AUSA 2017: Stealthy Chevy trucks for soldiers?

The US Army and General Motors have teamed up to explore a new method of power for Army vehicles that could deliver near silent operation and hard-to-detect heat signatures.

The new vehicle, known as the Chevrolet Colorado ZH2, was displayed at the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) exhibition yesterday. The truck, which uses hydrogen fuel-cells, immediately drew a crowd filled with active duty military personnel.

Based on the existing Chevrolet Colorado truck, the ZH2 has a lot of modifications for military purposes. For starters, it is reinforced inside and out. To tackle the extreme terrain the military faces, it also has a specially modified suspension.

AUSA 2017 IN PICTURES

The fuel-cell-powered electric vehicle is more than six and a half feet tall and more than seven feet wide. It has 37-inch tires and based on a stretched midsize pickup chassis. If chosen to go downrange, then it would be the very first combat vehicle powered with a hydrogen fuel-cell.

GM has worked closely with the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) on the vehicle. Testing this fuel-cell vehicle for potential military uses began in January of this year and is expected to last a year.

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Beating the heat and the noise

Chevrolet Colorado ZH2 inside

 (The Chevrolet Colorado ZH2 (Credit: Allison Barrie))

With wide potential, hydrogen fuel-cells could mean significantly reduced heat signatures and near silent power-train systems.

Heat signatures are a big challenge for combat. Normally, a vehicle with an internal combustion engine is going to give off a lot of heat. This heat can be detected to reveal location and compromise a team’s location.

But if the enemy is hunting for Army vehicles with infrared cameras and they scan the ZH2 while it is running, the heat this new vehicle gives off is so low that it makes the vehicle almost invisible.

Humvees give off approximately 750 degrees of heat, so they can be detected from more than three miles away. The ZH2’s fuel-cell electric drivetrain, on the other hand, only gives off approximately 140 degrees making it harder to detect and allowing the vehicle to get closer to a target before detection. Some estimates place detection at about one mile away.

Why does that matter? For starters, it means that an enemy has far less warning American forces are about to arrive and far less time to react.

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Army testing

Hydrogen fuel cell tech is advancing rapidly – but is it stable enough and safe enough for Army use?

Performance and safety are two key issues that must be proven for the military to even consider adopting a new vehicle.

Chevrolet’s view is that hydrogen fuel stored at pressure is no more dangerous than conventional fuel. The ZH2 tanks store hydrogen at 10,000 psi. So far in the military testing, it seems to be safe enough for use in ground vehicles.

To evaluate the safety of the hydrogen fuel storage, the ZH2 tank has reportedly been shot with 7.62 mm standard, incendiary and armor piercing rounds. It has also been shot with .50 caliber rounds. Buzz at AUSA suggests that a rocket-propelled grenade round penetrated, but failed to explode.

Based on testing so far, the tanks seem almost bulletproof. But if the tank does become breached, then the ZH2 is designed to vent the volatile hydrogen.

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More power

In the bed of the ZH2, there is also a portable generator (known as a Exportable Power Take Off unit) that can provide power. If a military team arrives in an area without electricity, then they just have to pull the generator out of the vehicle and they’re good to go.

It could be particularly handy for teams working in remote forward operating base to power essentials like communications and surveillance tech. Or a reconnaissance team could use the generator to enable staying in place for longer, for example.

This fuel-cell-powered military vehicle also produces water as a byproduct. Eventually, the water could be captured and used by teams as well.

Providing a generator is handy, but hydrogen to power that vehicle and generator in the battlespace is currently not exactly easy to come by.

Jet Propellant 8 (otherwise known as JP8) is, however, easy to come by and is used for common things like tanks and trucks. TARDEC has a reformer that converts JP8 to hydrogen.

So if military vehicles use this sort of revolutionary fuel cell power in the future, then the H2 tanks could be filled using this reformer device.

This story has been updated to reflect the ZH2 was displayed at AUSA 2017 and not revealed.

Allison Barrie is a defense specialist with experience in more than 70 countries who consults at the highest levels of defense and national security, a lawyer with four postgraduate degrees, and author of the definitive guide, Future Weapons: Access Granted, on sale in 30 countries.  Barrie hosts the new hit podcast “Tactical Talk”  where she gives listeners direct access to the most fascinating Special Operations warriors each week and to find out more about the FOX Firepower host and columnist you can click here or follow her on Twitter @allison_barrie and Instagram @allisonbarriehq.