Modern technology has completely changed the way warfare is waged today. Target illumination and acquisition is routinely performed electronically through a variety of means, some of which were unheard of as recently as 20 years ago. Soldiers in the field have come to rely heavily on all manner of new technology on the battlefield ranging from night vision devices which enable them to locate and identify potential enemies in total darkness, to mobile fly by wire combat systems which can keep the operator physically removed from the actual battlefield entirely. The luminaries used in combat have advanced as well and now offer incredible improvement over the flashlights of yesterday. LED’s and HID’s have made the incandescent spotlight/flashlight obsolete and infrared illumination has gone higher tech with the addition of LED based IR emitters that remove the need for filters or special lenses. All of this technology, however, comes with a price.
Feeding the electronics that make up much of the equipment found on the modern battlefield requires power, and lots of it. The highly mobile nature of most warfare operations necessitates the ability to provide this power regardless of location or conditions. Meeting this requirement has become a serious challenge as modern armies become more and more reliant on technology and must find ways to carry the energy needed to power it. According to a Canadian analysis, a 120 man company would need 1,714 batteries just to power its portable electronics for 60 night hours of operation. The Pentagon estimates that in the near future soldiers will need to carry twenty pounds of batteries each to last the length of a ninety six hour mission. Already soldiers are carrying anywhere from sixty to one hundred and thirty pounds of gear into combat depending upon mission requirements. Clearly there is a need for an improved ability to generate electrical power on the battlefield without increasing the overall weight of the supplies a soldier must carry.
The military has recognized this problem and has begun addressing it by spurring development of alternative and more compact power sources that can reduce the load a soldier must carry and still provide the power needed to supply equipment. While this is a wise approach that is certain to have implications across a broad range of areas both military and civilian, still more promising areas of development continue to see success. Some of the biggest changes and fastest improvements can be seen in the arena of lighting development.
In the last ten years lighting and battery technology has progressed by leaps and bounds. Gone are the days of heavy D cell batteries and fragile halogen bulbs. New LED technology and rechargeable lithium ion batteries have resulted in flashlights and spotlights that can be run for several hours at a time, with higher light output and greatly improved durability. Further enhancing this new technology is the ability for soldiers to recharge these luminaries in the field simply by connecting them to their vehicle electrical systems. Even better, many of these luminaries make use of batteries that are not only rechargeable, but smaller in size and lighter in weight, helping to reduce the overall size of the equipment while increasing its power.
The personal flashlights a soldier carries with him are a prime example of this. Flashlights like Magnalight’s MK-1 LED Tactical Flashlight offer an unparalleled match between efficiency and power, all contained within a compact yet highly rugged and durable unit. If even more extreme abilities are desired an even smaller, albeit less powerful Magnalight non rechargeable LED flashlight can be had that has been tested to over 36 hours of continuous operation in all manner of extreme conditions by the U.S. Counterterrorism Advisory Team. Lest you think less powerful means less capable, consider that although the smaller LED flashlight puts out around 90 lumens of light, a typical three cell incandescent flashlight will only produce around 60 lumens of light, and only for a matter of a couple hours.
LEDs achieve this kind of performance due to their simple design and highly efficient nature. Rather than heat a filament to produce light, which by the way is extremely inefficient since up to 90% of the energy is wasted as heat, LEDs produce light through a process called electroluminescence which is highly efficient and results in much more of the energy used being radiated as visible light. This results in a light that uses up to three quarters less energy, yet produces the same amount of light if not more. Further benefit comes from the LEDs’ inherent durability. An LED is essentially a semi-conducting material that is layered on a wafer through which electricity is passed. Unlike the fragile wire filament found in typical incandescent lamps, this makes the LED highly durable and resistant to the shocks and impacts that would otherwise break a wire filament. This is certainly a very attractive benefit for military and tactical applications where all manner of extreme conditions may be encountered.
As well as the LEDs’ extreme durability and efficiency, the advancements wouldn’t be nearly as great without the innovation provided by modern lithium ion batteries. Lithium-ion batteries are a major leap forward in rechargeable battery technology and are making the everyday throwaway battery obsolete. They can retain their charge much longer than the old Ni-Cad batteries that preceded them when not in use and do not require special procedures for recharging. Lithium-ion batteries do not need to be fully discharged before being recharged, unlike Ni-Cad batteries, and in fact work best when left with a small charge before being replenished. Lithium-ion batteries also have a greater charge density than other rechargeable batteries, which means they can hold a larger amount of stored energy in a smaller size. Lithium-ion batteries can also provide both low and high discharge rates depending upon their design, allowing them to last twice as long as Ni-Cad batteries. Combined with high efficiency LEDs, the result is a powerful, small, rugged, rechargeable luminary that far outperforms the traditional incandescent flashlights of the past. And all in a unit that weighs mere ounces instead of pounds. With the trends in military development continuing to embrace high technology, it only makes sense that this technology not only improves the way soldiers perform their duties, but makes it easier to carry technology onto the battlefield as well.