So you want to Buy an F-104 Starfighter?

Want to buy an F-104 Starfighter? They come up for sale every so often and for surprisingly reasonable prices. You can read the history of the F-104 here, but the BLUF is that the F-104 Starfighter was once the pre-eminent air superiority fighter of the Western world. Affectionately called the “missile with a man in it,” the F-104 set numerous altitude and speed records upon its arrival and held the unofficial altitude record of 120,800 feet until bested by a highly modified Mig-25. The F-104 Starfighter had perhaps its most prominent moment in the movie, “The Right Stuff” as actor Sam Shepard, portraying pilot Chuck Yeager, uses a Starfighter to climb almost to the edge of space in an attempt to set a new altitude record. While flying around in a retired F-104 Starfighter would be awesome, there are some things you should know if you see one for sale.

An early U.S. Air Force F-104A Starfighter as it would have been delivered from the factory. These early Starfighters crushed almost every standing speed and altitude record then in existence and played an important part in advancing U.S. fighter design. Although quickly passed out of service by the U.S. Air Force, the Starfighter served with other countries into the 21st century and was an important test platform for NASA for decades. NASA Photo.

A quick look on Controller.com shows a former Jordanian Air Force F-104 Starfighter for sale as a fixer upper at $85,900.00. The three important aspects of this particular aircraft are that it is mostly intact, has already been imported into the United States and has been registered with the FAA. That would take care of most of the grunt work for a buyer as getting a retired warbird into the country can be a difficult undertaking. The fact that it has its original engine and wing tanks make it a particularly good candidate for restoration to flying status. It’s not listed whether this particular aircraft was sent or not, but a number of Jordanian F-104’s flew combat missions in support of Pakistan during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War.

The advantage of restoring an F-104 Starfighter is the availability of parts. The F-104 remained a front line fighter with the Italian Air Force until 2004, with the Turkish Air Force until the late 90’s and satellite imagery as of 2017 shows the Greek Air Force still has almost all of it’s F-104’s that were photographed in 2011 still held in ready reserve. Some of the Italian F-104’s have been sold to private vendors who are selling the aircraft whole or for parts for other aircraft. That said, the sources for parts are limited and it is a sellers’ market. Restoring an F-104 Starfighter to flying status would be prohibitively expensive for most middle-class Americans as even a good air frame could run upwards of $500,000 to update. If you had the money and the interest though, there are numerous companies that could restore your project F-104 back to flying status. Given the plentiful supply of working age F-104 technicians and mechanics all over the world, it might also be possible find private individuals willing to work for you and reduce your costs.

An Italian F-104S Starfighter and a Turkish TF-104G Starfighter two seat aircraft make up the left and right edges of this diamond formation respectively with an Italian Tornado leading and an A-7 Corsair trailing. This image highlights size difference between the “G” model and single seat models. National Archives Photo 6462829 

The real problem with having an F-104 is going to be fuel and maintenance. In 1960’s dollars, the F-104 had an average flying cost per an hour of $695.00 for fuel and a maintenance cost per an hour of $395.00. Fast forward to the modern times and those numbers significantly increase. Internal fuel and wingtip tanks carry roughly 8,000 pounds of JP-4 fuel. At a weight of 6.84 pounds per a gallon that roughly equals 1170 gallons of JP-4 fuel at a 2017 cost of $3.99 per a gallon at Washington Dulles International Airport. That means you’d be paying $4,668.30 per a flight just for fuel. Dependent upon how hot you’re flying the plane, you could potentially burn through that fuel in less than 30 minutes. If you had an upgraded F-104, like the Italian S model, then your F-104 would require military grade JP-8 fuel. Jet A1, the civilian equivalent of JP-8 military fuel was quoted at $8.43 a gallon at the time of this article.

This could be you behind the stick of your very own F-104 Starfighter. As the Starfighter was purchased outright by most of the countries that operated it, most of the air frames are free of any Department of Defense encumbrances. National Archives Photo 6366735

In military service, the F-104 required 40 hours of maintenance per a flight hour. That should still be a reasonable expectation of how much maintenance a restored F-104 Starfighter will require. While mechanics and technicians are plentiful, they still command premium pay and $100.00 an hour for an experienced mechanic at a reputable maintenance shop is not unreasonable. With parts and the above fuel costs, you could easily expect it to cost north of $10,000.00 a flight hour to hotrod around in your F-104 Starfighter. This is still a bargain though, the A-10 Thunderbird II (Warthog) is the U.S. Air Force’s least expensive current fighter to fly at roughly $11,500.00 a flight hour. If you have the money to seriously consider this though, the above numbers shouldn’t be reason for pause. Besides, your neighbor might have a 1959 Corvette in their garage, but they probably don’t have a combat veteran 1959 Lockheed F-104 Starfighter sitting in their hangar. For the rest of us though, the Powerball is drawn every Wednesday and Saturday night. Tickets can be purchased at your local lottery retailer.

American M3 Grant and Lee Tanks at Kursk

The American M3 Grant or Lee medium-tank was hopelessly obsolete by 1943 but that didn’t stop it from participating in the largest tank-on-tank engagement in history, the Battle of Kursk in Russia. You can read the history of the battle here, but the BLUF is that lend-lease M3 Grant tanks equipped several Russian units by mid-1943. Even though they were a generation behind the prominent tanks on the battlefield, notably the Russian T-34 and the German Panther, they were pressed into service by the Soviets to bridge the gap until T-34 production cold replace them. During Kursk, M3 Grants faced off against veteran Nazi SS units. As one would expect, losses were high, the average Russian solider hated it, but despite its faults, the M3 Grant gave decent service on one of the harshest battlefields ever seen.

This highly stylized image of an M3 Grant/Lee Medium tank is what most American’s saw of the tank in 1941, publicity photos. The M3 was a compromise of competing theories on what a tank should be and what it should do. In the end, it gave good service to the United States and its allies, even if it wasn’t the tank that any of them wanted. U.S. Archives Photo 196276

The M3 Grant/Lee tank was a stop gap. An easy to produce tank that was meant equip American armored forces until the arrival of the M4 Sherman tank. It came in two variants, the Lee, named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, was the one that equipped U.S. Armored forces for the early part of the war. The Grant variant named after Union General Ulysses S. Grant was built to British specifications and had a larger dome turret on top of the tank among other small changes. Upon its arrival in North Africa, the M3 was a match for most of the early German Panzers. As up gunned Panzer IV’s and tank destroyers like the Marder arrived, M3 losses started to mount and the tank was pulled from service as the M4 Sherman was arriving.

M3 Grant/Lee Tanks being produced at the Chrysler tank factory. It was production lines like this that allowed the United States to produce large quantities of tanks for its allies under the Lend Lease program. Image from www.worldwarphotos.info

Even though the M3 was obsolete, there was still a functioning production line for the tank. Russia was in desperate need of tanks while it ramped up production of its own T-34. 1386 M3’s, predominately Grant variants, were produced for Russia to help them bridge the gap until their own production capacity increased to meet demand. In what is a testament to the ferocity of the battle of the Atlantic, only 976 of these tanks made it to Russia through Murmansk. The rest were lost to U-boats and prowling aircraft that interdicted the transport ships while they were at sea. The initial Russian reaction to the M3 was lackluster. The hull was riveted and the main gun was side mounted in the fashion of World War I tanks severely restricting the arc of fire. The M3 also required a large crew of six people. This spread the work load to operate the tank, but if the vehicle was hit or worse on fire that was two additional bodies that had to get out through limited hatches.

An M3 Grant medium Tank is loaded aboard a cargo ship in 1942. Many of these tanks would go to the bottom of the Atlantic ocean when their cargo ships were sunk en route to Europe. Photo from www.worldwarphotos.info

With the need for tanks, the M3 went into service immediately and saw significant service around Stalingrad during the Russian winter offensive that trapped the German 6th Army. The M3’s operated together as homogeneous units and often in the company of M3 Stuart light tanks. Their service during this time was respectable as the majority of the German tanks it encountered were early model Panzer III’s armed with 50mm guns. In one-on-one combat with a Panzer III or early model Panzer IV, the M3 was more than a match. In combat with German tank destroyers or the feared Tiger tank though, it would almost always lose. What’s important to remember is that the life expectancy of tanks during this time was short regardless of what type of vehicle it was. The Russians never tried to retrofit their tanks with upgrades as they understood the tank would likely be destroyed before they could pull it off the battle line to make changes.

M3 Grant/Lee Tanks in service with the Soviet Union. Loathed by Russian tank crews, the M3 was nonetheless praised for its reliability on the Russian front. Image originally from www.theshermantank.com

By July of 1943, the M3 Grant was in service with multiple units that had been staged to counter what the Nazi’s called Operation Citadel to cut off the Kursk Salient. In the six months since the Russian Winter Offensive started, the entire nature of armored warfare had changed. The German’s still fielded some Panzer III’s but their armored forces were being reconfigured with up gunned Panzer IV’s, the Tiger I was fielded in force, the Elefant tank destroyer had arrived and the Panther tank, arguably the best tank of the war, had arrived in mass. The 50mm main gun of the earlier German tanks had been replaced by high velocity 88mm and 75mm guns that could kill any tank on the battlefield. The Battle of Kursk was more than just a battle. It was a campaign that lasted for weeks and one that would usher in the modern era of armored warfare.

Two knocked out M3 Grants in Soviet service. Despite their damage, these tanks would have been quickly recovered by either the Soviets or the Germans and put back into service. Photo originally from www.theshermantank.com

The M3 probably saw extensive service at Kursk but there is only one known engagement that is documented. On July 5, 1943, M3 Grants of the 230th Separate Tank Regiment engaged elements of the II SS Panzer Corp. Nazi SS units during the war received better rations and material support than the regular Wehrmacht and the II SS panzer Corp was no exception. It had been built with SS veterans and was a hard fighting unit equipped with the best that Germany had to offer. The II SS Panzer Corps spearheaded the 4th Panzer Army’s attack on the Kursk Salient and the 230th Separate Tank Regiment was directly in its path. 32 M3 Grants and 7 M3 Stuart light tanks went into action to stop the II SS Panzer Corps. It is likely that all were destroyed. This isn’t a reflection of the M3’s performance as the 52nd Guards Rifle Division that the 230th Separate Tank Regiment was attached to at the time was almost entirely over run and destroyed in the opening of the battle.

A knocked out Soviet M3 tank at Kursk. The Soviets built layers of defenses at Kursk designed to blunt the German offensive. They held their best units in reserve for a counter attack. The M3 by 1943 was not particularly useful on the Eastern Front. It was for this reason that many of these tanks found themselves with units stationed as part of the force to blunt the German attack. Losses were heavy and on the wide open plains of Kursk, where super predators like the Tiger I and Elefant tank destroyer reigned supreme, the M3 could not be expected to achieve much. This picture originally came from a book, but was located on www.armchairgeneral.com

After Kursk, the M3 Grant was moved away from the front to other sectors where tanks were still useful but wouldn’t see the type of hyper warfare that was becoming common. In that capacity, the M3 Grant remained in Soviet service until the end of the war. While the M3 Grant may not have been the tank that the Russians wanted, it did exactly what it was designed to do. It bridged the gap until the T-34 could arrive in bulk and assume the fight.

Good enough for everyone! Captured Russian M3 Grants in service with the Nazi Wehrmacht. German units were known to press any working armored vehicle into service and many M3’s were impressed. Photo originally from www.worldwarphotos.info

Nuke the Prinz Eugen!

In July 1946, the United States of America detonated two nuclear weapons on the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen as part of Operation Crossroads. You can read the history of Operation Crossroads here, but the BLUF is that the Prinz Eugen was awarded to the United States at the end of World War II as war reparations. The Prinz Eugen was the last of the Kreigsmarine’s ultra-modern heavy cruisers and represented the pinnacle of German naval engineering. The truth of the matter was that the United States didn’t really want the Prinz Eugen, but the ship was a liability and security risk that needed to be disposed of quickly. The solution, nuke it.

The ex-German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen sitting at anchor in Bikini Atoll.

The ex-German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen sitting at anchor in Bikini Atoll. National Archives Photo 6234453

In the naval history of World War II, few ships are as storied as the Prinz Eugen. Commissioned as a Hipper-class heavy cruiser soon after the start of the war, the Prinz Eugen’s first combat operation was to accompany the ill-fated battleship Bismarck into the North Sea in 1941. The Battle of the Denmark Straight is well documented and Prinz Eugen acquitted itself well. The heavy cruiser spent most of the war sitting on the coast of France as a deterrence to Allied invasion before accompanying the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in what became known as the Channel Dash. By May of 1945, Prinz Eugen was the last major ship of the Kreigsmarine still afloat and carried out combat operations against Soviet forces until the final days. Upon the surrender of Nazi Germany, her crew sailed the ship to Denmark for internment in a neutral country.

What to do with the surviving warships of Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan became a major post war issue for the victorious allied powers. The issue was settled at the Potsdam Conference where the Allied nations agreed to establish the Tripartite Naval Commission to oversee a fair sharing of captured vessels. The foreign ships were worthless to the United States and Great Britain who had large and capable fleets. To the surging Soviet Union though, the opportunity presented by these ownerless warships was the chance to become a first rate naval power overnight. The Soviet Union had already captured the unfinished German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin and large numbers of highly advanced U-boats. Soviet engineers crawled all over these ships and the more they learned, the more they wanted. It didn’t take long before Comrade Stalin made demands for major warships that were in the possession of the United States and Great Britain.

The unfinished German Aircraft Carrier Gra Zeppelin under Soviet control in September of 1945.

The unfinished German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin under Soviet control in September of 1945. At the stern and bow of the ship, the flight deck has been blown upward and off the hull from demolition charges placed by her crew. Soviet forces quickly salvaged the ship but they were prohibited from keeping the vessel by the Potsdam Conference as the damage was considered too extensive. The Graf Zeppelin would have been a major asset for the Soviet Navy if they had been able to incorporate it. The aircraft carrier was 95% complete when Adolf Hitler ordered construction stopped. If it had been equipped with a proper air wing and support vessels, the carrier would have rivaled the American Essex-class carriers in capability. Instead, the Soviet navy filled the ship full of explosives, towed it out to sea and expended it as a target. It would be another two decades before the Soviet Union built an aircraft carrier. Navy History and Heritage Command Photo 78310    

The United States and Great Britain had spent most of World War II doing their best to keep advanced naval technology out of the hands of the Soviet Union. As part of the lend lease program, both countries were required to supply the Soviet Union with naval vessels. The ships that were sent were predominately World War I ear vessels. Notably the United States lent the Soviet Union the Omaha-class light cruiser Milwaukee and Great Britain sent the Revenge-class battleship Royal Sovereign. These vessels were commissioned into the Soviet Navy as the Murmansk and Arkhangelsk respectively. Both were old, worn out and thought of limited value. Despite their short comings, the Soviet navy used the vessels to tie down a significant amount of German forces.

The real warning came on August 18, 1945 when the Soviet Union invaded the Kuril Islands off of Japan. The invasion came as a surprise to the United States who inadvertently made the invasion possible. The United States was desperate for the Soviet Union to enter the war against Japan. Stalin agreed but as part of the deal, he demanded 180 vessels from the United States. In what became known as Project Hula, the United States turned over 180 frigates, minesweepers and transport vessels to the Soviet Union and trained 15000 Soviet naval personnel in Alaska to man them. It was thought that the ships, which were again, mostly warn out old vessels, would be of little use to the Soviet Union. Soon the United States was fearing that the Soviets might invade mainland Japan before they could get there.

The Soviet Union had hoped to keep a large number of German vessels but the United States had worked a trump card into the negotiating for the Tripartite Naval Commission. Any ships that couldn’t be repaired in a short period of time, had to scrapped. The Soviet Union had limited dry dock and shipyard facilities to make extensive repairs to vessels and they found themselves being forced to scrap prized vessels that they had hoped to incorporate into their own navy in accordance with the Potsdam Conference. The United States and Great Britain took advantage of this clause and declared most of the vessels in their possession as extensively damaged and scrapped them. The problem though was that everyone knew that Prinz Eugen was undamaged as her arrival in Denmark was well documented by the media.  The United States didn’t want the Prinz Eugen but the ship was equipped with radar and sonar systems that were a full generation ahead of anything the Soviet Union possessed. The United States took possession of the Prinz Eugen and for a short time she carried the moniker “USS Prinz Eugen” as  she was sailed to the U.S. East Coast where she was evaluated before transiting the Panama Canal. While the Prinz Eugen was officially U.S. government property, under the terms of the Potsdam Conference, the U.S. Navy was supposed to make the ship available to Soviet intelligence experts upon request. The easiest way to prevent that was to keep the ship unavailable for them to analyze.

Prinz Eugen transiting the Panama Canal

The USS Prinz Eugen transiting the Panama Canal in 1946 on her way to the Pacific Coast. Her forward most 8-inch turret has been stripped of its guns which were kept for evaluation on the East coast. The last of her German crew was removed at this point and she proceeded to Bikini Atoll with an American only crew that had trained with their German counterparts. Prinz Eugen was plagued by engine trouble and spent much of this time being towed to where she needed to go. Naval History and Heritage Command Photo 80-G-365071

After the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one of the great unanswered questions was how a nuclear blast would affect a ship at sea. The U.S. Navy took up that challenge in 1946 and began prepping for Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. An entire fleet of 95 ships was assembled at Bikini Atoll that consisted of surplus U.S. ships as well as captured warships. Prinz Eugen was anchored in the harbor in good company. Nearby was the Japanese battleship Nagato, from whose bridge Admiral Yamamoto had directed the Pearl Harbor attack. Next to the Nagato was the Japanese super cruiser Sakawa that had been completed shortly before the end of the war but had never sortied due to lack of fuel. In addition to this was battle hardened aircraft carrier USS Saratoga and Pearl Harbor survivors USS Nevada and USS Pennsylvania, the battleship USS Arizona’s sister ship.

Soviet actions in early 1946 sealed the fate of the Prinz Eugen and other captured warships. The former German light cruiser Nurnberg and the Italian battleship Guilio Cesar had been awarded to the Soviet Navy as war reparations and they promptly commissioned both into service. Soviet naval engineers were reverse engineering advanced German U-boats and creating the design that would become the Whiskey-class submarines (of note, some Whiskey-class subs are still in service with North Korea to this day, almost 70 years after being built!). Allowing the Soviets access to the Prinz Eugen would give them a ship that was still better than anything they had in service or planned for development. On July 1, 1946, Test Able was conducted and Prinz Eugen was nuked.

The Italian battleship Guilio

The Italian battleship Guilio Cesare was a truly remarkable ship. It had originally been built as a dreadnought type battleship before World War I. The Washington Naval Treaty and the subsequent London Naval Treaty placed a prohibition on building new battleships but did not prohibit modernizing existing battleships. In the 1930’s the Italian navy cut the Guilio Cesare in half and significantly lengthened the hull. In this extra space they put all new machinery and in effect turned Guilio Cesare into a fast-battleship. During World War II her career was a roll call of essentially every battle in the Mediterranean Sea. Interned at Malta after Italy surrendered, the ship was turned over to the Soviet Union as a war reparation. The Soviet Union commissioned the battleship as the Novorossiysk in its own Navy and it served as flagship of the Soviet fleet until it strayed into a minefield in 1955 and sank with a large loss of life. It was the Soviet’s success in incorporating foreign warships like the Italian Guilio Cesare and German light cruiser Nurnberg into their navy that strongly influenced the United States and Great Britain to immediately scrap or sink all the foreign warships in their control so the Soviets couldn’t demand them as tribute. Naval History and Heritage Command Photo 111420 

There were several important lessons learned from Operation Crossroads. Probably the two most important was that a ship with its stern to a nuclear blast will usually receive very little damage. Prinz Eugen made it through two tests at Bikini Atoll and the only damage was a broken main mast. To this day it remains standard Navy operating procedure to turn a ship away from a blast in the event of nuclear attack. The second important lesson learned is that while a ship may get very little damage, it can become so contaminated with radiation that the entire crew could be killed within two days of the blast. This was one of the realizations that led to the development of nuclear, biological and chemical filters for ships ventilation systems.

The Able test conducted

The Able test conducted on July 1, 1946 was an aerial drop. A 23-kiloton plutonium device similar but much more powerful than the device dropped on Nagasaki was used. The Prinz Eugen survived this detonation with minimal damage. National Archives Photo 6217458

It was expected that soon after the blast salvage crews would board and take control of Prinz Eugen for a journey back to the United States. A salvage crew was put on board and promptly removed after efforts to scrub the ship clean failed. Nothing could remove the nuclear contamination that the Prinz Eugen had been exposed to. Prinz Eugen was towed to Kwajalein Atoll and anchored there pending a determination of what to do. (Interestingly, there is a 121 minute film of the Prinz Eugen being towed to Kawajalein that was shot by the U.S. Navy. This remains on film and has not yet been digitized, National Archives Identifier 81224 ).  In the end, lack of maintenance determined Prinz Eugen’s fate. On December 22, 1946, the ship that had dueled with British battleships and had battled Soviet forces to the last days of the war, capsized and sank from a minor water leak. The ship was to irradiated to try to save and the only effort made when it was clear she was sinking was to try to pull the ship ashore, that too failed. Prinz Eugen settled into the sea bed and with that, any chance of the Soviets getting their hands on her vanished.

The Baker test conducted on July

The Baker test conducted on July 26, 1946 was an underwater detonation. The Prinz Eugen is among the ships anchored around the plume and survived this second blast with minimal damage. One theory as to why Prinz Eugen eventually sank is that this blast may have caused micro-fractures in the hull that allowed sea water to slowly creep into the cruiser. Regardless, the ships was so radioactively hot that no one was willing to go on board to find out. National Archives Photo 6234446

In the end, Prinz Eugen served a noble purpose for science and that may be her greatest contribution to the world. The wreck today is still radioactively hot but the levels are low enough that you can safely dive on the wreck. The once feared cruiser is now an artificial reef and is slowly being claimed by marine growth. Two of her propellers still sit above the waterline as the third was salvaged for a memorial back in Germany. If you’re ever in the Marshal Islands, the wreck of the Prinz Eugen is accessible to everyone from snorkelers to advanced divers. A dive on the wreck will give you a better view of the ship then the Soviets ever got. That is unless the U.S. Military is testing a ballistic missile and the entire atoll is closed. Calling ahead is advised.

Salvaging a Crashed C-5 Galaxy

A Lockheed Martin C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft crashed at Dover Air Force Base on April 3, 2006 and required extensive salvage work to clear the wreck. You can read the story here, but the BLUF is that there was a problem with the number 2 engine on the C-5 Galaxy and the crew accidentally shut down the number 3 engine, leaving the transport flying on two engines. The U.S. Air Force investigation showed the crew then applied excess flaps on approach to the runway and caused the C-5 to lose lift, stall, and crash. The end result was a complete air frame loss but luckily none of the 17 crew and passengers on board was killed. In the aftermath of the crash, the U.S. Air Force was left with the hulk of one the largest aircraft in the world that had to be demolished and recovered.

Rescue Personnel walk away from a crashed C-5B Galaxy at Dover Air Force Base. U.S. Air Force Photo

The C-5 Galaxy is a big plane. It’s not the largest in the world but the C-5 is the largest aircraft currently operated by the United States of America and has provided excellent service since the Vietnam War. The C-5 Galaxy that crashed at Dover Air Force Base was a “B” model. The C-5B was a heavily upgraded version of the original C-5 and 50 were produced in the late 1980’s. The modifications gave the C-5 stronger and more efficient engines that allowed the C-5B to carry more cargo and go further distances. The C-5B is still the mainstay of the C-5 fleet but there is an ambitious upgrade program to refit the entire C-5 fleet to the “M” standard which will see the C-5 become an ultramodern aircraft that can carry cargo directly from the United States to the Middle East without stopping.

Soon after the C-5B crashed at Dover Air Force Base, rescue personnel were on scene and put out a fire but there was no question that the entire C-5 was a loss. The nose and tail had both separated from the body and there was extensive structural damage. The U.S. Air Force began a process of reclamation and demilitarization of the aircraft. Any parts that could be used to service other C-5 Galaxy’s was stripped from the frame and cataloged. Parts that were unserviceable and what was left of the body were broken down with heavy equipment and transported to DRMO facilities for processing and recycling. In the end, the entire air frame was removed.

U.S. Air Force personnel begin the process of evaluating the C-5 Galaxy for reclamation and demolition. The C-5B Galaxy was carrying 17 passengers and 110,000 pounds of cargo bound for Germany before it crashed. The combined weight and impact caused fatal structural damage to the aircraft that could not be repaired. U.S. Air Force Photo

One of the more interesting aspects of recovering the Dover C-5B Galaxy was its command deck. The broken off C-5 nose remained intact after the crash and the command deck was in pristine shape. U.S. Air Force Personnel stripped the command deck from the nose section and loaded it into another C-5 Galaxy. The command deck was transported to Macon-Robbins Air Force Base in Georgia where it was converted into a highly realistic and sophisticated simulation and training module for C-5 Galaxy pilots. This simulator is still in use today and will be for the foreseeable future as the C-5 Galaxy is now projected to remain in service through 2040.

The salvaged command deck of the crashed Dover C-5 Galaxy is loaded into another C-5 Galaxy for transport to Georgia. U.S. Air Force Photo

Salvaging a Crashed F-14 Tomcat

An F-14D Tomcat from the USS John C. Stennis was salvaged on May 7-8, 2004 after crashing off the coast of Point Loma, California. You can read the details of the crash here, but the BLUF is that the aircraft suffered a mechanical malfunction and attempted to divert to Naval Station North Island but failed to make land. The crew successfully bailed out and was treated at a local hospital before being released back to their unit. The U.S. Navy’s deep submergence unit was tasked with recovering the crashed F-14D Tomcat.

On May 8, 2004, the U.S. Navy’s Deep Submergence Unit salvaged the fuselage section of a crashed F-14D Tomcat from the Pacific Ocean off California. The air frame came up in several pieces but the bulk of the aircraft was recovered. U.S. Navy Photo

When a military aircraft crashes, it will be recovered if it can be recovered. Land based crashes are more common and easier to recover as personnel can walk the scene and sweep the area for parts. This was exemplified in 2007 when a U.S. Navy Blue Angles’ pilot lost orientation and was killed during an air show at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina. The Department of Defense was tasked with recovering what remained of the F-18 Hornet which broke up over a residential neighborhood and destroyed several homes. Over a period of several weeks, the bulk of the air frame was recovered and removed.

Most water crashes occur with U.S. Navy aircraft and usually one of three options are exercised when an aircraft is lost at sea. Option one is to salvage the aircraft, two is to destroy the aircraft, or if both those fail, three is to abandon the aircraft in place. Abandoning an aircraft is a measure of last resort and usually only reserved for when the aircraft is lost in extremely deep water. If the aircraft is carrying classified or sensitive equipment or information, the Navy will attempt to destroy an aircraft in situ to prevent any release of that information. There is precedent of the Navy going to great lengths to destroy lost aircraft all the way back to the 1950’s when explosives were used to demolish a lost B-36 Peacemaker bomber off the coast of California. The Department of Defense is always fearful of a foreign entity gaining access to a lost aircraft though and will salvage the aircraft if it can.

The U.S. Navy’s Super Scorpio remote operated vehicle. U.S. Navy photo

A deep sea recovery is difficult and expensive, but the U.S. Navy can operate at extreme depths with the Deep Submergence Unit. The Deep Submergence Unit’s primary mission is submarine rescue operations but with a lack of lost submarines, the Deep Submergence Unit maintains its proficiency by carrying out deep water operations such as salvaging lost naval aircraft. By May 2008, the Deep Submergence Unit was off the coast of California and deployed their Super Scorpio remote operable vehicle (ROV) on the F-14d tomcat wreck site. The ROV was used to attach recovery cables to the largest portions of the F-14 and it was pulled up in multiple pieces. While the F-14 Tomcat could not be restored to flying status, the salvage removed the possibility that elements of the air frame could be evaluated or recovered by a foreign entity.

The recovered tail section of the lost F-14D Tomcat sitting on the deck of the salvage ship. U.S. Navy Photo

Reforger Redux, Military Exercises in Europe

U.S. M1A2 Abrams tanks return to Germany for joint military exercises for the first time in decades. U.S. Army Photo

In what maybe a sign of the times, Defense Secretary Ash Carter has called upon the member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to boost military exercises in Europe. You can read the article here, but the BLUF is that Russia’s continued aggression and increased military spending has Western leaning Baltic countries worried. Secretary Carter proposed that in addition to increasing defense spending in Europe, large scale NATO military exercises should return. During the Cold War era, large scale military exercises were conducted on an annual basis but were ceased due to costs and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now with a resurgent and aggressive Russia, NATO may see the return of a defensive strategy against Russia that was developed almost 70 years ago during World War II.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter being introduced to regional leaders by Commander U.S. Forces General Breedlove during a meeting of NATO in Germany. It was during this meeting that Secretary Carter called for the renewal of military exercises in Europe. DoD Photo.

NATO’s cold war defensive strategy against Russia came from Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein, a Nazi who commanded various units and armies of the German Wehrmacht during World War II. It was Manstein who defied Hitler’s orders to stand firm after the Nazi Wehrmacht suffered its disastrous defeat at Stalingrad and began a fighting retreat. Russian General Georgy Zhukov believed the German Wehrmacht to be broken and kept pressure on Manstein’s forces, eventually retaking the strategic city of Kharkov. The Russians celebrated, not realizing that Von Manstein had been leading them into a trap. While falling back, Von Manstein had been rebuilding and resupplying his army. It was at that moment that Mansfield turned his army and launched a sharp counter offensive that destroyed three Russian armies and routed three more. By the end of March 1943, Manstein recaptured most of the territory that had been lost after the fall of Stalingrad and handed General Zhukov what may have been his greatest defeat. The tactic became known as a mobile defense and involved periods of fighting withdraw followed violent counter attacks into the enemies weak points. The strategy is still studied by military officers to this day.

German Tiger 1 tanks advance on the Eastern Front. By pioneering a new form of mobile defense that combined a fighting retreat with sharp counter offensives to blunt the Russian’s numerically superiority, Von Manstein was able to recapture most of the territory lost by the Wehrmacht after its defeat at Stalingrad. German Federal Archives, Photo via Wikipedia.

After the war, Field Marshal Erich Van Manstein was rightly tried for war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials and sentenced to 18-years in prison for murders carried out by his troops against civilians. His actual sentence would end up lasting four years as the world changed during that time. The newly formed North Atlantic Treaty Organization was looking across the border at thousands of Soviet tanks that were projected to reach the English Channel in only a matter of days if war broke out. Von Manstein may have been a Nazi war criminal, but nobody was better at fighting Russia and NATO hired him as an adviser. His mobile defense became the bulwark of NATO’s defensive strategy and large scale military exercises were developed that utilized Von Manstein’s mobile defense strategy. NATO member nations drilled their troops in the methodology of a fluid defense that allowed their numerically inferior troops to fall back and then rapidly counterattack to hit Soviet forces where they were weak. By the 1960’s this principle would be refined into what became the annual military exercise called Reforger.

Elements of a U.S. Armored Division is unloaded at a port in Europe to participate in Exercise Reforger 1990. National Archives Photo

Elements of a U.S. Armored Division are unloaded in Germany to participate in Exercise Reforger 1990. National Archives Photo

Exercise Reforger standing for “Return of Forces to Germany” was the realization that the United States couldn’t afford to keep a large standing Army in Europe with its commitments in Vietnam and other global hot spots. Instead, NATO forces would focus on delaying any Russian advance with Manstein’s mobile defense while the United States rapidly deployed its forces across the Atlantic to form the nucleus of a counter offensive. From 1969-1993, at least one division of actual fighting troops were rapidly deployed on an annual basis from the United States to Europe in what was a practice for a very possible war. The Soviet Union was concerned enough with the effectiveness of the strategy that it began a very costly submarine building program in the 1970’s to prevent American reinforcements from reaching Europe.

M1 Abrams main battle tanks move along a road with turrets trained, preparing to fire off of their left flank during Exercise Reforger '85.

M1 Abrams main battle tanks move along a road with turrets trained, preparing to fire off of their left flank during Exercise Reforger ’85. National Archives Photo and Caption

Exercise Reforger was discontinued in 1993 after the Soviet military disbanded. The presence of U.S. forces was reduced to a shadow of what it once was and many European countries all but shut down their armed forces, resting safe with the knowledge that the United States would come to their aide if there were ever a problem again. By the end of first decade of the 21st century, many European countries were lulled into a false sense of security. Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia should have been Europe’s wake-up call but it wouldn’t be until the 2014 Russian Invasion of the Ukraine that Europe would be shaken to its core. The Ukraine had been in the process of becoming a member of the European Union. Now half of its territory, notably its industrial sector, is under Russian control.

The United States, the United Nations, and the European Union all pressed economic sanctions against Russia. Despite that, Russia’s 2015 defense spending ballooned to $84.5 billion, a 97% increase over 2014 and is expected to increase again next year. While that is still well below defense spending in the United States, it is well above any other country in NATO and Russia’s spending is all directed on one front. In terms of proportion, Russia’s military spending in Europe dwarfs that of the United States which is focusing the bulk of its defense dollars in the Middle East. Russia has rolled out new designs for tanks, APC’s, artillery platforms, aircraft, and infantry arms but also maintains a massive stockpile of cold war era weaponry that could be modernized and made combat effective for little money.

With the both Ukraine and Georgia mostly occupied, the nations that will bear the brunt of any future Russian aggression are Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Only Poland has a military of any note. The three smaller Baltic countries still rely upon Soviet era hardware and conscripted troops (Latvia now has a small professional army, but would be dependent upon conscripts in the event of any war). Not one has a defense industry to manufacture weapons and has traditionally relied upon the Ukraine for support. With Ukraine’s defense industry now in Russian control, the west is the only source of weapons and munitions for their defense.

U.S. Armored Personnel Carriers cross the border from Estonia into Latvia during Operation Dragoon Ride, a military exercise to show U.S. Support for the Baltic NATO members in March 2015. U.S Army Photo

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have been members of NATO since 2004 and the United States and every other member of NATO is treaty bound to help them in the event of a conflict with Russia. It is with this realization that NATO is starting to hold some military exercises in the Balitic states, but nothing on the scale of a Reforger type exercise. While it is expensive, NATO is working to reorganize the armed forces of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to become more mobile, and use combined arms tactics to make their fighting forces more self-sufficient. The hope is that these capabilities would enable the Baltic countries to practice a mobile defense and buy time for NATO forces from Germany, France and the United States to be brought forward and help. This was exemplified on a small scale when the United States sent a small armored column through all three countries in 2015 to show its support. While a token force may not have made much impact, the effect would be bolstered by a division size element or larger that actually operated with local forces in realistic combat training on an annual basis.

Mechanized infantry dismounts as part of military exercises in Germany. U.S. Army Photo

At the conclusion of his visit with NATO, Secretary Carter said that no decisions had been made regarding how to counter the Russian aggression seen in the Ukraine. While military exercises may not seem like much, they’re expensive and usually require some type of answer on the same level of significance from your adversary. Planting a large contingent of NATO troops on Russia’s Baltic border would require an equal response from Russia and take pressure off the Ukrainian front as Russia diverts troops. Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein was the only man that General Zhukov considered a worthy opponent. It also happens that Von Manstein and the early NATO planner’s strategy for countering and containing Soviet aggression worked for the better part of four decades.  It would be interesting to see how Vladimir Putin would react to some large scale Reforger style exercises.

Improvised and Expendable, the Independence-Class Light Carriers

Discovery of the sunken wreck of the World War II light carrier, USS Independence (CV-22), off the coast of California has sparked a fair amount of excitement. You can read the details here, but the BLUF is that the USS Independence was scuttled off the coast of California after being used as a target for a nuclear weapons blast during Operation Crossroads in 1946. The survey was a joint venture by NOAA and Boeing to map shipwrecks located within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The USS Independence was the lead ship and namesake of the Independence-class light carriers, a rushed but effective class of aircraft carriers built for the U.S. Navy in the early days of the war.  These ships provided invaluable service during World War II but were obsolete by 1945.

NOAA and Boeing teamed to test a new sonar system called "Echo Ranger" to survey the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The resulting imagery of the wreck of the USS. Independence has revealed the wreck in detail. NOAA and Boeing photo

NOAA and Boeing teamed to test a new sonar system called “Echo Ranger” to survey the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The resulting imagery of the wreck of the USS Independence CV-22 has revealed the wreck in detail. NOAA and Boeing photo

As war loomed in early 1941, the U.S. Navy looked for a quick way to acquire aircraft carriers. 52 ships of the Cleveland-class light cruisers had been planned and many of them were already under construction. The U.S. Navy ordered that 9 of the cruiser hulls be converted into light carriers by adding a flight deck over a hanger with a small island. Blisters were added to the hull to compensate for the top weight but the cruiser hulls remained fast with a top speed of almost 32 knots and could keep up with the fleet carriers. The small size of the Independence-class ships meant they could only carry 30 aircraft but when the USS Independence was delivered for service in January 1943, the U.S. Navy had been reduced to only two fleet carriers left in the pacific theater, the overworked USS Enterprise CV-6 that was due for an extensive overhaul and the aging USS Saratoga CV-3.

The Independence-class ships arrived during a critical time in the Pacific war and were immediately put to work. The USS Independence was paired with the newly arrived Essex-class carriers USS Essex and USS Yorktown and for much of 1943 conducted hit and run raids to deplete Japanese airpower throughout the pacific. The second ship of the class, USS Princeton arrived in February 1943 and was paired with the elderly USS Saratoga to carry out a devastating raid on Rabaul Harbor that neutralized the threat of a Japanese heavy cruiser squadron. All nine ships were delivered to the U.S. Navy before the end of 1943 compared to only two Essex-class carriers. The 270 aircraft that these small carriers could field between them saw the U.S. Navy through to 1944 when the Essex-class carriers arrived in bulk.

USS Princeton underway and preparing for combat operations in May 1943. U.S. Navy Photo

During 1944, the air war in the Pacific intensified and the Independence-class carriers switched from a strike role to a support role as they were equipped predominately with fighters and a small amount of torpedo bombers. The USS Princeton became the only casualty of the class after being hit by a single Japanese bomb. The damage was minor but the bomb sparked a fire that burned out of control. This revealed a fatal flaw of the class in that unlike the Essex-class carriers, the Independence-class carriers lacked the internal protection for munitions and fuel that was essential for survival in a combat zone. The trade off for a fast conversion was that the Independence-class had almost no armor over the magazines and in many cases, munitions were stored in unprotected spaces and aviation fuel pipes were routed through corridors to the flight deck.

The Cleveland-class light cruiser USS Birmingham coming alongside USS Princeton to assist with damage control efforts after the carrier had been hit by a single bomb. In this picture, you can see the identical hull between the two ships. An explosion aboard the USS Princeton soon after this photo was taken would kill more than 200 sailors aboard the USS Birmingham and caused damage so severe that the USS Birmingham had to return to the United States for repairs. The USS Princeton was scuttled after it was realized the fires on board could not be brought under control. U.S. Navy Photo

After the war, the remaining 8 Independence-class carriers were declared surplus to the needs of the U.S. Navy and were decommissioned. Some were scrapped and others were gifted to other nations. The USS Cabot became the longest living of the class and served with the Spanish navy as the DeDalo until 1989 before being returned to the U.S. Navy in close to her original World War II configuration. An effort to preserve the USS Cabot was started but ultimately failed. The USS Cabot made her final voyage to Brownsville, Texas in 2002 for scrapping. The ship was stripped of many of her original anti-aircraft guns and fittings which went to other museum ships to help preserve them. Today, only the wrecks of the USS Independence and USS Princeton remain of the class.

Up until 2002, the USS Cabot could have been preserved as a museum but no home was ever found for the ship. Here, Spanish AV-8 Harriers fly past the Cabot in Spanish service. National Archives Photo

So You Want to Buy a Fighter Jet

Though most of us will never have the financial means of doing so, there is a fair amount of interest from the public in owning a fighter jet. I found this out after writing a blog post on the current use of the F-4 Phantom. The software on this site lets me see what search words lead a reader to my article and most keywords involved, “buying an F-4 Phantom” and “F-4 Phantom for sale.” Though it’s not necessarily an easy process, if you had the money, you could purchase almost any currently used or vintage fighter jet in existence, minus the 5th generation fighters such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and F-22 Raptor. All it takes is persistence and a lot of money to clear the way.

The MIG-21, code named “Fishbed” by NATO, presents one of the most economical fighter jets available to the public today. The MIG-21 is coveted for it’s ease to fly and maintain. It’s main problem for private owners is fuel consumption per a flight. A large number of MIG-21’s are already available for purchase in the United States and additional models are easily imported at reasonable costs. U.S. Air Force Photo

The easiest way to buy a fighter jet is to get one from one of the former Soviet Bloc countries. There are already a lot in the United States that are as easy to buy as a car. At the time of this article, a MIG-21 in flying condition could be had for as little as $69,500 and a MIG-29 in flying condition went for just shy of $5 million with various models falling everywhere in between. If the jet you’re looking for isn’t currently available, there are companies that specialize in exporting whatever you’re looking for to the United States and take care of all the licensing requirements. The main requirement for importing a Russian made fighter is that the aircraft’s radar and weapon systems are removed before the jet enters the country. Once demilitarized, the fighter jet is essentially just an aircraft that can do some pretty awesome acrobatics.

Below is a video of one of a pair of Ukrainian SU-27 Flanker aircraft that were imported into the United States.

The hard way of buying a fighter jet is if you are looking for something American made, like an F-16 Falcon or an F-4 Phantom. It used to be that the U.S. Air Force would sell aircraft directly to the public once they weren’t needed any more. But in our current world of terrorism and arms embargoes, that door has been closed and will probably never be opened again. Now if you want an American made aircraft, the only way to get one is to buy one from a country that operated American made aircraft and then to import it back into the country in compliance with the Arms Export Control Act…  This requires a fair amount of licensing through the Department of Homeland Security and Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, but if you have the money to buy one of these planes, then you should have the money to hire a team of lawyers to handle the licensing.

A number of F-4 Phantoms are in private ownership. More of these aircraft will become available for purchase as smaller air forces retire the F-4 Phantom and try to recoup some of their value. U.S. Air Force Photo

The only hiccup is that dependent upon how the fighter jet was provided to the country you’re buying it from could determine whether you can bring it back into the United States. If say, the F-16 Falcon, was purchased out right, then you should be able to import it. But if the Fighter jet was provided under military assistance from the United States (which is the bulk of U.S. made hardware out there), then it may require an act of congress to allow the fighter jet back into the country as the U.S. Air Force retains legal ownership of those planes even when the benefiting nation retires and disposes of them. If you bought a fighter jet provided under military assistance, then you would likely see your aircraft seized as soon as it arrived in the United States.

So yes, if you hit the lotto, then you could buy your own fighter jet. But just know that the upfront cost is just where it begins. A vintage MIG-21 can be had for $70,000 which most middle-class Americans could buy. But you’d be flying an aircraft that could burn through $5,000 worth of fuel in one flight. And while the MIG-21 maybe supersonic, you’d be limited to flying your fighter jet at those speeds over international waters or risk the wrath of the FAA and the seizure of your fighter jet. The main thing is that you follow all the licensing requirements and hire someone who knows the process. I leave you with a link to an article written about a guy who did everything wrong and had his A-4 Skyraider seized upon arrival in the United States.

Visiting the USS Maine around Washington D.C.

The sinking of the USS Maine has been a highly controversial issue that is still debated to this day. You can read the history here, but the BLUF is that USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, Cuba on February 15, 1898 under dubious circumstances. Spain, who was in charge of Cuba at the time claimed the USS Maine sank as the result of a coal bunker fire that caused an explosion. The U.S. Navy and the American media claimed the USS Maine was sunk by a Spanish mine. In the end, the cause didn’t matter as the result was the 1898 Spanish American war that saw the Spanish military destroyed and America launched on its path to becoming the superpower. After the war, the USS Maine was raised, most of the crew recovered, and the hulk was towed to sea and sunk with full military honors. There was an outpouring of sympathy across the United States for the sailors who lost their lives which resulted in a large amount of material from the Maine being preserved around the Washington D.C. Metro area.

The wreckage of the USS Maine (ACR-1) in Havana Harbor, Cuba. The sinking of the USS Maine would spark the Spanish American War. National Archives Photo 301647

The USS Maine (ACR-1) was a new type of armored warships designed to match cruisers that were being built in countries such as England, France, Italy, Spain, and being sold to America’s geopolitical rivals such as Brazil. For the United States, The USS Maine was first in a line of ships that would eventually lead to building true battleships as we know them today. The USS Maine’s design was a balancing the hull with two massive armored turrets that sat off center on the fore and aft parts of the ship. This design limited the guns arc of fire and rapidly led to the USS Maine becoming obsolete as armored warships became faster and better armed. While the USS Maine was no longer a first rate warship by 1898, it was still a formidable vessel that could show the flag when the interests of the United States were at issue. It was in this capacity that the USS Maine visited Havana harbor as a full scale Cuban uprising was underway against Spanish rule. The visit was a routine trip for the USS Maine but fate intervened.

 

The USS Maine entering Havana Harbor. U.S. Navy Photo via wikipedia

After the Maine had been raised, a large amount of material from the wreck made its way to the Washington Navy Yard. There were requests from around the United States for pieces of the Maine to be donated by the U.S. Navy to become memorials. An event of this magnitude had never happened to the United States during peace time.

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Within a few years, the bulk of the material that had been sent to the Washington Navy yard had been transferred to various municipalities or disposed of. What was left though is still on display at the small museum that can be found along the Washington Navy Yard’s waterfront. The main piece is one of the USS Maine’s 6-inch secondary guns that now has a healthy amount of rust. Close by is a brass blade from one of the USS Maine’s spare propellers that is engraved with the USS Maine’s name. The Museum, which bills itself as the “National Museum of the Navy,” is small and only open to visitors who hold a valid DoD ID or their guests who travel with them.

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This 6-Inch secondary gun recovered from the wreck of the USS Maine is now on display at the Washington Navy yard.

 

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The crew of the USS Maine, after being interned and disinterred at various cemeteries, eventually made their way to Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia which is just across the Potomac River from Washington DC. This is by far the largest memorial to the U.S.S. Maine which uses the USS Maine’s undamaged mast as the centerpiece for the crew’s burial plot.

The USS Maine’s undamaged mast now acts as a monument to the crew at Arlington National Cemetery. National Archives Photo 6491198

Arlington National Cemetery should be on your list of places to visit on any trip to Washington DC. There is a lot to see there, but it’s worth the walk over to see the Maine’s mast and to pay your respects to the crew. While most of the USS Maine’s crew was recovered from the wreckage, the bulk was never identified as too much time passed between the sinking and when the remains were recovered. Eventually, it may be possible to identify individual crew members through DNA analysis, but for the moment, most rest in mass graves.

A tombstone for some of the crew of the USS Maine ACR-1, Arlington National Cemetery. National Archives Photo 6443307

The next big place to visit for material from the Maine is the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland. This is about a 45 minute drive from Washington D.C. and is a fascinating day trip. It is also the location of the USS Maine’s damaged fore mast. This has led to a joke in the Navy that the USS Maine is the longest ship in the Navy as it’s fore and aft masts sit in different cities. The mast is included in the public tours that are offered almost daily during the summer months and then on a limited schedule during colder months. There is a fee for the public tours but it is worth the price of admission.

 

In this photo of the USS Maine as it is being raised, both of it’s masts can be seen. The closest and least damaged would go to Arlington National Cemetery. The mast further back and leaning would be repaired and go to the U.S. Naval Academy. U.S. Navy Photo via Wikipedia.

While outside the Washington D.C. metro area, there is a massive memorial to the USS Maine in Columbus Circle in New York City, New York. Most people have seen the memorial in various movies but never knew it was dedicated to the USS Maine. The back story claims that the statues were cast from bronze taken from the Maine’s guns while the plaques were made from metal from the ship’s hull. While New York City is a few hours from Washington D.C., it is worth the cab ride or metro fare to see the memorial if you are in the city.

The USS Maine memorial in New York City. Photo via wikipedia

The Strange Second Life of the M551 Sheridan Light Tank

The M551 Sheridan Light Tank had a checkered career during its service with the United States Army. You can read the details here, but the BLUF is that the M-551 Sheridan was envisioned as a lightweight aluminum, air transportable tank. It was equipped with a massive 152mm short barreled main gun that could fire anti-tank missiles in addition to conventional rounds that could defeat any known armored system at the time. It was a good idea in theory, but that was about as far as it went. The anti-tank missile never proved practical and the cumbersome one piece shells for the 152mm main gun were prone to split in two, spilling large amounts of propellant inside the tank which could lead to an internal explosion. The M551 Sheridan proved invaluable in Vietnam as its light weight allowed it to traverse mud better than most vehicles but suffered from a low rate of fire in combat. This resulted in the M551 Sheridan spending much of its time as a tow truck pulling heavier vehicles out of the mud as the tropical humidity tended to short circuit its electrical firing system.

An M551 Sheridan Light tank preparing to be forward deployed for a live fire exercise in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield in December 1990. Arrayed around the tank is 20 x 152mm ammunition, 8 x MGM-51 Shillelagh anti-tank missiles, several thousand rounds of .50 cal and 7.62mm machine gun ammunition, 25 gallons of drinking water, three cases of meals ready to eat (MRE) totaling 36 meals for nine days of rations for the crew, two large tarps with framing , and radio gear for establishing a radio post. All of this equipment would be loaded onto the M551 Sheridan light tank before it deployed for combat operations. National Archives photo 6471195

An M551 Sheridan Light tank preparing to be forward deployed for a live fire exercise in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield in December 1990. Arrayed around the tank is 20 x 152mm ammunition, 8 x MGM-51 Shillelagh anti-tank missiles, several thousand rounds of .50 cal and 7.62mm machine gun ammunition, 25 gallons of drinking water, three cases of meals ready to eat (MRE) totaling 36 meals for nine days of rations for the crew, two large tarps with framing , and radio gear for establishing a radio post. All of this equipment would be loaded onto the M551 Sheridan light tank before it deployed for combat operations. National Archives photo 6471195

After Vietnam, the U.S. Army had large numbers of Sheridan light tanks available that only airborne units wanted. There were proposals to scrap the M551 Sheridan program but cooler heads prevailed and in 1980, the bulk of the M551 Sheridan light tanks were sent to the National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin, California. The NTC was tasked with providing realistic ground training to U.S. Military units that involved simulated tank on tank armored combat in a desert environment. This was an early recognition that many of the U.S. Military’s future battles would be in the Middle East. The M551 Sheridan was an ideal vehicle to form the nucleus of the Soviet opposition force (OPFOR)  and early exercises had the Sheridan’s operating in conjunction with local infantry from Army and United States Marine Corps units to test the combat effectiveness of U.S. and NATO Military units from around the world.

M551 Sheridan light tanks operating in their intended role as an air transportable light tank. Here, two M551 Sheridan light tanks are being airdropped from a C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft. The drop is a two stage process, both stages can be seen in this photo. A Sheridan light tank is in the process of being pulled out of the aircraft by its smaller and stronger deployment parachutes which represents the first stage. The tank already in the air has just separated from its deployment parachutes which deployed much larger second stage descent parachutes which are unfolding in the photo. This two stage process was done to prevent damage to the more delicate descent parachutes as the tank is being pulled out of the aircraft at high speed. National Archives photo 6462244

M551 Sheridan light tanks operating in their intended role as an air transportable light tank. Here, two M551 Sheridan light tanks are being airdropped from a C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft. The drop is a two stage process, both stages can be seen in this photo. A Sheridan light tank is in the process of being pulled out of the aircraft by its smaller and stronger deployment parachutes which represents the first stage. The tank already in the air has just separated from its deployment parachutes which deployed much larger second stage descent parachutes which are unfolding in the photo. This two stage process was done to prevent damage to the more delicate descent parachutes as the tank is being pulled out of the aircraft at high speed. National Archives photo 6462244

One of the early changes made to the M551 Sheridan was to make the tanks look more like the Soviet made equipment that the U.S. Military would encounter in the Middle East. Some of these changes were as simple as replacing the 152mm main gun with a fake barrel to make the vehicle look like a Soviet BMP-1. But other changes were as radical as adding  fiberglass body panels so that a Sheridan light tank looked like a Soviet T-72 main battle tank. Each tank was equipped with sensors to pick up laser signals indicating if the vehicle had been hit by a simulated round. A red light on the tank would light up to indicate a kill.

M551 Sheridan light tanks cross the desert during an Opposing Forces exercise at the National Training Center. The tanks have visual modifications designed to make it resemble Soviet armor.

A group of camouflaged M551 Sheridan’s travel in a convoy at the National Training Center. The lead tank has been mocked up to look like a Soviet BMP-1, the second tank has been concealed to look like a ZSU-23, the remaining tanks have been reworked to look like T-55 and T-72 main battle tanks. National Archive Photo 6425040

The combination of highly experienced Sheridan tank crews with infantry that practiced a radical form of combined arms maneuver warfare shocked many of the early units that went to the National Training Center. Exercises would be repeated until the visiting unit could master the OPFOR and this highly realistic training did much to prepare the U.S. Military for the 1991 Gulf War. The Soldiers and Marines who went to Kuwait and then into Iraq found themselves fighting an enemy less capable than the one they had been fighting in the Mojave desert for the previous decade.

The ultimate evolution of the M551 Sheridan OPFOR aggressor tank at the National Training Center was a highly realistic looking mock up of the Soviet T-72. This tank continued to serve in the aggressor role until 2003, a full 36 years after the Sheridan light tank first went into service. While the Sheridan had limited combat utility for much of its life, the Sheridan will be regarded as one of the most useful post World War II tanks operated by the United States Army. National Archives Photo 6425276

The ultimate evolution of the M551 Sheridan OPFOR aggressor tank at the National Training Center was a highly realistic looking mock up of the Soviet T-72. This tank continued to serve in the aggressor role until 2003, a full 36 years after the Sheridan light tank first went into service. While the Sheridan had limited combat utility for much of its life, the Sheridan will be regarded as one of the most useful post World War II tanks operated by the United States Army. National Archives Photo 6425276

The M551 Sheridan was retired in 2003 from the NTC, but it did get it’s day in the sun. During the 1991 Gulf War, there was concern that the Iraqi Republican Guard would cross the border into Saudi Arabia. This led to a hasty deployment of U.S. Army airborne forces with their Sheridan light tanks which then deployed along the border. The reality was that the M551 Sheridan wouldn’t have fared well against an Iraqi T-72, but that was something the Iraqi Army didn’t know. The sudden appearance of large numbers of American Sheridan light tanks along the Saudi Arabian border was enough to cause the Iraqi Army to pause and gave the Allied coalition enough time to mass sufficient forces in Saudi Arabia to prevent an invasion. For the second time in its career, the M551 Sheridan proved its worth by never firing a shot in anger.