When discussing aluminum and how it has impacted the United States military, it is hard to know where to begin. Since aluminum first became commercially viable in the early 20th century, it has been used by the military in a variety of ways, too many to name in one post. From aircraft to food storage and everything in between, this amazingly versatile metal has transformed the way we protect the American warfighter and engage our enemies.
Since pound for pound aluminum is stronger than steel, it is no wonder that it is an essential material in a variety of military applications. For more than 100 years, every branch of our armed forces has relied on aluminum, and thanks to their research and investments, many important advances with aluminum alloys have been made possible. We’ll be looking at some of those advances and give a quick overview of how aluminum is being used today.
Why is aluminum prized by the military?
As already mentioned, aluminum is one of the strongest metals available. Thanks to its high strength-to-weight ratio it is also light enough to be valuable in many field operations where weight is an important factor.
Logistics is a huge part of military operations. Any time you can reduce weight without sacrificing quality or durability, you are saving money. Whether you’re talking about the increased fuel efficiency of vehicles with aluminum components or the lower cost of shipping aluminum materiel, this metal is helping the US military to better utilize its limited resources.
Also important is the fact that aluminum products are built to last. Compared to many other metals, aluminum offers excellent corrosion resistance, meaning that it can better withstand extreme environments. It’s not hard to see how critical that might be in a military operation.
In addition, aluminum’s durability means that it is appropriate for combat applications. The military has high requirements when it comes to strength and safety. Military vehicles, body armor, weapons and other gear are able to endure some of the harshest conditions imaginable thanks to aluminum.
Moreover, in recent decades, more and more military equipment is becoming high tech. Aluminum’s thermal and electrical conductivity is perfect for electronic devices and mobile computing, where durability and reliability are essential.
In which fields has the military been an aluminum pioneer?
Probably the first military use of aluminum that many people will think of is in the early aircraft of the World Wars, especially World War II. Aluminum fuselages and other critical parts, like landing gear and propellers, were much lighter weight than other metals while still retaining their strength. Early military aircraft made huge strides in just a few years, which made the aviation boom of the 50s and 60s possible.
Aircraft were not the first military use of aluminum by any means. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that France made the first recorded military use of aluminum as far back as 1892 in torpedo boats. During the Spanish American War, just a few years later, the U.S. used aluminum in tents poles and canteens. As an interesting trivia note, Teddy Roosevelt carried an aluminum canteen during that war.
Another important area in which the military played a role in making serious advancements is food storage. While aluminum did not became readily used in cans until the 60s, many of the major gains in food storage happened because of the military’s need for container options that were safe for food, reliable for long periods of time, and light weight to make them as portable as possible. Although in World War II they were still using tin-plated steel, by the end of the Vietnam War, aluminum was the norm.
Another way in which the military has been a leader in the use of aluminum is in transportation. We have already mentioned aircraft, but ground vehicles and watercraft also depend on aluminum. One of the major advantages that aluminum offers to military vehicles is its ability to absorb impacts, a valuable feature in a military operation. That is why Humvees and other armored vehicles make extensive use of aluminum. Not only does the lightweight of aluminum increase vehicles’ fuel efficiency, but they are also easier to transport to the field.
Finally, other ways that aluminum is used by the military include ammunition (both small arms and artillery), armored vehicles, body armor and more.
Which alloys are most commonly used in military applications?
When it comes to armored vehicles, they tend to rely on alloys from the 5xxx and 7xxx series, including 5083 and 7039. These grades meet the military requirements by being resistant to projectiles, corrosion resistant, lightweight and weldable. Before being approved, aluminum armor plate will undergo ballistics tests with armor-piercing and fragment-simulating projectiles to ensure they are safe for military personnel in combat situations.
For military aircraft applications a widely used alloy is 2024, which offers excellent fatigue resistance and high tensile strength. It is mainly found in the fuselage and wings. Other alloys include the non-heat treatable 5052, which is extremely strong, highly ductile and corrosion resistant. 6061, thanks to its lightweight, is often used in aerospace, while 7050 features very high resistance to stress corrosion cracking. One of the strongest alloys is 7068, which is a great choice for aircraft components that are likely to be in combat situations. No mention of military aircraft would be complete without referencing 7075, with its superior fatigue resistance. It was a critical alloy during World War II and is still in common use today.
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With its versatility, reliability and sustainability, aluminum is transforming the way we supply, protect and outfit our nation’s military. No matter which industry you are working in, picking out the right material is of critical importance. That’s why you need to work with a trusted supplier who has the experience and knowledge to understand your needs.
At Clinton Aluminum, our team of technical professionals is committed to working closely with our customers to make sure they get the right material every time. To learn more, contact one of our friendly and knowledgeable representatives today.