WASHINGTON Soldiers from Fort Drum burn a lot of their own energy to keep the power on for their fellow fighters.
Soldiers carry as much as 130 pounds on combat operations; much of that is batteries and their chargers, vital to the computers and other electronic equipment that puts the Army ahead of its adversaries. A single battery charger can weigh more than 20 pounds.
The Army is working to lighten the load of batteries and their chargers, Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh has been telling lawmakers on Capitol Hill. New chargers weigh as little as 6 pounds and can run off a solar panel or through a vehicles battery, or even off the residual power of an old battery, Mr. McHugh told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently.
The new portable power sets are part of the Armys move toward rechargeable batteries, and are gradually replacing older equipment that comes in boxes as big as suitcases. The latest equipment, which Mr. McHugh showed off to the committee, is a fraction of the old chargers size.
Thats important not just for efficient power, but for safety, Mr. McHugh told lawmakers. The new chargers take enormous weight off the backs of our soldiers, provide them greater operational flexibility and allow us to reduce convoys bringing in fuel, where every fourth convoy results in a casualty, he said.
The new chargers arent standard equipment yet for the 10th Mountain Division, said Maj. Bruce Drake, a spokesman at Fort Drum. But he said officials there are looking into them. Soldiers deployed in Afghanistan may have seen them already, Maj. Drake said.
Rechargeable batteries now comprise slightly more than half of the batteries soldiers use, Mr. McHugh said, and that percentage is rising.
The issue came up twice in budget-related hearings, with Mr. McHugh fielding questions first from Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey, D-Saugerties, at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing, and then days later at the Senate hearing.
Mr. McHugh told lawmakers he was struck recently to learn that a platoon which numbers 16 to 44 soldiers needs 400 pounds of battery equipment for every 72 hours in the field.
Batteries are not cheap. The U.S. Army Research Laboratory reported that a typical infantry battalion spends $150,000 on batteries in a year, a cost second only to munitions.
The ARL, based in Adelphi, Md., is working on boosting the power that can be tapped from small, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries such as those found in cellphones, which would lighten soldiers loads.
Even without batteries, soldiers load more on their backs than they did years ago. A report by Globalsecurity.org found that the average rifle platoon soldier at the Armys Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., carries 91 pounds, including Kevlar helmet, rifle and rucksack. Body armor adds about 30 pounds, the Army reports.
An article in the Seattle Times last year found a sharp increase in soldiers who had left the Army with musculoskeletal conditions tied to the heavy loads they carry. The report noted that an Army Science Advisory Board study recommended in 2001 that soldiers carry no more than 50 pounds each.