Earlier this month, the Secretary of Defense requested $60 million for further development of Project Pele, a micro-reactor concept the Army is working on to provide power for remote military bases. So far, the project has flown largely below the political radar screen.
It shouldn’t. In a Defense News piece, “Military Micro-reactors: Fighting Yesterday’s Wars While Losing the Future’s,” Bryan Clark, a former nuclear submariner at the Hudson Institute, and I make the case that the Pentagon should hit the brakes.
It isn’t that the project is technically infeasible: the United States demonstrated luggable military reactors a half-century ago. It’s that they’re geared to wage wars in ways that no longer make sense.
Early in the Afghanistan campaign, a key vulnerability of our forward bases was the extended lines of fuel trucks needed to transit fuel to our forward-deployed forces. These convoys were sitting ducks that locals could knockout with mere potshots. Hence, the Army’s interest in developing reactors that might reduce our military's need to deliver so much fuel to contested bases.
That was a decade or more ago. Today, forward bases’ key vulnerability is different. It’s not logistical convoys that are the key target, but the bases themselves. Chinese, Russian, Iranian, North Korean, Turkish, and European accurate missiles and drones have spread to the world’s hotspots and to proxy forces. These missiles can be used to knockout the bases themselves. This makes forward basing our forces much more risky.
If you build micro-reactors on these bases, you have a prescription for even more mischief. If hit, the reactors would jeopardize the base, leaving a radiological stain that would be difficult to remove and diplomatically awkward to handle. At the very least, potential host nations — e.g., a Japan or a Germany — would be loath to allow such plants on their soil.
Bryan and I make these points and several others. Bottom line: The Pentagon should leave this project to NASA and DoE.
To determine how best to power forward based energy-directed weapons, electric military vehicles, and the like, the Defense Department should stop picking preferred “winners” without truly having an open contest. Towards this end, the Pentagon might employ DARPA’s proven technique of awarding prizes for winners of technical contests that allow a wide variety of possible solutions.
There currently is a rapid rate of innovation for renewables, battery storage, distributed energy systems, switching technologies, and the like. Having the Pentagon clarify its military energy requirements, set a competition deadline, and announce a large prize for the winner makes more sense than funding some faddish pick.
On June 24, 2021, Bryan Clark and Henry Sokolski gave a presentation on this op-ed. Their presentation, "Does Our Military Need Micro-Reactors?" examines the military case for Project Pele, a micro-reactor concept the Pentagon is funding to provide power for a variety of military missions.
For the Powerpoint slides, click here.
For the video recording, see below.