Earlier this summer, the Spanish military had proposed sending 40 of its mothballed Leopard 2A4 tanks to Ukraine pending approval from Germany. Berlin was never fully onboard with the plan, but it is a moot issue now, as it was reported this month that the vehicles are “in an absolutely deplorable state” and could even be a danger to the crews warned Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles.
At issue may not be the age of the tanks, of course, but how they were maintained.
“If indeed the condition of Spain’s Leopards has decayed so greatly, their protocols should come under very close scrutiny,” explained John Adams-Graf, military vehicle historian and editor of History in Motion.
“It is possible Spain’s mothballing of Leopard IIs was so inadequate to render them useless,” Adams-Graf told ClearanceJobs. “Whoever was in charge of storing the vehicles just cost the nation around $300 million – with each Leopard 2A4 costing about $8.2 million.”
Many older vehicles are now being used in Ukraine, but with mixed results. Russia, which has seen perhaps as many as 1,000 of its tanks destroyed in Ukraine since it launched its unprovoked and unwarranted invasion in February, has reportedly called into service even older T-62 tanks – vehicles likely older than the parents of some of the young men forced to drive those antiquated vehicles into service.
Those tanks are hardly up to the task, and are being easily destroyed. It questions the old saying, “it’s better than nothing.”
Old Doesn’t Mean Antiquated
Again, this may not be an issue of age. While properly maintained and upgraded, some military hardware can remain in service for decades.
In fact, the United States Air Force’s venerable B-52 Stratofortress, which first took to the skies 70 years ago, is still flying thanks to numerous updates and upgrades – and it will likely remain in service until the 2050s. That could mean that the final crews could be the great-grandchildren of the first men to fly those bombers. Those final crews will also have a bit more privacy for those times when nature calls, as it was only last year that a screen was added outside the onboard lavatory.
Part of the reason that the B-52 also remains in service is that so many were produced, while fewer are now needed, that parts from those unfit to fly can keep the others in the air.
A Trip to the Boneyard
It could be said – to paraphrase an old military catchphrase first uttered by Gen. Douglas MacArthur – “old warbirds never die, they simply rust away.” In fact, the United States Air Force currently maintains a fleet of aging aircraft at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (AFB), Tucson, Arizona.
It is now the largest aviation “boneyard” in the world, where hundreds of aircraft are now stored.
Thanks to low humidity that averages in the 10-20% range, meager rainfall of less than 11-inches annually, hard alkaline soil, and a high altitude of 2,550 feet, it is the perfect location for the storage of old aircraft for cannibalization or even possible reuse. Moreover, the geology of the desert has meant that aircraft can be moved around without the need to pave the storage areas.
The “boneyard” began in May of 1946 when more than 600 B-29 Superfortresses and 200 C-47 Skytrains were brought to the facility. Over the years the number of aircraft at the facility has only grown – and in 2020, the United States Air Force announced that it would send about an additional 100 planes from its bomber, airlift, tanker, and drone fleets to the Davis-Monthan AFB’s long-term storage yard. Among those are 17 B-1B Lancer bombers, which could be cannibalized as needed to keep the current fleet of 44 active aircraft flying.
However, it seems that the Davis-Monthan boneyard isn’t a final resting place for all of the aircraft that are sent there. The Air Force had also announced in 2020 that it would take apart a B-1B Bone bomber from the boneyard and ship the individual parts to the National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) at Wichita State University in Kansas. Each of the aircraft’s components sent to NIAR has since been 3D scanned, which created a highly detailed “digital twin” model that was used to identify areas of the airframe that suffer high levels of fatigue.
From that data, researchers have worked to create a model that could be used to predict future maintenance needs for the B-1B bombers that are still in service.
The United States Navy Reserve Fleets
Just as the United States Air Force maintains retired aircraft, the United States Navy also maintains a number of vessels as part of the reserve fleet. Dubbed the “Mothball Fleet,” the warships are kept afloat and in sufficient working order to be reactivated quickly in an emergency. There are currently four reserve fleets, as well as three inactive ship maintenance facilities.
The history of the Mothball Fleet dates back to the early 20th century, but it increased significantly after the Second World War when the U.S. Navy had become the largest naval force in the world. After victory was achieved, it was believed that such a large navy wasn’t needed.
However, many World War II warships were returned to service during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and in the 1980s, when then-President Ronald Reagan called for the expansion of the U.S. Navy, many vessels were returned to service. In fact, that even included the four massive Iowa-class battleships, which were updated in time to see the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The last of those vessels fired her mighty 16-inch main guns in anger during the Gulf War in 1991.
Moreover, when the four vessels – the final four U.S. battleships ever built – were once again retired and transformed into museum ships, they were still maintained in a way that could allow them to be returned to service. Despite some calls to upgrade them again for active duty, it’s increasingly unlikely those warships ever sail the high seas again. Nearly 30 years have passed, and time hasn’t been kind to them, and great efforts are needed to simply maintain them as floating museums.
What is also worth noting is that the United States will likely never see another massive capital ship transformed into a museum. In fact, the U.S. Navy is largely not trying to maintain such large ships anymore in the Mothball Fleet. The final two conventional-powered aircraft carriers USS Kitty Hawk (CVN-63) and USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) were recently sold to a scrap metal company for just a single penny each – despite efforts to save at least the former vessel as a museum ship. And because all current (and likely future) carriers are nuclear-powered, it is extremely unlikely any will ever become museum ships.
The Navy is also on a schedule of replacing the Nimitz-class carriers on a one-for-one basis with the new Gerald R. Ford-class. There has been talk of extending the service life of the lead vessel, USS Nimitz (CVN-68), but that is unlikely to happen. Nor will the supercarrier likely be maintained in the mothball fleet. It is simply not worth the expense.
What is the Shelf Life?
Throughout its history, the U.S. military has long maintained stockpiles of weapons and equipment. Sometimes not with the best results – as U.S. Army National Guard Units called up in the Spanish-American War in 1898 were issued with single-shot black-powder rifles that were two decades old. That may not seem that significant, but firearms development was undergoing significant leaps forward, and the soldiers who went into combat with those weapons were literally outgunned.
Other equipment fared better, notably helmets. The same World War I Model 1917 “tin hats” were still in service when the United States entered the Second World War, while the M1 steel helmet – introduced in 1940 – remained in use until the early 1980s. The final models were actually produced in the late 1960s, and it is likely some soldiers in Vietnam were using refurbished helmets that their fathers could have worn in WWII.
The U.S. Army also currently maintains many M1 Abrams tanks that were produced in the 1980s and 1990s. The old workhorse vehicles – like the Air Force’s B-52s – have been steadily upgraded. Yet, in the 21st century, equipment often has a shorter shelf life. This is especially true of anything that relies on computers or microprocessors.
It is a matter of the hardware. In other words, some equipment can be better updated than others. Yet, the goal is increasingly to extend the service life where possible.
“One thing we have to keep in mind is that factories, workers, and assembly lines need to keep active and keep making spare parts for a piece of military hardware,” explained Harry J. Kazianis, president and CEO at the Rogue States Project.
“If that part is in hot demand, say engine blades for an F-15 fighter, a fighter that will be in service for decades, the plant will keep running and the jobs and workers will be there,” Kazianis told ClearanceJobs. “The company making them knows they will have demand and that plane will be around for years.”
Part of the reason the B-1B is being phased out sooner than the older B-52 is that the parts are too hard to fabricate, while the airframes have been pushed to their limits from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Niche weapons systems or platforms that are not being kept up as much or are on the line of being phased out mean the economics of making spare parts just aren’t there,” Kazianis continued. “When it comes to tanks, many times there are so many variations of different models and so few of them that unless a vendors has guaranteed order for spare parts over long periods of time there is little profit in keeping lines open to work on them.”