Logistics: Managing Megareserves


August 17, 2023: The largest Russian military open air storage site for military equipment is at Vagzhanovo in eastern Siberia, between Lake Baikal and the Mongolian border. This site has seen a lot of activity because of the war in Ukraine. In 2021 the site contained nearly 4,000 armored vehicles, most of them Cold-War era models. In a national emergency most of these vehicles would be returned to operational status and those that could not used as a reserve of spare parts for equipment that was no longer no longer manufactured.

Because it was out in the open, in a remote region where clear skies were present about half the time, commercial satellite photos showing activity in Vagzhanovo were not frequent. It was eventually noted that in early 2023 that 40 percent of the armored vehicles stored at Vagzhanovo had been removed after being refurbished enough to make them operational and sent to Russian forces in Ukraine. The tanks were largely T-62s, a model that ceased production in 1975. The other armored vehicles were early model BMP tracked IFVs (Infantry Fighting Vehicles) and even older wheeled IFVs. The infantry used the T-62s as assault guns, providing direct (at targets the tank gunner could see) artillery fire for infantry attacks. The infantry were often advancing in IFVs and would leave those vehicles only when they were very close to enemy positions. These are classic mechanized infantry tactics and Vagzhanovo was able to replace the large quantities of modern tanks and IFVs the Russians lost during the first months of the invasion. Russia had underestimated the effectiveness of the thousands of man-portable ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles) NATO had supplied the Ukrainian defenders with. Russia has since modified its mechanized infantry tactics but has not been able to replace all the modern tanks and IFVs lost and won’t be able to do so for years, perhaps a decade. It took over a decade for Russia to produce the 2,000 modern tanks and IFVs they lost in Ukraine. The usefulness of storage sites like Vagzhanovo was proven once more and will continue to be a Russian practice.

The United States maintains similar storage sites, but for aircraft rather than armored vehicles. The retired armored vehicles are stored at numerous smaller sites. Most of the retired aircraft are at one site; AMARC. Since World War II, most military aircraft ended up being scrapped, not shot down. In the last 70 years, the United States was the major user of aircraft while the Russians depended on armored vehicles.

While Russia has a lot of retired armored vehicles, the Americans have similar quantities of useful aircraft. The United States uses a site similar to Vagzhanovo, but for military aircraft. The United States calls this site AMARC (Aerospace Maintenance and Recovery Center). This facility, 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 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.

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 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 the first World War, 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. The most efficient boneyard in the world is America's 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.

Over 4,500 aircraft are stored at AMARC, and 500-2,000 spare parts orders are filled 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. and British 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 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 of 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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