“A Three Legged Stool”
To paraphrase an old adage “For want of a battery, the soldier was incommunicado; for want of the soldier, that battle was lost; for want of the battle, the war was lost”. It has been well documented that the military of today, and in the future, will be heavily dependent on energy, specifically energy provided by some form of battery. Over the last several decades, there have been multiple reports/studies/findings that have pinpointed the issues related to providing batteries to the military. The recurring themes are:
- DoD is no longer a major force in the development of advanced battery technologies (although the overall R&D budget is not insignificant).
- DoD is a very small consumer of advanced battery technologies compared to the commercial market, and the share may be diminishing.
- Use of “Lowest Priced Technically Acceptable” contracting strategy has hampered/discouraged investments in domestic sources while stifling innovation and improvements.
- Lack of a domestic supply chain resulting in many critical components and raw material being produced by potential adversaries (it must be noted that the battery as an end item is produced domestically).
- There is no overall strategy in place to establish and maintain domestic supply chains.
Anyone reading the news or watching television knows that all of the major car manufacturers are designing and producing vehicles that are hybrids or all-electric, and these vehicles will have cells/batteries produced in the United States. So, what is the big deal, especially for the military? First, many of the raw materials and components for these cells (the building block for a battery) and the battery itself are sourced offshore, many from unfriendly countries or potential adversaries. As can be seen from the supply chain disruptions due to the pandemic, imagine what the consequences could be if the supply was cut off completely.
Second, the large cell/battery manufacturers want to use automated lines that produce millions of products a year, and unwilling to retool these lines to produce the low number of items required by the military. It needs to be noted that DoD spends tens of millions of dollars a year on batteries, requiring millions of cells, but companies looking to enter the market have difficulty in attracting investors due to the high start-up costs, erratic military procurements and contracts driven by low cost, solutions that meet the minimum performance requirements.
What makes military batteries different? When lithium-ion batteries first entered the military inventory, there were a significant lifecycle cost improvement over the reliance on non-rechargeable batteries, and their use in consumer electronics enabled the military to take advantage in the technology improvements. Yet, this was with the understanding that these batteries did not meet all of the military’s requirements. Many of these requirements are outside the range of what is required from a commercial lithium-ion battery. A few examples are:
- Operation over a wide temperature range. Military batteries must have the ability to function in the Artic in the winter and the Sahara in the summer.
- Be able to be safely charged outdoors in subzero temperatures.
- Be able to be penetrated by bullets or shrapnel with incident (like those seen on the news and YouTube).
- Remain in storage for years without being charged.
- Batteries with large number of individual cells (the average laptop may have less than a dozen cells, your car battery will have hundreds) require very high levels of quality control over the cells to allow them to pass testing required for storage in submarines and below decks of ships.
- Support to directed energy weapons where the battery must provide both high levels of energy and power.
It should be noted that the DoD may be willing to pay a premium for a domestically produced cell/battery that meets all their requirements. But this is not to say that this premium is open ended, which is why the use of commercial technologies is so attractive. Many critics complain about the high cost of military unique batteries, however, consider what the outcry would be if the same battery was using an expensive (at least in the beginning) military unique, low production cell.
Everyone talks about domestic production of batteries, when in fact virtually all of the batteries used by the military are assembled domestically with an extremely heavy reliance on foreign sourced critical components and materials. What really is needed is domestic production of the cells/components/raw materials that go into the battery.
So how do you establish a domestic cell production capability? The easiest way is to leverage off what is being done in the commercial electronics and electric vehicle markets. But as seen above, standardizing on cell configurations/technologies between the commercial and military markets and developing dual purpose supply chains is easier said than done. So, assuming that the success in this endeavor is limited to point solutions, that leaves DoD to take action to establish and maintain domestic sources for lithium-ion batteries. The solution is not as simple as “build it and they will come”, but will require some strategic planning, hard choices and a very good crystal ball looking into the future since this process will probably take years.
There are three legs of any such strategy: selecting the technology and cell configurations, establishing a production capability and maintaining that capability. Like a three-legged stool, if any of the three legs fails the entire would tip over and become useless stool falls.
Let’s examine the technology leg. The DoD R&D centers have spent considerable resources on improving rechargeable lithium batteries, such as traditional lithium-ion, silicon anode, solid state or something less refined such as aqueous batteries. Which is the technology to build a factory and supply chain around? Is the selection process based on what has the highest near term TRL and MRL (which is the safe bet) or is the selection one of the “beyond lithium” technologies to prepare the DoD for the future? There are no right or wrong answers, just determining the acceptable level of risk and that crystal ball mentioned above. This process should be done in conjunction with subject matter experts in the government and industry to try to determine which technology and cell configurations will best meet military needs AND have some form of commercial market.
This now leads us to the second leg of the stool, developing a manufacturing capability. Before a company can establish a manufacturing capacity, they have to have proven cell design(s) that will be required in the military batteries. One of the criteria for selecting such a company should be the proven ability to both design cells and put those cells into production. This can be organic to one company or a teaming effort. Consideration must also be given to how many companies will be developed (to assure future competition) and will the selected company(ies) be required to build the cells and batteries, or just the cells, and sell them to the many battery assemblers that already exist? Title III funding should be identified to help establish the initial capacity and Manufacturing Technology (MANTECH) funds should be dedicated to make production improvements to help reduce the unit cost of the delivered product (remember – there is a limit to the premium paid for a domestically produced cell). Part of the selection process should be an evaluation of the proposed supply chain, with the realization that in the beginning the vast majority will not be domestically sourced. Once the production is established, deliberate efforts must be made to develop domestic sources.
Now comes the third leg, maintaining the production capacity established. The first step in this process is for the Services to establish policies/organizational structures to assure that the appropriate actions are implemented. There are several potential methods:
- DoD mandates that the Services use FAR 302-3 (Industrial mobilization; engineering, developmental, or research capability; or expert services) to assure support to domestic source for cells.
- Each Service establish a “Battery PM” responsible for all that organization’s battery procurements.
- Updated military specifications to include a requirement that can only be meet by the results of the technology leg.
- Eliminate the use of lowest priced technically acceptable contract awards, give credit to domestic sources of supply.
In summary a good three legged stool would comprise of the right technology/cell standardization based partly of the level of acceptable risk being built in a right sized production facility that is designed for flexible manufacturing and deliver product in the right price range and then maintained by a reliable funding stream.
To establish a domestic manufacturing industry for lithium military batteries we must consider each leg of the “stool” and ensure we have the right support, investment and commitment in place to meet the objectives. Each leg of the stool is equally important and will require close collaboration between the government and industry and to select the right technology, standup production and maintain manufacturing capacity to achieve the long term benefits a domestic military battery industry will bring to the market.