Strategic Metals in military industries

The development of metallurgy throughout history has been closely tied to military needs‭. ‬When we examine the history of warfare‭ ‬and inspect weapons‭, ‬ammunition‭, ‬equipment‭, ‬and their manufacturing methods‭, ‬one striking fact stands out‭: ‬the entire progression of these technologies would not have been possible without the presence of vast quantities of metals‭, ‬especially iron and copper‭.‬

In the early 16th century‭, ‬numerous shields were crafted‭, ‬and a full suit of armour imposed an additional burden equal to a person’s weight on both the soldier wearing it and the horse carrying it and each foot soldier‭, ‬armed with bows or spears‭, ‬wore half‭ ‬a shield‭. ‬However‭, ‬with the growth of armies and the intensification of combat‭, ‬there was an increasing demand for metals to manufacture complete armour‭. ‬At the same time‭, ‬the need for metals to craft firearms and ammunition grew‭. ‬The cannons were heavy‭, ‬weighing between 3‭ ‬to 4‭ ‬tons of bronze‭, ‬and cannon carriages‭, ‬especially their wheels‭, ‬were covered with iron plates‭. ‬Some cannons fired cast-iron balls the size of a human head‭.‬

Wars relying on gunpowder necessitate significant metal consumption‭. ‬Modern warfare and industry have been fundamentally based on producing vast quantities of metals‭, ‬especially iron and steel‭. ‬In 1910‭, ‬just before the outbreak of World War I‭, ‬Europe’s production of iron and steel reached sixty million tons‭, ‬while worldwide copper production rose to approximately one million tons‭. ‬The arms race was a driving force for diverse discoveries in mining‭, ‬aiding in increased production of red copper‭, ‬bronze‭, ‬yellow copper‭, ‬and iron‭.‬

The outbreak of World War II in the 1940s and armies’‭ ‬need for metals to manufacture equipment‭, ‬tanks‭, ‬artillery‭, ‬and combat vehicles led to a tremendous revolution in this field concerning the development of metals and alloys as well as enhancing their properties to suit military requirements‭. ‬Today‭, ‬armies‭ ‬work to develop more advanced and sophisticated defence equipment to confront emerging threats‭. ‬Innovations worldwide range from supersonic aircraft‭, ‬tanks‭, ‬ammunition‭, ‬directed energy weapons‭, ‬and even weaponry for space militarization‭, ‬all requiring various designs‭, ‬materials‭, ‬equipment‭, ‬metals‭, ‬and alloys‭. ‬Fulfilling these needs often requires metals and alloys to be designed according to specific military needs and applications‭. ‬During World War II‭, ‬the United States engaged in a vast industrial war effort‭. ‬In addition to metals traditionally associated with armies like iron‭, ‬nickel‭, ‬copper‭, ‬and tin‭, ‬the rapid pace of technology increased the importance of other metals that hadn’t seen much or any use in previous wars‭, ‬including aluminium and uranium‭.‬

Strategic Metals

Armies use a wide range of metals for various purposes‭, ‬ranging from vehicles to electronics and munitions‭. ‬Each branch or category has specialities that require different designs and materials‭. ‬Meeting these needs often requires metals and alloys to be designed according to specific military applications‭. ‬Some of the most commonly used metals in military applications include aluminium‭, ‬titanium‭, ‬stainless steel‭, ‬carbon steel‭, ‬and nickel alloys‭.‬

Each material is specifically selected based on its strengths and weaknesses and can be modified and processed to fit specific operational requirements‭. ‬

Despite the significant overlap‭, ‬each branch of the military has specialized material preferences that help ensure optimal operation of equipment in specific environments and settings‭.‬

In recent years‭, ‬metals that are of great importance in military industries have been referred to as‭ “‬strategic metals‭.” ‬The possession of rare and valuable metals by a specific country makes them a crucial factor in determining global technological dominance and military superiority‭.‬

The STANDFORD Center for Advanced Materials identified six widely used strategic metals in military industries‭: ‬magnesium‭, ‬titanium‭, ‬rhenium‭, ‬molybdenum‭, ‬tungsten‭, ‬and uranium‭. ‬Given their critical importance‭, ‬the most powerful nations strive to secure stable supplies of these metals to meet their needs in military and strategic industries‭.‬

The‭ “‬Metals Make Life‭” ‬platform indicates that the U.S‭. ‬Department of Defence uses 750,000‭ ‬tons of metals annually to build defence technologies‭. ‬Research and development in materials science have led to new ways in which metals can enhance machine performance in defence industries‭, ‬as the material requirements for defence need to withstand corrosion and friction‭, ‬as well as be lightweight and help in cost reduction‭.‬

According to a study by the Brookings Institution in Washington‭, ‬the world is currently facing significant challenges in identifying sources of the necessary metals for high-precision industries‭, ‬which contribute to the transition to low-carbon energy sources‭, ‬high-tech industries‭, ‬and electronic chips‭.‬

Around 40‭ ‬metals have become part of the‭ “‬U.S‭. ‬National Security‭” ‬protection and are considered strategic for American superiority over China‭. ‬These metals include rare earth metals‭, ‬nickel‭, ‬copper‭, ‬lithium‭, ‬cobalt‭, ‬and aluminium sheets‭, ‬which are used in‭ ‬the aerospace and defence industries‭.‬

Experts and researchers indicate that there is a type of metal that will be the focus of conflicts among economic powers in the‭ ‬coming period‭, ‬which can be categorized into three sections‭: ‬

1‭- Strategic metals‭,‬‭ ‬which are of great importance to governments as they are a continuous source of funding and revenue for exporting countries‭, ‬according to the Institute of Rare Earths and Metals strategic metals include antimony‭, ‬arsenic‭, ‬bismuth‭, ‬cadmium‭, ‬calcium‭, ‬chromium‭, ‬cobalt‭, ‬gallium‭, ‬germanium‭, ‬indium‭, ‬lithium‭, ‬magnesium‭, ‬mercury‭, ‬molybdenum‭, ‬niobium‭, ‬selenium‭, ‬rhenium‭, ‬silicon‭, ‬tantalum‭, ‬tellurium‭, ‬aluminide‭, ‬titanium‭, ‬and tungsten‭. ‬

2‭- Rare metals‭,‬‭ ‬that are present in small quantities despite being pivotal elements in precision industries‭. ‬These include 17‭ ‬main elements‭, ‬characterized by unique magnetic and electrochemical properties‭, ‬including gadolinium‭, ‬lanthanum‭, ‬cerium‭, ‬promethium‭, ‬dysprosium‭, ‬erbium‭, ‬europium‭, ‬holmium‭, ‬lutetium‭, ‬neodymium‭, ‬praseodymium‭, ‬samarium‭, ‬scandium‭, ‬terbium‭, ‬thulium‭, ‬ytterbium‭, ‬and yttrium‭. ‬

Their importance lies in their use in the production of cancer drugs‭, ‬smartphones‭, ‬renewable energy technologies‭, ‬oil refining‭, ‬and glass manufacturing‭. ‬

3‭- High-tech metals‭,‬‭ ‬representing a secure source of entry and one of the main economic sources for producing countries‭. ‬The most prominent of these‭ ‬metals are aluminium‭, ‬antimony‭, ‬beryllium‭, ‬bismuth‭, ‬cadmium‭, ‬caesium‭, ‬cerium‭, ‬cobalt‭, ‬dysprosium‭, ‬europium alloy‭, ‬gallium alloy‭, ‬germanium‭, ‬gold‭, ‬holmium‭, ‬indium‭, ‬iridium‭, ‬copper‭, ‬nickel‭, ‬osmium‭.‬

Magnesium‭: ‬The Defensive Metal

Magnesium has been an important part of the defence industry since the 1940s‭. ‬Due to its quantitative and qualitative uses in military industries‭, ‬it has been termed as the‭ “‬defensive metal‭.” ‬

Magnesium alloys possess a variety of advantages‭, ‬including their density‭. ‬Being one of the lightest structural metals in the world‭, ‬magnesium has a lower density compared to other structural metals like aluminium or steel‭. ‬

Consequently‭, ‬magnesium can be used as a direct substitute for aluminium or steel without adding too much weight‭. ‬Magnesium also‭ ‬boasts strength‭, ‬hardness‭, ‬good damping‭, ‬and machinability‭. ‬It is one of the most abundant metals in the Earth’s crust‭, ‬making‭ ‬it a fundamental structural material for producing spacecraft‭, ‬military aircraft‭, ‬missiles‭, ‬high-speed vehicles‭, ‬and ships‭.‬

It is widely used in the production of incendiary ammunition and bombs due to its high heat and light emission when burned‭. ‬Recent discoveries in materials science and technology have made it possible to improve the performance of magnesium alloys more than ever‭, ‬replacing aluminium and steel alloys‭.‬

Magnesium was widely used during World War I in incendiary bombs and tracer bullets due to its flammability and light-emitting properties‭. ‬

The low density of Magnesium was utilized during World War II when it was extensively used in the manufacturing of military aircraft for the aircraft body‭, ‬engine components‭, ‬gearboxes‭, ‬and wheels to significantly reduce weight‭. ‬For instance‭, ‬the B-36‭ ‬and‭ ‬B-47‭ ‬bombers extensively used lightweight magnesium components to enhance payload capacity‭.‬

After World War II‭, ‬with engines becoming more powerful‭, ‬interest in magnesium waned in military aircraft‭, ‬only to be renewed with the advent of the missile age in the 1950s and again during the Vietnam War‭. ‬

Magnesium was widely used in military ground vehicles such as the U.S‭.-‬built M-274‭ ‬mechanical mule‭, ‬which had a payload of 450‭ ‬kg‭, ‬showcasing the usefulness of low magnesium density once again‭.‬

The U.S‭. ‬Army utilized this vehicle in the 1980s‭, ‬thanks to magnesium axle housings and the loading platform‭. ‬Magnesium alloys were also used in armoured personnel carriers‭ (‬APCs‭), ‬amphibious vehicles‭, ‬main battle tanks‭ (‬MBTs‭), ‬and other military vehicles‭.‬

Tungsten‭: ‬The Dental Metal

The use of tungsten in military equipment dates back to ancient times when it was used to improve the durability of gun barrels‭.‬‭ ‬The steel used in gun barrel manufacturing was severely affected by corrosion resulting from contact with gunpowder‭. ‬Adding tungsten to the steel improved its durability and corrosion resistance‭, ‬earning it the nickname‭ “‬dental metal‭.” ‬Reports indicate that during the early stages of World War I‭, ‬rifles made from tungsten-mixed steel were more durable than those made from steel alone‭. ‬Tungsten-mixed barrels could fire more than twice the number of rounds before deteriorating compared to steel barrels‭. ‬Some‭ ‬modern applications of tungsten in military materials include manufacturing bulletproof vehicles‭, ‬armoured tanks‭, ‬and other types of protection equipment designed to withstand high-velocity bullet impacts‭, ‬thanks to tungsten’s hardness‭. ‬This property can‭ ‬be further enhanced through alloy manufacturing to produce stronger composite materials‭. ‬Moreover‭, ‬Tungsten is used in manufacturing missile and aircraft components due to the high temperatures they must endure‭. ‬Tungsten has high thermal resistance‭, ‬making‭ ‬it primarily used in creating hard alloys for defence‭, ‬aerospace‭, ‬information technology‭, ‬and more.Alloys made from tungsten and other refractory metals‭ (‬tantalum‭, ‬niobium‭, ‬molybdenum‭, ‬rhenium‭) ‬can be used in various military applications‭.‬

Titanium‭: ‬Lightweight with a Big Impact

Titanium is one of the most widely used metals in military applications‭, ‬and its importance lies in its high strength-to-weight‭ ‬ratio and excellent corrosion resistance‭. ‬This has allowed manufacturers to create lightweight equipment while increasing durability‭ (‬especially in harsh environments‭). ‬Titanium is largely chosen for military applications due to its ability to maintain a high level of performance even at elevated temperatures.Moreover‭, ‬it is characterized by hardness‭, ‬strength‭, ‬lightweight properties‭, ‬fracture resistance‭, ‬and the necessary stress resistance‭, ‬combined with excellent corrosion resistance‭. ‬Therefore‭, ‬titanium‭ ‬is often used in the manufacturing of aircraft engine parts‭, ‬rocket structures‭, ‬armour‭, ‬and naval ships‭. ‬

Even spacecrafts contain components made of titanium‭. ‬Due to its versatility in different environments‭, ‬titanium alloys can be used as fuel storage tanks and high-pressure vessels‭. ‬

New U.S‭. ‬military aircraft and armoured vehicles have started using titanium products in large numbers‭, ‬making titanium a valuable resource for armed forces‭.‬

The significant demand for titanium in the military field has led to innovative research regarding potential new uses‭. ‬The military industry needed to find a metal that could withstand harsh conditions without compromising efficiency and strength‭.‬

As titanium extraction and purification processes became less complex‭, ‬titanium became more affordable than it was in the past‭. ‬With its easy availability‭, ‬the metal gradually became the preferred choice‭, ‬replacing steel as a standard option‭, ‬and the military sector increasingly relies on it‭.‬

Manufacturers rely on titanium alloys mixed with aluminium and vanadium‭, ‬developing exhaust pipes and hydraulic systems‭. ‬Titanium has also been blended with tungsten‭, ‬and the resulting mixture is used in tank armour‭. ‬

Thanks to innovative research‭, ‬titanium finds more and more uses in the military field‭, ‬in protective armour and structural components for aircraft‭. ‬It is used to manufacture tanks‭, ‬missiles‭, ‬as well as various types of naval weapons and equipment‭.‬

Researchers have focused on utilizing titanium compounds in the military field‭, ‬leading to the development of a titanium and fibreglass composite material used in manufacturing rotor blades‭ (‬in Black Hawk helicopters‭). ‬

These composite materials are often used for military applications because of their excellent conductivity‭, ‬especially compared‭ ‬to carbon compounds‭. ‬They also ensure highly efficient thermal expansion.Maritime applications require a metal that can resist the damage caused by seawater without any compromise on safety‭. ‬Titanium‭, ‬with its outstanding corrosion resistance‭, ‬represents an ideal choice‭. ‬Consequently‭, ‬it is used to develop equipment that frequently interacts with seawater‭. ‬Propeller shafts and underwater manoeuvring systems are made from titanium and its alloys‭. ‬The same applies to drilling equipment‭, ‬ship cooling systems‭, ‬and pipes‭. ‬Titanium is the first choice for manufacturing submerged ball valves‭, ‬heat exchangers‭, ‬fire pumps‭, ‬and exhaust stack‭ ‬liners‭. ‬Before titanium was widely used‭, ‬corrosion of seawater pipes was a persistent problem‭, ‬particularly in heat exchangers‭, ‬requiring frequent replacement and repair‭ (‬high service costs‭). ‬

Over time‭, ‬copper and nickel pipes were replaced with titanium pipes‭, ‬leading to an improvement in the assumed service life and‭ ‬a reduction in service costs‭.‬

‮ ‬By‭: ‬Retired Colonel Eng‭. ‬Khaled Al-Ananzah
‭(‬Advisor and Trainer in Environmental and Occupational Safety‭)‬

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