Another Cold War surplus warplane recently went on sale. This one was an F-16 jet fighter going for $8.5 million. As usual, the aircraft was demilitarized (weapons and military electronics removed.) The aircraft was described as built-in 1980 with about 6,000 flight hours on it. That means a wealthy collector, willing to spend a million more could get it back into flying condition and good for another 2,000 flight hours, was the desired buyer. There are some airport-based facilities that will maintain such aircraft and keep then in flyable condition. There are groups worldwide that purchase, restore and maintain old military aircraft. These groups usually have a lot of retired military personnel, as well as interested civilians, providing the skilled manpower to get these aircraft looking as they were when they belonged to the military. Not all of these aircraft are flyable, but if enough cash and skilled personnel (paid or volunteer) can be found even Cold War era jets can be made flyable again. And a growing number have, and often show up at air shows along with World War II and World War I aircraft and a growing number of Cold War (1947-91) veterans.
A growing number of these aircraft become “museum aircraft” and are restored and put on display by organizations that want to provide examples of actual warplanes for museums or other forms of public display. This is also true of warships and military vehicles. The surplus warships are very expensive to convert to “museum quality” vessels suitable for visitors. Military vehicles, including demilitarized tanks and other military vehicles are more common, mainly because they are a lot cheaper. For example, various models of World War II and Cold War surplus tanks are available for $100,000 and up.
After the Cold War ended there was a flood of Russian warplanes available for sale to military users and collectors. Ukraine, which inherited the largest arsenal of Cold War surplus weapons in the world, was eager to make deals. Just about anything was for sale by Ukrainian firms, including late-model MiG-29s, older models like MiG-21s and at least one 188-ton four-engine Tu-95MS heavy bomber with only 455 flight hours, offered for the bargain price of $3 million, not including delivery. There were also all manner of missile systems that were generally not available to civilian buyers. Ukraine also became notorious for making unpublished deals to provide just about anything to anyone who could pay. Ukrainian firms used Cold War era Russian air transports to fly weapons just about anywhere. Also available was a network of ships willing to deliver armored vehicles and heavy weapons to ports that would let that happen.
The most popular surpluses items are aircraft and tanks. For a century now there has been a market for the many surplus, “demilitarized” warplanes and military vehicles available after a major war. This began after World War I (1914-18) when thousands of military aircraft were sold, or given way after the fighting stopped. Weapons were removed and these biplanes were sold off to civilian users. In some cases, demilitarized heavy weapons, like artillery, were also sold or given away to museums or for use in civilian war memorials. There are still many of these World War I artillery pieces and mortars still serving as part of war memorials in small towns throughout the United States.
After World War II (1939-45) there was even more military surplus, especially aircraft, like multi-engine transports and patrol planes that could be put to work by commercial firms. Many warplanes were sold cheap or given away to allied nations, where they often served for decades before being sold once more for memorial or museum use or to collectors. The same thing happened after the Cold War ended although surplus air transports and patrol aircraft were Russian made because post-war Russia and its allies had more stuff they no longer needed or could afford to maintain. Older Western warplanes took longer to come on the market. For example, a British vertical takeoff Harrier jet fighter, which were produced from 1969 to 2003 was offered to collectors in 2011 for $113,500. Older Harriers were often broken up for spare parts but, by the 21st century, the number getting too old for service greatly increased. Some Harriers are still in military service.
Then there are the surplus military ships. These have been available for over a century. Ships with commercial uses, usually transports of various types, find lots of civilian buyers after a major war. Surplus warships are another matter. Many large (subs, destroyers, carriers and battleships) surplus World War II ships were put to use as museum ships in the decades after World War II. By the end of the 20th century there was a growing crisis in dealing with the escalating cost of maintaining old warships as museums and tourist attractions. Most of these vessels are in the water and literally rusting away. Many are now in need of major refurbishment, which can cost over $100 million for a carrier or battleship. Even smaller ships (cruisers, destroyers, and submarines) can require over $20 million to get back into shape to just sit in the water, receive visitors, and not sink or fall apart the next time a major storm hits. Most of the largest of these museum ships are American, largely because the U.S. has had the largest fleet in the world for nearly a century.
The end of World War II and the Cold War put a lot of warships out of work. Most were broken up for scrap or sunk using weapons as a form of training. But increasingly over the years, many were donated by the U.S. Navy for use as museum ships. Most of these were smaller ships, like PT Boats or patrol boats. A small seaside town could afford to maintain these small craft with local volunteers and small cash donations. But many cities sought to obtain large ships. This led to five aircraft carriers (USS Hornet, Intrepid, Lexington, Midway, and Yorktown) and ten battleships (USS Alabama, Arizona, Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, New Jersey, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin) becoming impressive and very expensive to maintain museum ships. The Arizona was sunk at Pearl Harbor during the infamous 1941 Japanese sneak attack and a museum and memorial built around the largely submerged vessel. The other carriers and battleships are tied up at a pier and visitors allowed to view many parts of the ship.
There are also over fifty destroyers, cruisers, amphibious ships, and submarines serving as museum ships. More are on the way if the cost of maintaining current museum ships does not scare off everyone. The World War II museum ships are all up for major refurbishment and the few that have had it have demonstrated that this sort of thing is very expensive.
In 2009 the U.S. Navy retired its last non-nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy. The navy offered the ship to any government or non-profit organization that wants to maintain it as a museum ship. The navy found a potential donor in Rhode Island but that group could not raise enough money to do the job. In 2017 the navy decided to sell the Kennedy for scrap. Entering service in 1968, the Kennedy is 321 meters (1052 feet) long and displaces 82,000 tons. It would have been the largest museum ship ever. The big problem, for whoever took the ship, was always seen as the huge sum (over a hundred million dollars) needed to outfit the ship as a museum and maintain it.
The navy has long been willing to donate old ships to groups that were willing to maintain the retired vessels as museum ships. But the navy attaches some very expensive strings. That is, the navy expects the ship to be kept in decent shape. This is a problem with many old metal ships as they rust. And eventually, they rust so much that the hull is breached and ultimately will collapse. The navy has not yet repossessed any museum ships but a growing number of these ships are deteriorating. Refurbishment is so expensive that some sponsoring groups are considering letting the navy have the ship back.
For example, the World War II era Essex class carrier USS Intrepid, in New York City, returned to its display berth in 2009, after a two-year refurbishment costing $120 million. The entire hull was examined, in dry dock, for decay and over a hundred square meters (nearly a thousand square feet) of hull had to be replaced. A sister ship of the Intrepid, the Yorktown, requires a similar refurbishment. Since 1975, the Yorktown has been on display in Charleston, South Carolina, with several other museum ships. The Yorktown, which entered service four months before the Intrepid, needs the same kind of work. The navy is insisting on it, with the alternatives being sending the ship to the breakers or a lawsuit. The naval museum in South Carolina is in a bad situation, as large contributions are hard to find, even when the economy (and wealthy donors) are doing well. The big donors are much harder to find these days. Work on the Yorktown is proceeding, slowly and there remains the danger of the money running out and the World War II carrier being scrapped. Because the Yorktown work is less extensive than for Intrepid, less than half the money that it cost to fix Intrepid is needed and it is being found as the repairs proceed.
Another popular option is to use old ships for target practice. For example, most of the 30 decommissioned Spruance class destroyers were used for target practice. Some old warships are sunk closer to the shore, to provide reefs for fish and scuba divers. Running a SINKEX (sinking exercise) enables the navy to test some theories on how vulnerable, or invulnerable, modern warships are. But environmentalists oppose these two methods as well because it puts toxic materials into the ocean.
Going to the breakers is now seen as viable because of more efficient breaking techniques and higher prices for recycled metals. For the moment anyway. This was the fate of over 100,000 Cold War surplus Russian tanks and warplanes. This went slowly in Russia and there are still vast numbers of tanks and aircraft rusting way at abandoned military bases and airfields. Western nations were more efficient with their smaller number of armored vehicles and warplanes that were scrapped and there are few instances of old vehicles simply abandoned somewhere.
For the growing number of collectors, these abandoned or “designated for recycling” military vehicles are an affordable source of prime collectibles, especially if you can afford the cost of restoration.