Canada’s Department of National Defence operates two very different vehicle fleets: each presents unique electrification challenges
In today’s rapidly changing geopolitical landscape, the challenges facing Canada’s military are more complex than ever. With the rise of advanced technologies and new security and surveillance threats, maintaining strong and agile defence is critical.
One of the key challenges facing military forces around the world is the need to modernize their fleets and equipment. This includes electrifying and automating military vehicles.
“Military operations need energy sources that are reliable, high energy-density, safe and widely available, logistically easy to use, as well as cost-effective,” a spokesperson for Canada’s Department of National Defence (DND) tells Electric Autonomy in an email.
“Given the particular nature of military missions and combat operations, there are certain requirements and standards we must meet. Military capability cannot be compromised.”
Diesel-run vehicles are costly to maintain, loud and require shipping vast quantities of fuel to remote places. In contrast, electric vehicles support stealth operations, enhance safety through autonomous technologies and are much better for the environment. However, EVs have their limitations in infrastructure availability and current technological capabilities.
Combat and non-combat military vehicles
How are Canadian forces responding to the transition to zero-emission vehicles? It depends on where you look — and at what fleet.
The DND operates two very different fleets: non-combat and combat vehicles.
The former consists of a range of regular passenger cars, SUVs, vans and light-duty trucks. These vehicles operate across Canada, at different military bases and wings, for non-combative administrative and transport tasks. When it comes to these, the department is making significant strides in ZEV adoption — which we detail below.
The second fleet is made up of highly specialized military combat vehicles used abroad by the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). These combat vehicles operate in international areas with unpredictable environments, like the Arctic, or in places where access to renewable and clean energy sources is inconsistent or unavailable.
In this realm, the DND says it is keeping a close eye on developing zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) technology. It is still in the very early stages of this process, however, and doesn’t currently have any electric vehicles in operation. But some of those early steps are revealing in terms of the questions being asked and some of the partners involved.
One such collaborator is General Motors, confirms Sarah Goldfeder, manager of government relations at GM Canada, in an interview with Electric Autonomy.
“There’s been a push towards identifying how they could integrate zero-emission vehicles into their fleet…We have been talking to them as a resource,” she says.
Some of the unique challenges when it comes to electrifying military vehicles is the need for bifunctional use on and off the battlefield, says Goldfeder. Designing a vehicle to meet these requirements can be challenging from both an engineering and regulatory standpoint.
“When you look at how you’re going to reach a zero-emission fleet on [military vehicles] you may be looking at slightly different configurations than you look at for just a traditional passenger vehicle,” says Goldfeder. “Our approach has been that everything’s on the table…as we have the conversations with the militaries themselves as to what they’re looking for because it’s very much like those are purpose-built vehicles every time.”
The DND has its own in-house science and technology research arm, the Canadian Army and Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC). Their Strategic Cooperation Forum is looking internally at the department’s land vehicles in combat.
“This forum is looking to take a holistic approach to future vehicles, including robotic and autonomous systems, cyber mission assurance and electrification,” says the DND spokesperson.
Further, the DND is “watching closely” the National Research Council (NRC)’s efforts towards vehicle electrification and the NRC’s Clean Energy, Efficient Transportation (CEET) program.
In May 2023, the Innovative Solutions Canada (ISC)’s program provided funding with DND to support the prototype testing of hybrid electric drive systems that can be retrofitted into existing military vehicles. The dollar value of the support is confidential, says a spokesperson for the ISC in an email to Electric Autonomy.
The DND is also partnering with NRC to develop a ZEV technology market survey. The survey will identify and evaluate the key technology and innovation concepts for the DND’s armoured and logistics vehicles, in order to ensure their maturity, economic viability and suitability.
Other countries’ onboard electrification route
It’s not just the Canadian military looking at electrifying vehicles. Countries like the UK, Germany and most notably the U.S. are also exploring alternative sources of fuel, with a particular focus on electricity.
The U.S. military, too, is working closely with GM’s military vehicle and technology subsidiary, GM Defense.
In summer 2022, GM Defense was selected by the U.S. Army to provide a GMC HUMMER EV, equipped with GM’s Ultium Platform. The U.S. Army is using the Hummer EV for military testing and demonstration.
“There are many tactical benefits of electrification, including Silent Drive and Silent Watch with low acoustic and thermal signature. A battery electric military vehicle also serves as an onboard, mobile generation power source for various mission equipment payload packages. Autonomous platforms can undertake mundane tasks that remove soldiers from harm’s way,” says Sonia Taylor, director of communication for GM Defense in emails to Electric Autonomy.
In addition, GM Defense has created an All-Electric Military Concept Vehicle, which merges a standard nine-passenger Infantry Squad Vehicle with GM’s commercially available battery-electric technology.
“This is GM Defense-funded demonstration property that allows for soldier touchpoints to get behind the wheel of an all-electric military vehicle and provide valuable feedback,” says Taylor.
Separately, GM Defense is pursuing two Canadian Armed Forces programs, including the Light Utility Vehicle program and the Light Forces Enhancement program — neither of which have electric vehicle requirements, adds Taylor.
“The United States has been a little bit more forward-leaning into what the electrification of battlefield vehicles looks like. And so we’ve been working with them a little bit more actively on it,” says Goldfeder. “But the good news is everything we do for them, can then someday be replicated into the Canadian environment.”
Meanwhile, in Europe, the British Ministry of Defense awarded a one-year contract last month to Babcock International to convert four in-service military Land Rover Defenders, two protected vehicles and two general service vehicles from diesel to electric.
Once the retrofit is complete, the British Army’s Armoured Trials and Development Unit will run a series of experimental battlefield and military scenarios to test out the vehicle’s performance on steep terrain, wading and towing, as well as in different climates.
Germany also has a couple of home-grown OEMs such as Flensburger Fahrzeugbau Gesellschaft (FFG) and Rheinmetall. Both are producing hybrid-electric and autonomous military defence vehicles.
The FFG’s Genesis is an eight-wheeled, all-wheel-drive infantry fighting vehicle that runs on a hybrid diesel-electric drive system.
Rheinmetall has the Autonomous Combat Warrior (ACW) Wiesel ground vehicle which comes equipped with an autonomy kit. The ACW Wiesel offers three modes of operation: manual control, remote control, and full autonomous mode. In autonomous mode, the vehicle can be programmed with waypoints using a tablet.
Enhanced sensor systems integrated into the ACW Wiesel allow it to avoid obstacles and follow a lead vehicle in convoy mode. It can also detect soldier behaviour and off-road terrain.
Electrifying military vehicles with allies
As different countries make positive strides forward in adopting zero-emission technology in their respective military fleets, the DND says it sees an advantage in collaborating with its allies to leverage collective purchasing power.
This will stimulate technological advancements in the defence industry, while also creating opportunities to establish shared procedures and standards for operations, energy utilization and net-zero goals.
To ensure successful military operations, the DND spokesperson also emphasizes the need for interoperability with allies and partners before electrifying combat fleet vehicles. But, as a member of NATO, Canada must adhere to fuel-related NATO Standardization Agreements (STANAGs) for the standardization of fleets and energy sources.
Therefore, Canada’s ability to transition its combat vehicles to zero-emission depends on the progress made by its allies. Allied countries must work in sync toward the adoption of ZEVs, says the DND spokesperson.
Canada is participating in various international-level working groups to engage with partners and allies on the topic of mobility. These groups include a Five Eyes working group on mobility, the ICE PPR (International Cooperative Engagement Program for Polar Research), Terrestrial Vehicle Working Group and the NATO Mobility Team Of Experts (TOE).
“These working groups have several shared interests, one of which is vehicle electrification. These working groups serve as a forum for nations to share knowledge and lessons learned, consult each other and coordinate efforts on the topic of mobility,” says the spokesperson.
“While we have been working on greening our military procurement, we are still at the early stages of the net-zero work. Collaboration both with industry as well as our allies will be key to addressing some of the existing challenges, and making the best use of opportunities.”
Meeting 2023 home-ZEV targets
Looking to the future, the DND says the department “recognizes the requirement to power our forces should be done as sustainably as possible.” But, it says, that must happen only “without impacting safety and security.”
Although the transition to ZEVs used in combat missions may take time, the DND is making some significant advancements toward introducing zero-emission vehicles into its light-duty fleet at home.
In the short term, the DND aims to have 50 per cent of its fleet operating in Canada to be ZEVs by the end of 2023. This is part of the department’s goals in its 2020-2023 Defence Energy and Environment Strategy report.
Currently, the department is a few percentage points away from that target.
Out of 2,020 non-combat vehicles, 802 are either hybrid, plug-in hybrid or electric vehicles. This accounts for 39.7 per cent of the department’s existing non-combat fleet.
Meeting the ZEV procurement target has been challenging this year, says the DND, due to manufacturer supply chain issues and market conditions.
Additionally, some of the vehicles in the department’s fleet either do not have an eco-friendly alternative available in the market, or their operations are not conducive to zero-emission power trains.
“Some of our bases, wings, and facilities, which are located in remote areas and in the North, are not suitable for electric vehicles due to the restricted access to provincial electric power grids,” says the spokesperson.
The DND’s total battery-electric vehicle fleet has 45 vehicles. This includes 21 Chevrolet Bolts, five Ford F-150 Lightnings, two Ford Focus EVs, six Kia Soul EVs, four Nissan Leafs, six Tesla Model 3s and one Model Y. Additionally, the fleet features one hydrogen fuel cell vehicle: the Toyota Mirai.
To support the new fleet of ZEVs, the department is installing charging stations at bases and facilities across the country.
In total, there are 120 charging stations across DND/ Canadian Armed Forces stations, says the DND, with plans to continue building more.