When it comes to our national defense, aluminum alloys have an important role to play. From the rockets and aircraft protecting our skies, to the armor plating of tanks and transport vehicles, aluminum has been a critical component of our country’s military efforts since before World War II. One often overlooked use for modern aluminum alloys is in missile technology.
Modern missiles are lethal technological marvels. They are precision instruments that require extreme reliability and durability from their component parts. They must be accurate, efficient, dependable and safe to deploy. Every material that goes into a missile needs to be of the highest quality, because our nation’s interests and war fighter’s lives are at stake.
That’s why aluminum alloys, common metals in the aerospace, transportation and architecture industries, are a key feature in many of our military’s offensive and defensive missile systems.
The anatomy of a missile
A modern missile is a ranged weapon that possesses the ability to maintain self-propelled flight via a jet engine or rocket motor and target a distant location. A typical guided missile system in use today will consist of several components, including a targeting system, flight system, engine and warhead. Note that airborne explosives that do not have self-propulsion are known as shells when fired by an artillery weapon and are considered in a separate category from missiles.
There are several ways to guide a missile to its proper target. One type of guidance system involves the use of radiation, as from lasers or radio waves, to point the missile in the desired direction. Examples include heat-seeking missiles, laser targeting provided by cooperating infantry, or radars installed on the missile itself.
A separate guidance system category involves a targeting system. These digital methods require knowing the current location of both the target and the missile, then calculating a course between them. This can be accomplished with satellites or a system such as INS or TERCOM. Previously this was done by using radio relays or cables and required a human operator who could see both the target and missile.
Another primary component of a missile is the flight system. This consists of the controls that direct the missile in response to the guidance provided by the targeting system. There are two primary parts to the flight system: vectored thrust and aerodynamic maneuvering.
What makes all this possible is the engine. The two main types of engine are a rocket or jet engine. The former relies on either solid or liquid propellant to generate thrust, whereas the latter involves a turbojet, turbofan, or ramjet. Most systems’ rocket engines use solid propellant for fast deployment. Larger ballistic missiles have used liquid propellant, but filling tanks with liquid propellant is a time consuming procedure. Cruise missiles employ a jet engine in sustained flight but may be launched by a rocket motor booster.
Finally, there’s the warhead. This is what provides the missile with a destructive impact, and may consist of submunitions, incendiaries, nuclear or other form of explosive. It’s also possible to fly a missile without a warhead for training or other purposes.
Any of the above parts of a missile might be made with aluminum or aluminum components.
What properties make aluminum a good choice for missiles?
Aluminum offers many benefits that make it an excellent choice for missile systems. First, weight is a critical consideration for any missile type. There is only room for a limited amount of fuel, so weight is a prime determinant of how far the missile can travel. The lighter the missile, the longer it can travel to target. Aluminum offers a tremendous strength-to-weight ratio compared with other metals that could be used.
Of course, strength and durability are also important considerations. Missiles must be made of a strong outer shell that protects the targeting components and explosives both during transport and flight. So not only does the missile need to be lightweight, but it also must have the strength to withstand pressures that might otherwise damage the weapon or cause the warhead to detonate prematurely.
Along these same lines, a missile needs to be made of corrosion resistant materials. The different branches of our armed forces need to rely on a missile system’s effectiveness months or even years after it was built. Aluminum offers a high level of corrosion resistance even in some of the most hostile natural environments.
Finally, other attributes of aluminum that are desirable for missile systems include its ability to transfer and withstand heat, as the engines can generate high temperatures.
How is aluminum used in a missile system?
Aluminum can be found in nearly every portion of a missile, from outer skin to the minute electronic components that make up its targeting and engine systems. Since high performance aluminum alloys are already so popular in the aerospace industry, in both aircraft and spacecraft, it’s natural for these same alloys to make their way into military grade missiles.
There are certain uses for aluminum that are unique to missiles. For example, aluminum can be used in the shaped charge warhead of anti-tank projectiles, rockets and guided missiles. Upon impact (or when it receives a particular signal) the warhead is detonated by explosive surrounding a conical metal liner; the kinetic energy produced by the detonation propels the liner material at high velocity, penetrating even extremely thick armor of a targeted vehicle or structure and increasing the impact of the explosive.
Your Technical Services Professional
Thanks to its versatility and reliability, aluminum is a key material in all sorts of military applications, including missile systems. If aluminum is a standard material for the U.S. military, then it’s little wonder that it’s also trusted by thousands of manufacturers around the United States.
Clinton Aluminum’s team of experienced professionals is committed to working closely with our customers all industries at every step of their procurement process. To learn more about why aluminum is the right material for your business, contact a friendly and knowledgeable representatives today.