Low-tech batteries power Canada’s army

OTTAWA, CANADA - The military has air power and firepower in Afghanistan, but providing Canadian soldiers with sufficient battery power is a multimillion-dollar concern for the country's war planners, according to an extensive defence department study.

While a rifle may be the soldier's most trusted ally, the modern force can be effectively neutralized without a steady supply of AAs. The simple alkaline battery now powers soldiers' night-vision goggles, flashlights, radios and global-positioning systems, as well as night, thermal and laser-guided gunsights.

"It used to be that the army marched on its stomach. I think it's changed now," said Scott Taylor, publisher of the military magazine Esprit de Corps, who served in the Canadian army in the 1980s. "They've got a lot more things that they've got to think about besides just feeding these guys. It's becoming high-tech soldiering.


The average infantry soldier on a three-day mission in Kandahar carries up to 40 spare AA batteries. That rises to more than 900 batteries for a platoon, 3,200 for a company and 6,500 for a full battle group of about 1,000 soldiers. The cost of equipping all the 2,800 Canadians soldiers in Afghanistan with enough juice to power their equipment for a standard six-month deployment, approximately 750,000 batteries weighing about 14 tonnes, can run up to $1 million. The overall cost of the mission is projected to be $11.3 billion by 2011.

"The added weight of spare batteries being carried by soldiers, the cost of the batteries, and the strain it is placing on the logistics system are all causing concerns for the Canadian Forces," says the 156-page report by Defence Research and Development Canada.

The study looks at alternatives to the AA battery, but finds the other options – batteries made of lithium iron sulphide or the rechargeable nickel-metal hybrid – come up short because they're too expensive or burdensome. And that's an increasing concern as the military equips its soldiers with more technically sophisticated gadgets and tools through the Integrated Soldier System Project, a plan to outfit soldiers with next-generation gear, including communications, navigation and weapons systems.

In the North, where Ottawa wants more soldiers to assert Canada's Arctic sovereignty, normal alkaline batteries are almost useless.

The Arctic Rangers in Eureka, Nunavut – a troop of Inuit soldiers who patrol the Arctic – long ago switched to more expensive lithium batteries, which are better suited to the cold, to power their satellite telephones and global-positioning sensors in temperatures that can plummet to -35C.

"The simple fact of a GPS can make the difference between life and death in the cold that we operate in," said Maj. Luc Chang, commanding officer of 1 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, in an interview from CFB Eureka. "GPS are the most reliable kit that we can use and the type of battery we use is important for us."

The four patrols of eight soldiers each that are currently involved in Operation Nunalivut, an Arctic sovereignty exercise on Ellesmere Island, are carrying 640 batteries – 160 per patrol – primarily to run a GPS for eight hours each day, said Cpl. Patrick Gauthier, a military supply technician in Eureka.

But the cold-weather shortcomings of the alkaline battery might also be affecting soldiers in Afghanistan. The military study found that, in -20C weather, AAs lose 80 per cent of their capacity, meaning the number of batteries required would triple to about 100 for a regular three-day mission.

The temperature in Kandahar drops significantly at night, and can dip below zero in the mountains.

Apart from performing well in all temperatures, lithium batteries are half the weight of alkaline batteries – providing possible savings in shipping costs – but the cost per unit is three times that of alkalines. That could mean a $3 million price tag to equip a battle group for a standard six-month deployment.

Like lithium batteries, rechargeable nickel-metal hybrid batteries can withstand varying temperatures. But rechargeable batteries raise potentially costly logistical problems, the study says.

"Who would recharge hundreds of batteries on a daily basis? Dedicated personnel would be needed, thus significantly increasing the cost, perhaps by several hundreds of thousands of dollars per person for each 180-day rotation, thus effectively negating any savings in the battery cost."


in Year

LATEST Electrical Jobs

Content Community Connection