What if…and the “Solar-Powered Soldier”

As discussed here, Australia is experimenting with light-weight solar panels to replace batteries carried by soldiers. The goal is to reduce the weight soldiers carry. The panels can be stuck to clothing, helmets, or tents, and they can be rolled up and stored when not in use. Similar studies are underway in Britain, and a U.S. Marine Corps battalion already uses solar panels to reduce battery weight.

The article mentions that the average soldier carries half a kilogram, or about one pound, in batteries. While this may seem like a small amount, any reduction in weight would be appreciated, I’m sure.

Nevertheless, what if these cells can be networked? Wouldn’t that lead to a big logistics advantage, if instead of carting in batteries and fuel for generators, solar panels can be networked and used to provide power for multiple soldiers? Now, obviously, such power would require the development of a few more generations of solar power cells, but it’s an interesting idea.

What if solar power allowed for a greater number of forward operating bases (FOBs) or for increased deployment of Special Forces? Might this be part and parcel of a more diffuse, but networked future military force? This might prove particularly useful in a counter-insurgency setting or a planetary colonization effort, where forces should deploy widely.

Might solar panels help reduce a heat signature? I don’t know much about whether or to what extent solar panels give off ambient heat, but I would guess it would be less than a generator, making it easier to conceal troops (further assuming the panels don’t give off a glare).

What if you are a soldier at an isolated FOB, dependent on solar panels, and they get destroyed? Might the switch to solar power produce a change in tactics by the enemy? Almost assuredly, so what sort of redundancy will be built into this system? Spare panels? Panels that can be repaired?

What do you think of solar-powered soldiers? How do you think it would affect combat operations or logistics? What do you think of the military pushing the envelope with respect to green technology?

6 thoughts on “What if…and the “Solar-Powered Soldier””

  1. Eric,
    Different advances in solar tech will find their way into different applications. Thin-film, or transparent arrays could coat windscreens on vehicles, so that, when stationary, soldiers could rely on some passive generation without running the engine (current practice).
    But current solar tech is woefully inadequate for charging anything larger than a cell phone. The SINCGARS radio chews through monster batteries daily, the best a solar array could do in most cases (I believe) is add about 4 hours to a 20-hour lifespan. http://www.oksolar.com/0_n_cart/htm/00122590.htm

    You seem to be envisioning self-sustaining man-portable units, and although you’re not the only one, I don’t think we’re anywhere near this yet. Back in the late 90’s, Special Forces were trying out rollable arrays but with dismal results. Part of that may have been the testing environments (e.g. Panama) and the tech has progressed, but… Yes, in the desert environment you get plenty of sun, but panel efficiency is deplorable, especially on flexible array material.

    I just fancied I check out your site on a lark. Hope you’re doing well.

  2. Thanks for the post, Tim. These “what if” posts are basically short form fiction–using the article to generate story ideas. So it’s good to have an accurate baseline if I’m going to speculate about the technology.

    Thanks for checking out the site; I hope I can get you to return a few more times. As for me, things are going well, nothing new to report. I hope you are doing well too.

  3. Eric,
    The concept of solar charging our soldiers (and vehicles) holds some promise, but I’m skeptical it can make a meaningful impact. First solar has to become an efficient power source in less-demanding applications, then it can be hardened to mil-spec, made mobile, etc…
    For another take on how to defeat the military’s (oil) drinking habit, check out this flight of fancy: http://www.ndu.edu/press/lib/pdf/StrForum/SF-262.pdf

    There’s money in this year’s defense approps bill to study and lay the ground for possible future mini-reactor installations. Maybe they can be made more idiot-proof this time, but the Army has a frightening history with mini-reactors (during the 60s),
    http://www.wentz.net/radiate/chernobyl2/sl-1/sl-1.html

    I think a re-telling of the SL-1 accident (or a future parallel) would make for a fantastic sci-fi story. People are naturally inclined to fear nuclear technology; here is an example of it’s fearsome lethality (because of woefully absent safeguards).