army is looking to develop a vehicle that integrates current mature technologies and provides a platform that, much like the Bradley has done for the last 40 years, can serve the Army for the next 40 years -- especially since we've seen new threats emerging and new expectations of our forces operating in a very rapidly changing battlefield environment.

Our offering for the ground combat vehicle is uniquely identified by its hybrid electric drive propulsion system.

LG: What do these new next-gen vehicles need to do and how do your designs accomplish that?

MS: The Army laid out four untradeable requirements for these vehicles:

The first is to carry a full squad of nine soldiers plus the vehicle crew.

The second is to provide force protection. These vehicles have to be designed to protect that infantry squad and vehicle crew in any environment that they might encounter. The one that probably is of most note today is improvised explosive devices or IEDs; they're seeing increasing use in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there is a broad spectrum of threats that these vehicles are expected to encounter -- everything from IEDS to direct-fire cannon systems.

The third is flexibility. They want this vehicle to be able to [accommodate] growth -- to be able to add technologies and capabilities over the expected lifetime of the vehicle. They want the vehicle to be modular [so it] can add or subtract armor or other protection systems.

And they want the vehicle to be able to be fielded in seven years. ... In terms of defense programs, that is lightning-fast.

LG: OK, so the GCV goes way beyond the requirements of days gone by when basically it was just firepower, armor and mobility?

MS: Right, and in the old days, the expectation was you wouldn't be able to have all three of those. At some point you'd have to trade capabilities. I think what the Army is trying to do with this vehicle is provide a platform that is flexible so that if you have to trade something, you could do it intelligently, But hopefully you can have all of those capabilities without having to make trades.

LG: Talk about layering in the aspect of hybrid drive ...

MS: The question that often comes up is "How did you come to decide to go with hybrid electric drive? What was it that made you decide that?" And the answer is it was no single requirement that drove us to the hybrid system, but instead it was a collection of all the requirements taken together. The only answer that we could see that could satisfy the current functionality requirements and provide the flexibility for growth in the future was the hybrid electric drive system.

It took awhile to come to that conclusion, but when we did, it opened up a whole spectrum of additional capabilities and benefits that the Army will realize from this system.

LG: Does that system lend a different dimension to mobility, range, handling?

MS: In terms of mobility, the largest increase is in acceleration and low-end torque. With an electric system, acceleration is instantaneous and you have a tremendous amount of torque even at zero miles per hour forward speed. The vehicle is very nimble. It drives like a much smaller or lighter weight vehicle because you've got that very agile and responsive steering and handling system.

From a range standpoint, it allows us to do one of two things:

• To have additional driving range with the same amount fuel because of the efficiency that comes with the hybrid system.
• Or, alternately, to reduce the amount of fuel that you have to carry on board the vehicle but still be able to achieve the same range as a comparable [non-hybrid] vehicle.

It's a huge benefit -- and that benefit not only accrues to the individual vehicle, but also to the unit and the entire organization over a typical deployment scenario of about six months. These vehicles would use 20 to 25 percent less fuel than a standard mechanical drive system.

When you start to roll that up, that equates to fewer fuel trucks you have to have on the battlefield [and] fewer convoys that have to deliver fuel. I think it's somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 percent of the casualties that were incurred in Iraq were from convoys that were delivering fuel and supplies. It's one of the more vulnerable points on a battlefield, so anything you can do to reduce the exposure of soldiers in that environment helps save lives. The other benefit that we see is increased reliability. Electric drives are inherently more reliable than mechanical drive systems. It's been proven over and over again in a number of industries.

LG: When you're educating users, soldiers, and they express fears that are often associated with hybrids, what's the response? This is not a plug-in, but  ...

MS: This is not a plug-in. It's much the opposite. You could pull this vehicle up to a fixed installation, like a hospital or a school, and you could plug that fixed installation into the vehicle. ... It's a diesel-electric system. We have diesel generators on the vehicle, regenerative breaking and steering, and a rather large battery pack that helps to buffer those periods when the generators are coming up to speed.

It's sort of two-edged sword. I get [told]: "You know, it sounds like this is a Prius for the battlefield." And, yes, from a functional standpoint, it operates almost exactly like a Prius. But it's a much more robust, rugged system than you would find in a passenger car. And it's made to operate in these very challenging environments.

Image Credits - Bradley Fighting Vehicle photo CC licensed by Flickr user Tumbleweed:-). Photos of soldiers and gray armored vehicle via Shutterstock