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MOBILE NUCLEAR POWER WILL ENABLE A LOGISTICS REVOLUTION FOR THE ARMY via War on the Rocks

LT. GEN. (RET.) DAN CHRISTMAN

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.

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And this energy demand will only grow. The Army of the future will require far more power even than today’s Army. Directed-energy weaponselectromagnetic rail gunselectric vehiclesdrones, 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.

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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.

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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.

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  1. yukimiyamotodepaul says

    Not to mention a large number of men and women who were engaged in the First Gulf War have been exposed to radiation from the bullets of depleted uranium, we cannot afford any more nuclear waste!!!



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