By KEITH JOHNSON
A company of U.S. Marines recently conducted a remarkable three-week patrol through southern Afghanistan, replacing hundreds of pounds of spare batteries in their packs with roll-up solar panels the size of placemats to power their battle gear.
Marine Lance Cpl. Dakota Hicks connects a radio battery to a solar array in Sangin District, in Afghanistan.
By allowing the troops to recharge their radios, GPS devices and other equipment, the green technology freed the Marines of India Company from constant resupply by road and air. And by carrying fewer batteries, they carried more bullets.
The Marine Corps is addressing a paradox confronting military planners: Modern U.S. forces are more lethal than any in history, but they also gobble up more energy. That lengthens vulnerable supply lines and overloads soldiers and Marines in the field.
India Company, a component of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, is the first combat unit to be equipped with a new package of portable, front-line solar gear developed by Navy scientists. It’s a boots-on-the-ground example of the Marine Corps’ new blueprint for energy use. The Corps wants to cut per-Marine fuel use in half by 2025.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has pushed biofuels for fighter jets, hybrid-electric drives for Navy ships, and renewable-energy systems for Marines on the move. The Marines are part of the Department of the Navy. Mr. Mabus aims for half of the Navy’s energy to come from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020.
Batteries make up as much as 20% of the weight of the 100 pounds of gear a Marine infantryman typically carries. A Marine uses four times as much fuel as his counterpart did in the early 1990s—due to, among other things, laptops and other electronic gear that use electricity pumped out by portable generators.
Some 30% of all fuel trucked into Afghanistan—at great risk—goes to power those generators, at a time when roadside bombs remain the most dangerous weapon faced by allied troops.
While the U.S. military has been seriously studying renewable energy since at least 2001, the impetus for change was the high casualty rate on fuel convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Mabus told Congress last year that one U.S. servicemember is wounded or killed for every 24 fuel convoys.
In 2006, while tough fighting raged in Anbar Province, west of Baghdad, Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, then commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, requested renewable-energy gear for forward bases.
“We used to joke that there was a generator for every man, woman and child in Iraq,” now-retired Gen. Zilmer said in an interview. “And we did not have any material solutions to the issues we had out there.”
His request to the Pentagon went nowhere, but a similar appeal in 2008 prodded Navy scientists into action. This time Marine leaders were more gung ho about alternative energy. Col. Bob Charette, a former F-18 pilot, opened the Marine Expeditionary Energy Office last year to transfer the Navy’s energy-saving ideas to Marines on the battlefield.
“The Marine commandant made it clear—he’d rather have an 80% solution today than a 100% solution somewhere down the road,” Col. Charette said.
In less than nine months, scientists at the Office of Naval Research cobbled together a solar-and-battery combination small enough to be transported on Humvees, big enough to power the gear at a combat outpost, and rugged enough to withstand tough field conditions.
It also created smaller solar panels for individual Marines. Each can be unfurled to recharge equipment at the base or on the march. Some bits were jury-rigged, including power meters bought at Home Depot.
“The whole approach was, what is out there, available now, that can be used absolutely as soon as possible?” said Cliff Anderson, program manager at the Office of Naval Research.
India Company was chosen last summer to pilot the project precisely because it was due to deploy in Sangin, one of the deadliest zones in Afghanistan. Use of the solar gear means helicopters don’t have to ferry extra batteries to the Marines, and trucks don’t have to convoy more fuel for generators.
Col. Charette said the gear “has surpassed our expectations.” Keeping extra batteries out of packs means the Marines can move faster and farther than before. Fuel use is down at the company’s patrol bases, because the solar equipment replaces generators, the military says.
For some platoons at remote outposts, solar power is all there is, said Maj. Sean Sadlier, the Marine expeditionary energy liaison officer at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan.
The next step will be a bigger system to meet power needs of larger formations, such as India Company’s parent battalion. Senior Marine officers believe those could be in place this summer.