Electric Brigade Combat Team
Harry D. Fair

A new type of land-based autonomous electric brigade combat team is proposed to project global power, provide deterrence and a stabilizing influence, and in times of peace, provide humanitarian relief.  It is based on the fundamental principle that if the Electric Brigade Combat Team (EBCT) had access to an almost unlimited supply of autonomous electric power, it could enable a revolutionary change in warfighting capabilities, global deterrence and enhance regional and global stability.

It is envisioned that the EBCT would have revolutionary combat power and would be capable of exploiting advanced electric weapons (both offense and defense) could be deployed in remote regions with no to poor infrastructure and operate semi-autonomously for long periods of time without resupply.  It would operate without the long logistics tail currently required by conventional combat brigades.  Additionally, it could be employed in situations where its use would be primarily in providing deterrence, stability and humanitarian relief when required but it would be capable of protecting itself and its assets, if necessary.

The essential elements of the land-based EBCT are:

Capable of being inserted by air/sea into any location in the world

Capable of operating semi-autonomously with substantial combat effectiveness for extended periods of time with minimum of resupply

Unmatched war fighting capability- lethality, survivability, battle space- at all levels of conflict from insurgency to heavy combat over unprecedented range of extended battle space

Precision directed and kinetic energy weapons with minimum/no collateral damage

Umbrella of force protection capable of protecting the EBCT and entire area of operations

Capable of establishing “safe harbor” for non-combatants

Flexible in size depending on need

Capable of providing humanitarian electric power and relief in emergencies

The critical enabling feature is that the EBCT has an “infinite” source of electric power. It establishes a “presence” and must be fully capable of protecting itself since it will be a high value target, in addition to performing its missions. The “infinite” source of electric power enables a new class of all-electric vehicles and weapons systems with unprecedented combat effectiveness, provides power for command and control, power for manufacturing ammunition and replacement parts on site, and when required, power for humanitarian relief.

So what is the “extension cord” that provides the “infinite” source of electric power? Fortunately, there are several options:

  • NTAC-Nuclear Thermionic Avalanche Cell- Highest Risk/greatest payoff

The Nuclear Battery

A revolutionary new power source has been invented by NASA scientists who needed a highly reliable power source capable of operating 24/7 for long term missions such as a flight to Mars or a long term operating base on the moon. The device is called a nuclear thermionic avalanche cell (NTAC). NTAC inherently has high specific power (>1 kW/kg), is compact, has no moving parts, does not use any fossil fuels, has no emission of green-house gases, but provides long-term (20~30+ years) maintenance-free operation without refueling, using  recycled nuclear waste as the energy source and has the highest electric power density of any known energy conversion technology.

NTAC is similar in principle to radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG) which NASA has employed as power sources in satellites and space probes.   Both the United States and Russia have used them quite effectively to provide electric power in extremely remote or inaccessible facilities. An RTG is an electrical generator that uses an array of thermocouples to convert the heat released by the decay of a suitable radioactive material into electricity by the Seebeck effect. RTGs are usually the most desirable power source for unmaintained situations that need a few hundred watts (or less) of power for durations too long for fuel cells, batteries, or generators. RTG generators have no moving parts and are extremely reliable but unfortunately, they do NOT produce large amounts of electric power.

Nuclear Thermionic Avalanche Cell (NTAC) technology was conceived by NASA Langley Research Center for kilowatt (kW) and megawatt (MW)-scale, space-based power applications. NTAC is a unique, high specific power (W/kg) generator which transforms nuclear energy directly to electric power by liberating a large number of atomic inner shell electrons (105C/cm3) by gamma-ray photons (100 keV to MeV) in contrast to conventional solar power devices which utilize visible light to excite valence band electrons (3C/cm3) of semiconductors or free electrons (8×103C/cm3) of conductors. These energetic inner shell electrons further liberate vast numbers of electrons through higher order collisions providing an “avalanche” electron effect.


Theoretical estimation of NTAC power density is approximately 20 kW/kg, far above all known energy conversion technologies.

The Institute for Strategic and Innovative Technologies (ISIT) is planning to develop, demonstrate, scale-up, and along with its strategic partners, eventually commercialize and deploy this revolutionary new and disruptive energy source. NTAC will utilize nuclear waste stored at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River National Laboratory and other DoE nuclear sites as the energy source. 

ISIT would be the lead organization for the project and will perform the risk assessment and business case development. 

Savannah River National Laboratory will assist in the risk assessment and experimentally determine NTAC performance with a radiation source using Special Nuclear Materials( nuclear waste) and will design, develop and test a mW-scale NTAC device. NASA Langley Research Center (includes NASA Glen Research Center) holds the NTAC patent and will continue to evaluate NTAC performance using high energy x-ray sources and will continue their efforts in simulation and modeling. The University of South Carolina will contribute to the computer modeling. and simulation and risk assessment. ISIT is developing industrial partners including Braidy Industries, Raytheon Corporation and Fluor Corporation and discussing with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to become a project advisor.

  • Particle Bed Reactor- Moderate Risk /Great Payoff

The Particle Bed Reactor was invented by Dr James Powell and his colleagues at Brookhaven National Labs in the 1970s. One of the unique features of the reactor is the small particle fuel elements which provide enormous surface area and thus high efficiency. The reactor consists of a core composed of 37 hexagonal fuel elements, surrounded by a neutron moderating material. Each fuel element contains millions of specially-coated uranium fuel particles. The particles, about 400 microns (0.05 cm) in diameter, are in the annular space between concentric tubes enclosed in a hexagonal block of neutron moderator material. The outer tube (referred to as the cold frit) consists of a porous aluminum material. The inner tube (referred to as the hot frit) is a slotted, tapered cylinder composed of carbide-coated carbon-carbon or graphite material. Top and bottom beryllium-alumina end assemblies complete the particle bed enclosure, provide positioning for the fuel element in the overall reactor assembly, and comprise portions of the coolant flow distribution paths.

In 1987, the Strategic Defense Initiative Office (SDIO) initiated development of the particle bed reactor for nuclear propulsion for intercept of ballistic missiles and protected it under a special access program named TIMBER WIND. SDIO's budget for the program was about $139 million between FYs 1987 and 1991.  SDIO believed that the particle bed design was superior to other concepts because of its compact design and the promise of high thrust-to-weight ratio not achievable by other designs.

Since 1987, Grumman Aerospace Corporation, Space Systems Division, Bethpage, New York, has been the system's lead design development and integration contractor. Babcock and Wilcox, Lynchburg, Virginia, designed and manufactured the special nuclear fuel for the reactor. Sandia National Laboratory, Albuquerque, New Mexico, conducted the tests to prove the program's technology. The Department of Energy (DOE) Defense Programs provided oversight of the testing conducted at the Sandia National Laboratory.

The proposed nuclear rocket was later expanded into a larger design after the project was transferred to the Air Force Space Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (SNTP) program. Almost immediately, the Air Force indicated that they would have to terminate the program because of a decreasing defense budget and other air force priorities. Congress continued to strongly support the program and $55 million was appropriated for fiscal year 1993, but the air force would not release any of the money to the program. By the summer of 1993, barely 18 months after the program was transferred to the air force, the SNTP team had essentially stopped all work and reduced to a skeleton staff to perform an orderly termination. Despite the significant accomplishments of the program and the endorsements it received from two DSBs, the 1994 Congressional Appropriations Committee had no alternative but to withhold further funding support since no cognizant agency (air force, NASA, or the DOE) was willing to take the lead and continue the technology for future space applications. 

Very Small Nuclear Reactors- Lowest Risk- Good Payoff

The Defense Science Board Task Force on Energy Systems for Forward /Remote Operating Bases in 2016 recommended that the Army investigate and invest in very small nuclear reactor technology. The intent is to provide mobile nuclear power plants for ground operations. New DOE-sponsored generation IV reactors are gas cooled, inherently safe and turn-key by employing tri-structural isotopic (TRISO) fuel pellets. Fission products /volatiles are retained- never released.

In January 2019, the Strategic Capabilities Office released an RFI for demonstration of a mobile nuclear power plant. SCO is working with DOE to prototype the power plant and coordinating with the Army for requirements.

The idea of compact nuclear generators is not new. They have been developed and deployed decades ago to provide power for remote sites such as Antarctica, etc. They can be operated as a sealed unit-transported with fuel in place and rapidly emplaced for operation. For example, TRIGA reactors are commercial reactors located at hundreds of universities and hospitals in the U.S. and around the world. They are operated by graduate students and faculty/ staff.  In recent years, the compact reactor technology has advanced significantly. Passively safe designs exist which are easy to operate and maintain with automated operation and are produced as sealed units which could operate autonomously for several years. They would be operated as “plug and play” so that in the event of any difficulty, the reactor would automatically shut down and the entire unit simply replaced. 


Compact mobile nuclear reactors are under development now with the impetus of the Army and the Strategic Capabilities Office, but the potential is so great and the concept so revolutionary, that the concept of an autonomous Electric Brigade Combat Team should be developed in parallel to exploit the technology as soon as it is available.

For example:
The “infinite” source of electric power enables a new class of all-electric vehicles and weapons systems with unprecedented combat effectiveness and provides power for command and control.

The Department of Defense has been developing a broad range of electric weapons for both offense and defense. The critical limiting technology has been the electric power required for these new systems.  The U.S. Navy is implementing an electromagnetic railgun on a ship capable of launching projectiles at close to 2 km/sec( Mach 6) providing significantly extended battlespace, precision kinetic energy lethality, hypervelocity responsiveness, minimum/no explosive warheads for ship defense and precision deep strike. Emplacing the equivalent land-based system would provide a range of effectiveness of 500 -1000km. This would provide enhanced deterrence and stability while providing lethality overmatch against all modern threats. The military services have also developed high power microwave systems to provide area denial and high energy LASER systems for air and missile defense. These advanced electric weapons provide an umbrella of protection against all threats including personnel/air/missile/mortars. Even armored vehicles would be protected by electric passive or active electric armor systems.
In addition to enabling new all electric weapons (Electromagnetic Railguns, High Energy LASERS, High Power Microwaves), the compact nuclear power plants would provide electric power for communications and other novel applications. For example, since hypervelocity projectiles eliminate the need for explosive warheads, ammunition can be manufactured on site by 3-D printing from metal powder. Electric power for charging batteries or high temperature superconductor energy storage enable entirely new classes of light and heavy electric ground and air vehicles.  Electric robotic combat teams employing the minimum number of soldiers controlling electric robotic combat vehicles equipped with the entire family of all electric weapons systems provides orders of magnitude increase in lethality and survivability with much less risk to human lives.

The Army found that in the recent conflicts in Iraq and in Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous operations was the vulnerable chain of fuel truck convoys and pipelines which provided the necessary fuel, water and ammunition for combat elements. For example, one soldier died for every 24 fuel convoys in Afghanistan.

 In desert storm, the 3rd Armored Division brought (in addition to its 3 Brigades of 360 M-1 tanks and a total of 9600 vehicles), 62 tanker trucks to provide the required 650,000 gallons of fuel/day( at an estimated cost of $ 100.00/gallon in the field) and additional vehicles to provide the 20 gallons/day of water required for every soldier.

Mobile nuclear Power plants will enable the electric combat brigade to operate with effective combat power for a sustained period of time and reduce/eliminate the vulnerable supply chain which was responsible for so many of the U.S. casualties in OIF and OEF.

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