Mobile Nuclear Power Will Enable a Logistics Revolution for the Army
From 2001 until 2010, over half of the American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 18,000 men and women, were from convoy operations — missions typically focused on bringing fuel and water to sustain the force in the battlefield. I spent 36 years in the U.S. Army, finishing my career as superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point. At West Point, my mission was to prepare cadets for a career as an officer in the U.S. Army. One lesson we never had to teach in the classroom was how to keep the lights on and power the campus. However, on the battlefields where my students would go on to serve with honor and distinction, access to power has played a critical role in the long war against terrorism.
One of West Point’s most decorated graduates, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, said that “battles, campaigns, and even wars have been won or lost primarily because of logistics.” The American Army’s mastery of logistics, managed by Eisenhower, allowed the delivery of overwhelming amounts of men and material to battlefields of Western Europe in 1944 and 1945.
In today’s wars, the United States has again learned that a long logistical “tail” creates vulnerabilities that its adversaries are able to exploit. Insurgents in Iraq perfected the art of the improvised explosive device attack against American and allied forces. Future adversaries will certainly also concentrate their attacks on fuel supplies as they know that America’s military needs energy to fight effectively.
And this energy demand will only grow. The Army of the future will require far more power even than today’s Army. Directed-energy weapons, electromagnetic rail guns, electric vehicles, drones, and soldiers connected into a secure communications network will all require electric power. As an earlier War on the Rocks article showed, modern ground attack jets use more aviation fuel than propeller planes to do the same mission. There’s even talk that the successor vehicles to the Army’s tanks could be battery-electric powered. These weapons platforms promise an enhanced ability to protect the force and take the fight to the enemy even as they require more power. On the battlefield, energy and technology act as “force multipliers” that allow American soldiers to be more lethal and less vulnerable.
While weapons systems and information technology have revolutionized the battlefield, the military relies on the same petroleum-based liquid fuel system, delivered by pipelines, trucks, and ships, that Eisenhower was forced to rely on in 1944. These limitations on the military were most notably recognized by Gen. Mattis after his 2003 run to Baghdad, when he declared, “unleash us from the tether of fuel.”
It is time for a change. Energy needs of the future force will be mostly electrical, so the Army has a choice about how to power the force. It can generate that electrical power through the internal combustion engine — today’s diesel generators — or it can generate power with advanced energy sources. Already, soldiers are recharging batteries with solar power, and advances in battery technology allow for lighter, more resilient energy storage. The Army needs more and better batteries. But to meet the higher energy needs of the next generation of weapons systems, the Army needs a generator that can dramatically increase the amount of tactical energy. Only nuclear power can provide the energy density necessary to have both a small footprint and a low logistical tail. It is not an exaggeration to say that the deployment of mobile, micro nuclear power plants would revolutionize military logistics for the 21st century.
These new micro nuclear power plants would provide clean, safe, and secure power to the fighting force. In 2016, the Defense Science Board found that mobile, micro reactors would “fundamentally change the logistics of forward operating bases.” In 2018, the Army deputy chief of staff’s report on mobile nuclear power plants for ground operations called these “a classic example of disruptive innovation.” The number of fuel convoys would be drastically reduced, and possibly eliminated, if the Army’s experiments with an all-electric brigade come to fruition.
The new designs for micro nuclear reactors are largely built on innovations first designed for space exploration, where having any form of backup diesel power is simply impossible. Instead of the traditional nuclear power plant requiring backup diesel power to ensure cooling in the case of an accident, these reactors are designed to be passively safe, cooled by the ambient environment. For example, Westinghouse’s micro reactor design relies on heat pipes to eliminate the need for coolant pumps. Moreover, the reactors will be built already fueled. Once the fuel is spent, the mobile nature of the power plant means that the entire plant will be moved to a secure facility for long-term storage. The innovative new designs ensure that the Army would not have to rely on fuel shipped in from vulnerable convoys snaking across mountain passes.
In June, the Department of Defense put out a request for solutions on mobile nuclear power plants. The plan is to fund the design of three prototype micro reactors and eventually to build one of them; contracting decisions are expected within weeks or months. The reactors eligible for the program must have several key attributes: they must be sized to fit on a truck bed for land, sea, or air transport; and their design must be “inherently safe,” meaning that there is no threat of a meltdown or to personnel safety in case of attack. A range of private companies, including start-ups like HolosGen and X-energy as well as established nuclear designers like General Atomics and Westinghouse, all have designs that could meet these strict operational and safety requirements.
Perhaps the most pressing question about bringing nuclear power to the battlefield is the obvious one: how can a reactor be protected from attack? Just as convoys in Iraq were targeted by insurgents, power supplies on tomorrow’s battlefields will likely come under fire too. Of course, a single small power plant is defensible in ways that hundreds of fuel trucks are not. Even so, the prospect of an attack that could spread nuclear materials and radiation is at the front of the mind, especially given the prominence of nuclear accidents in the media. The key to protection lies in designing the reactor for security from the start: with the fuel. These reactors will be fueled by tristructural isotropic particle fuel, where fissile uranium is fabricated inside small kernels encapsulated with carbon and ceramics. Testing indicates that threats to reactors designed for such fuels are minimized by this design as a breach would only affect small, subcritical kernels, not the whole critical mass. To test security, the contract solicitation requires contractors to provide a detailed plan to test for weapons attacks.
Perhaps, though, we’re not thinking big enough: substantially reducing or eliminating the energy supply chain could fundamentally change the battlefield American land forces operate on. After all, America’s military has operated mobile nuclear power plants for over 60 years — at sea. A successful attack on a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier would be devastating, but the combat capabilities that nuclear power provides to the Navy makes it central to American military power. On land, new mobile nuclear power plants would allow the Army to deploy a protected, lethal force deep into territory far beyond resupply bases and ports, not unlike how a carrier battle group would operate in a conflict with a near-peer adversary. Just as Gen. Sherman cut off his supply lines so the Union Army could live off the land as it marched from Atlanta to Savannah, a future American Army could live off the power supplied in the bed of a tractor trailer — deep in enemy territory. As a recent American Security Project report says, mobile nuclear power could prove to be an “offset” giving a strategic and tactical advantage to the American military.
The Army has made great strides in developing a fighting force that is more resilient, less vulnerable, and more lethal thanks to farsighted investments in advanced energy. While no one should be cavalier about the risks of atomic power, I am convinced that the American military’s track record of nuclear safety means that those risks will be properly managed. The clear logistical benefits of nuclear power will save lives. The long-term benefits, when coupled with new strategic thinking, could make the force more lethal, concentrated, and effective. Now it is up to Congress, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense to support the revolution in logistics that advanced energy promises by funding and deploying a demonstration of mobile, micro nuclear reactors.
Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Dan Christman, served for 36 years in the Army, finishing his career as the 55th superintendent of the United States Military Academy from 1996 to 2001. He currently serves on the board of directors of the American Security Project, a nonpartisan national security think tank.