Air Weapons: Nothing Down There Folks, Nothing At All


August 22,2008:  The U.S. Air Force found a way to save over $50 million, by modifying 64 year old ammunition. It's all about saving money on practice ammo for the 40mm cannons used on AC-130 gunships. Brought new, each 40mm round costs $200. But there was still 350,000 rounds of World War II vintage 40mm armor piercing ammo available, still in its original waterproof packaging, sitting in air force storage bunkers (one can only wonder what else is down there). The AC-130s don't use armor piercing ammo, but the high explosive incendiary (it explodes and causes fires and lots of metal fragments). For practice, you need the high explosive incendiary (which explodes when it hits), not the armor piercing (which is difficult to be seen from the AC-130.) Thus for years, the AC-130 crews had no interest in the old armor piercing stiff.

But then some clever air force boffins figured out how to add a small spotting charge to the old armor piercing round. The procedure doesn't cost much, and the resulting armor piercing ammo provides the visual feedback gunners need while practice firing. This made training  a lot cheaper. Converting all the old ammo will take care of training needs for about five years.

The World War II era rounds cost $8 each when manufactured. Adjusted for inflation, that's about $90 today. Plus the cost of storage for over sixty years. Accountants differ on exactly how to deal with all this in terms of calculating the "real" savings. But the program does get that ancient stuff out of the bunker, before the ammo becomes too old to safely use.

On the downside, this just further encourages the military to never throw anything away. Many nations do this packrat thing, although the Russians are probably the worst offenders. They still have large quantities of World War II ammo and equipment in storage. Much of it was finally sold off when the Cold War ended in 1991. This was much appreciated by museums and private collectors. But they didn't sell everything, and even the U.S. has much vintage material sitting around, waiting for another opportunity. The navy, for example, had hundreds of 16 inch naval gun ammo, which continued to be used into the early 1990s. Not so much with the 5 inch anti-aircraft shells made in the last year of World War II. By the end of the Cold War, there were still over half a million of these left. The shells were no longer of any use against aircraft (which don't get close enough), and the gun that used them (the 1930s era 5/38 model) was no longer used. Demilitarizing (taking it apart and disposing of it) is expensive, so the tendency is to just leave the old ammo in the bunker and hope no one will notice.


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