Murphy's Law: Obsolete Life Savers


December 25,2008: Cultures collided recently when the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) checked U.S. Navy stocks of spare parts and equipment. The GAO concluded that the navy had $7.5 billion in surplus or unneeded stuff. But to the navy, this "excess" material was the result of war planning, rapid technological change, and preparing for the unexpected.

Preparations for war require large stockpiles of spares and munitions to sustain combat operations until factories can ramp up to meet wartime needs. When new weapons or equipment are introduced, many of these "war stocks" become obsolete, or sort of obsolete. In the early stages of a war, older equipment will often be hauled out of storage to help keep the fight going. So "obsolete in peacetime" is not the same as "obsolete in wartime". But even in peacetime, technological breakthroughs can suddenly make some gear cheaper to replace than continue using. More "wasted" inventory.

For example, during the 1991 Kuwait war, there was an unexpected need for deep penetrating bombs that could destroy underground Iraqi command bunkers. New bombs were designed, built, tested and delivered in less than two months by using barrels from obsolete 8 inch army artillery pieces to build the needed "bunker buster" bomb. According to the GAO, those old barrels were useless. To troops in wartime, no weapon is useless.

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, has 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.

But sometimes, the old stuff comes in handy. 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 rather 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.) Converting the World War II era "surplus" to practice ammo (with tracer material added) was a lot cheaper than buying the stuff new.

There's a lot more "worthless" material sitting in warehouses and ammo bunkers, waiting to be needed again.




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