A couple of commenters on our story about Alcoa's new version of aluminum armor for military vehicles said aluminum had proven to be less than blast-proof in ships in some military situations, such as the 1982 Falklands War and a Persian Gulf incident in 1987. I don't know if those ships had aluminum armor plate back then, but the armor plate we wrote about wasn't designed to be blast-proof, only blast-resistant.
Almost as if they were reading our comments, the US Army Research Lab and Alcoa Defense have since said they're going to co-develop the biggest ever single piece of aluminum for tank hulls. The new single-piece hull for ground combat vehicles will be better able to withstand the threat posed to soldiers in combat zones from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).
The US Army Research Lab and Alcoa Defense are developing a single-piece forged aluminum tank hull designed to protect soldiers and ground combat vehicles from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). (Source: Alcoa)
The R&D will be part of the Army’s effort to use the latest affordable manufacturing technologies and materials to give soldiers better defense against threats, including IEDs. That effort is called the Affordable Protection from Objective Threats program. According to a brochure on the Army's Manufacturing Technology (ManTech) program, Affordable Protection from Objective Threats "provides affordable manufacturing technologies to enable production for critically needed underbody protection, ballistic and multi-threat armor assembly, and armor materials including ceramics, metallics, and hybridized composites."
The new tank hull will be designed to cover the lower section of all combat vehicles. It will be made of a continuous, seamless piece of aluminum, which will eliminate the welds used in conventional hull manufacture. This is expected to increase protection from blasts and resistance to damage, which will also be enhanced by the use of more of Alcoa's blast-absorbent alloys.
Since the hull will be forged as a single unit, Alcoa will better be able to optimize thickness where it's needed for maximum protection and reduce thickness where it's not, which will also decrease vehicle weight. That weight reduction will also make assembly faster and simpler. So the Army expects to gain a reduction in the cost of materials and production, as well as the cost of fuel over the vehicle's life cycle.
A single-piece hull for tanks and other ground combat vehicles isn't a new idea, but forging one from aluminum is. Alcoa has already produced a single-piece forged component for the bulkhead of the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.
In the next year and a half, the Army’s Research, Development, and Engineering Command (RDECOM), along with DARPA and Alcoa Defense, will work together at the Alcoa Technical Center. There they will fine-tune the hull design and figure out the requirements of which alloy to use. Next, Alcoa will begin designing and producing 20 ft x 7 ft demonstrator hulls using a 50,000-ton forging press.
Watashi, thanks for telling us your experience. Interesting about the combination of fuel heating hot enough to burn aluminum. As we've pointed out here, the material being developed for use in military land vehicles is not the same as was being used in ships or other vehicles during earlier conflicts.
Speaking for the aluminum on ships – I served on the same class of Guided Missile Frigate (FFG) as the USS Stark that was nearly sunk by Iraqi Exocet missiles in 1987. The biggest concern FFGs faced with the aluminum structures was its propensity to ignite and burn.
The unspent rocket fuel from the missiles that hit the Stark burned hot enough to cause the aluminum to ignite. This isn't an issue for blast protection purposes, but the ship aluminum was never intended to protect from blasts, just to protect from seawater. Even at that, I sailed through storms that beat our ship bad enough to require yard work while steel ships survived (structurally) just fine.
I wish this article had gone into a little more depth as to how this forging will be accomplished. For example: Will it be done hot? What sort of manipulator will be used? How many press strokes will be required? With what sort of blank are they starting? How much variation between thickest and thinnest cross sections? What is the anticipated cycle time?
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