Military Budget to Drive Metals Innovations

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The Senate passed the $636 billion Department of Defense appropriations bill this week that includes millions of dollars for military-related projects that will either consume metals or improve the technology used when working with them. When you look at the list of projects you have to wonder how much they are for purely military applications and how much they are thinly veiled subsidies for the development of commercial technologies. Many tens of millions, possibly hundreds of millions are going into developments that have direct commercial applications as well as some military relevance. An example of some of the projects to receive funding illustrates how benefits derived for military use will be equally (if not more) applicable for commercial applications.

$2.4 million for development of fuel cells for unmanned ground vehicles (UGV), currently UGV’s use regular batteries but fuel cells would allow them to work for much longer and draw greater power demands. For their uptake in military vehicles though they need to be made small, robust and cheap enough to be expendable. Plus a further $6.4 million to continue the Vehicle Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Logistics Program managed by the Defense Logistics Agency.

$27 million for domestic advanced lithium ion battery production technologies for military transport applications, spin-offs are seen for automotive use. Plus a separate project gaining $2.4 million to continue development of lightweight, rechargeable lithium ion batteries using Nano-materials technology.

Several projects cover engine technologies, such as R&D into power electronics, control technology or advanced thermal management systems to increase engine efficiency for Army vehicles. Advanced thermal management technologies have helped the Army address the challenges associated with overheating engine blocks, among other things.

$2.8 million for hydraulic hybrid vehicle technology to produce a new line of advanced, highly efficient, hydraulic pump and motor products, which will replace conventional automatic transmissions and could significantly improve overall drive train efficiency in military ground vehicles. Bosch Rexroth Corporation has been working with the Army for several years on the development of hydraulic hybrid technology.

Some projects are more overtly military, like $1.4 billion for the Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV). $513.9 million for the Army’s Stryker armored vehicle. $1.3 billion for the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV). $369.4 million for the General Dynamics Abrams Main Battle Tank program. $219 million for the lightweight 155mm howitzer which will benefit castings makers like Howmet Castings of Whitehall. $6.3 billion for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles. $770 million for Bradley Fighting Vehicle modifications.

For the metals industries some projects have more than just metals consumption to commend them, attractive as that is. For example $2 million is earmarked for advanced manufacturing and coatings research for Navy parts. The use of laser-aided direct metal deposition and friction stir processing techniques offer the promise of significant reductions in cost and lead time by reducing material and energy costs and improving durability. The technology is said to significantly shorten the time and lower the cost for resetting and modernizing the military’s small arms and crew-served weapons.

$1.2 million is to be awarded for the development of intensive quenching for hardening helicopter power transmission components. This funding will be used to further research into the hardening of metals that increases load carrying capabilities in helicopter transmission gears when compared to traditional oil quenched gears. This correlates directly to both greater payloads, as well as the ability to withstand combat damage and return the crew safely to the base of operations.

A further $800,000 has been allocated for software development into advanced modeling technology needed for large structure titanium machining technologies. The goal is to achieve a 20% cost reduction of titanium parts, 50%reduction of titanium machining time, and faster parts delivery.

Alcoa Howmet is among companies to share in $10 million for the Air Force’s Metals Affordability Initiative (MAI), a government-industry cooperative program focused on the development of new aerospace materials and alloys. The idea is to develop new materials that will reduce aircraft engine maintenance costs and help enable the next generation of fighter aircraft and unmanned air vehicles.

And so the list goes on. The US is sometimes accused of being a military machine, its defense budget alone dwarfing the GDP of most other countries in the world, but the spin-offs in technological advancement are immense. One reason why the US leads the world in high technologies of all kinds is the amount of money spent, much of it in the name of military preparedness but like NASA in the 60’s the military machine yields benefits for Main Street too.

–Stuart Burns

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