Attrition: Looting The Dead For A Better World

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October 20, 2010:  In the past two years, the U.S. Air Force retired 252 elderly A-10s, F-15s and F-16s to the "bone yard" (a desert storage areas where many American warplanes are stored when retired, just in case they are needed later.) Sometimes the air force is just saving money, by mothballing and decommissioning a number of active duty airplanes to free up money for upgrades and maintenance on the rest of the fleet. Thus not all the aircraft in the bone yard are old and worn out. In fact, nearly all aircraft sent to the bone yard can fly again, otherwise they would just be scrapped in place. For example, last year, the air force retired the last of its 384 F-15A fighters. Long flown only by reserve units, these are old aircraft, all built in the 1970s. Air force reserve units got the F-15As in the 1980s and 1990s, as active duty units got the new F-15C. But now the F-22 is entering service, and more F-15Cs are going to the reserves. Many of those F-15A flew for over 30 years, and have all made their last flight to the bone yard.

Two years ago, the air force retired the last of its F-117 light bombers. Long called the "stealth fighter," the F-117 was designed from the start as a bomber. But the aircraft was 27 years old. It's really 1970s technology that, after years of effort, was made to work in the 1980s. But better stuff is out there, and the stealth technology of the F-117 is obsolete when it comes to some of the more recent sensor developments. The new F-35 will be a direct, and more effective, replacement for the F-117 as a light bomber. Plus, the F-22 can also perform these bombing missions, in addition to being a superior fighter. The F-117s made their last flights going to the bone yard.

Since World War II, most military aircraft ended up being scrapped, not shot down. Some nations, particularly the United States, have an intermediate status; storage. The main such site in the United States is AMARC (Aerospace Maintenance and Recovery Center). This is the bone yard, and aircraft stored at AMARC would, if armed and operational, be the third largest air force in the world. This facility, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base out in the Arizona desert, stores nearly 5,000 military aircraft no longer needed for active service. Every year, some are recalled, refurbished and sent back to work. But most get "harvested" for spare parts, until what's left is chopped up and sold for scrap.

AMARC isn't the only storage site, just the largest (in the world). Many other air bases in dry climates have room for some aircraft that might be needed again. The U.S. Marine Corps recently took an old AV-8 Harrier vertical takeoff fighter, that had been in storage for sixteen years at one of its air bases, and restored it to duty as a two seat trainer. The marines didn't think they would need that old AV-8. But the new F-35B, which is to replace the AV-8, is late in arriving, and operations in Afghanistan have worn down the existing AV-8s. So reinforcements have been called up from storage sites.

This points out one of the major problems with modern warplanes; that some models have remained in service far longer than anyone expected. This happened partly because modern aircraft are built to last, and used engineering advances that worked out better than expected. Engineers tend to overbuild when they can.

For example, commercial transports are very sturdy beasts, as they have to fly up to 12 hours a day for weeks at a time. Military aircraft fly less often, although their sturdiness is also meant to deal with the violent maneuvers of combat. But heavy bombers and transports can go on and on, as they don't fly as much as the civilian transports and the basic technology they are based on hasn't changed much. The best example is the B-52 bomber, which entered service half a century ago and the ones still flying were built over forty years ago. There are also over a hundred, 70 year old, DC-3 civilian transports still in the air as well.

Most warplanes are in production for a decade or less. Once the manufacturing stops, it starts to become difficult to get spare parts. The tools and equipment used to make the aircraft components are usually scrapped. Making the parts from scratch is so expensive that it is often cheaper to scrap aircraft and buy a new design. But a new aircraft is often more than the budget can bear as well. The solution to this problem is cannibalization. That is, using some aircraft, either those wrecked in accidents or older models retired to the "bone yard", just for spare parts. This has been a practice in combat from the very beginning of military aviation. Especially during World War I, when more aircraft were lost to bad landings and takeoffs than to enemy action, the wrecks became a source of replacement parts for airframes and engines of aircraft still in service. Thus the most efficient bone yard in the world is Americas AMARC. While some of the aircraft stored there are recalled to active service every year, all are liable for disassembly to provide parts for aircraft that are still flying.

AMARC fills 500-2,000 spare parts orders each month. Not just for American military aircraft, but for those of allies as well. Australia keeps its 1960s era F-111's flying with spare parts from old U.S. F-111s stored at AMARC. The U.S. Air Force A-10, built in the 1970s, and not a popular air force candidate for a new model, is kept flying (because it's so damn useful) with parts from AMARC. Even when parts are still in production, a wartime surge, as was experienced during the Afghanistan campaign, will outstrip the manufacturers ability to produce them. In this case, AMARC delivered parts for the F-18.

AMARC was set up in 1985, consolidating bone yard operations already there and from other locations in the United States. In that first year, it delivered spare parts worth half a billion dollars. While the airframes, stripped of all their more valuable parts, are worth only about 25 cents a pound as scrap, some of the parts are worth their weight in gold. Engines, which often comprise a third (or more) of an aircraft's value, are the most valuable single items. And each engine consists of thousands parts, some of which are worth quite a bit, even if the engine is no longer in use by any aircraft. Other nations cannibalize their retired or obsolete warplanes, but few have organized the operation as efficiently as the United States.

 

 


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