There is a regular demand for second-hand, surplus military aircraft. In recent times, global demand has increased massively with both air arms and defence contractors eyeing up used aircraft. Air International’ Jamie Hunter and Khalem Chapman look at the rising trend for ’buying used’.
There’s no fixed template for military aircraft that are retiring from service. Aircraft that are at the end of their useful life for an operator – either having become surplus to requirements, obsolete or outdated – can be shipped to the scrapyard, placed in storage or displayed in museums. However, there has been a market for the acquisition of certain types, enabling less developed air arms to procure what others no longer require to fill capability requirements. It lets countries with smaller defence budgets acquire equipment as it cascades from those that typically feature a larger global presence, such as the USAF. This market gives nations with more selling or donating used, proven platforms that still have some operational life left in them. As one arm recapitalises and drives new technology and manufacturing, another is presented with a cheaper alternative by procuring a fleet of respectable aircraft to cost-effectively modernise their own fighting forces.
There are numerous cases of still operationally capable military aircraft being retired early because they have reached the end of their useful life with their current user. The RAF, for example, has retired and reduced to spares its early Tranche 1 two-seat Eurofighter Typhoons. These were deemed to be a ‘legacy’ fleet that were no longer required, with much to the simulator. The cost of operation of these airframes was outweighed by the need to reduce the fleet footprint. The RAF tried unsuccessfully to sell the jets – so breaking them down to be used as spares sources was the next best option.
The US Army has forged a lucrative business of supplying allies with equipment from its surplus materiel stocks. The end of useful service life can be for a host of reasons, whether brought about by recapitalisation or budget cuts – resulting in a type being removed from service prematurely or simply because it is necessary to reduce overall force levels. Moreover, the US military has on occasion decided that it can afford to relinquish a role that can safely be assumed by, and at the cost of, allied nations.
Selling ’old kit’
Equipment is traditionally sold or gifted to nations that require aircraft, providing a solution to a clear capability requirement, or to enable a vendor country to eliminate an enduring mission that it has been forced to cover. The Excess Defense Article (EDA) programme enables US allies and partners to acquire (second-hand) defence equipment at a reduced price, based on its condition. The ally typically pays for the packing and transportation of the kit, along with any necessary upgrades or refurbishments, although even that is sometimes included in the deal.
The US Army’s decision to retire the entire fleet of Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warriors en masse created an sales. This demonstrated how quickly surplus aircraft can be requested, purchased and delivered. Croatia officially sought 16 Kiowa Warriors in early 2016, the first five were delivered to the Croatian Air Force in June of that year and the final 11 aircraft arrived in December. In 2017, Tunisia acquired 24 OH-58Ds via the EDA in a deal worth US$100.8m. The US stated that the platform would improve the country’s capability to “conduct border security and combat operations against terrorists” Of the 24 acquired, 18 appear to be operational, leaving six for pilot training and aircraft spares.
Greece purchased 70 former US Army OH-58Ds for the Hellenic Army through the EDA in January 2018. All 70 were delivered via cargo ship to the European nation in May 2019. The package included 36 fully operational Kiowas, 24 incomplete models for training purposes and ten aircraft for spares use. This deal is an excellent example of the value for money the procurement of surplus military aircraft can provide governments. In total, Greece paid €44m (US$48.65m) for all 70 OH-58Ds, giving each light attack/scout/training helicopter a value of €630,000 (US$696,701).
OH-58s are not the only platform to have been acquired via the EDA. The Hellenic Army also procured ten former US Army CH-47D Chinooks through the programme. Greece paid €150m (US$165.8m) for the heavy-lift tactical transport helicopters, giving them an individual price of €15m (US$16.58m). To compare with the latest, COTS variant of the Chinook – the CH-47F – each individual aircraft is roughly half the price, with new-build examples priced between US$25. 1m and US$32m. This is an example of a situation where recapitalisation is undertaken to support industry. The huge CH-47F ICH (Improved Cargo Helicopter) project from Boeing released large numbers of CH-47Ds. The US Army couldn’t afford to wait until all of its CH-47Ds were ready to retire, so there was an overlap period and a surplus of current models with generous levels of service life remaining.
Transport aircraft, such as the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, are also hugely in demand. Following the big US military recap of the platform with the J-Model, many older E and H models came on to the second-hand market. Many required significant upgrades, including expensive new centre wing boxes and navigational compliance enhancements.
Numerous nations have procured surplus older C-130s to provide a tactical transport mission for their air forces over the years, some of which have been brought back into operational service, despite spending long periods of time in deep storage. Four former-USAF C-130B Hercules were brought out of the Aircraft Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), Arizona – often known as ‘the Boneyard’ – to be operated by the Bangladesh Air Force (BAF). The aircraft were delivered in 1999 and began operations in 2002 from BAF Base Bashar, Dhaka. In 2005, three former-USAF C-130Es entered operational service with the Iraqi Air Force and the Afghan Air Force received four C-130Hs between 2013 and 2015 for operations with the 373 Fixed Wing Squadron. All of these aircraft are still in operational service with their respective air arms.
Although the introduction of the Super Hercules was the reason behind the rise in surplus sales of older C-130 variants, the newer type has also featured on the second-hand market. In the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2015, the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) felt that reliance on the C-130J within the RAF would be reduced following the introduction of the Airbus A400M Atlas. From that, the MOD decided to prematurely retire and sell the RAF’s short-bodied C-130J (Hercules C5) aircraft. These have since been snapped up, with a total of five being purchased by the Bangladesh Air Force, two being acquired by the Royal Bahraini Air Force and a single example being bought by the US Navy to replace the Blue Angels aerobatic team’s C-130T – a jet-assisted take-off (JATO) version of the Hercules, which was employed as the team’s support aircraft. The US$29. 7m deal was cemented in June 2019.
Old platform, new mission
Special mission platforms are also in demand, mainly from less developed air arms. In September 2019, Argentina announced it had finalised a deal with the US for the procurement of four former-US Navy Lockheed P-3C Orions to replace the nation’s ageing P-3Bs, which were acquired between 1997 and 1999 and are currently non-operational due to the need for major structural refurbishment. The four aircraft will be sourced from the AMARC, where they are currently stored. Deliveries are expected to begin in 2020. Airbus’ C-295MPA was also in contention to provide the Argentine Navy’s next generation maritime patrol mission. The government elected to acquire surplus P-3Cs from the US as the aircraft were cheaper and provided commonality for Argentine pilots who previously flew the P-3B, meaning less training would be needed to operate the aircraft.
When it comes to special missions aircraft, it’s not only smaller air arms and defence contractors that take advantage of available surplus types; larger, more established and better funded forces have also purchased them for operational use. Following the UK’s SDSR 2010, the MOD elected to retire its ageing BAe Systems Nimrod R1 fleet, along with scrapping its then in-development replacement – the Nimrod MRA4. At the time, the MOD also initiated Project Airseeker, which saw acquisition of three Boeing KC-135R Stratotankers, formerly operated by the USAF and stored in the AMARG. These tankers were stripped and converted into RC-135W Rivet Joints by L3 Communications in Greenville, Texas. The surplus aircraft replaced the Nimrod, continuing in signals intelligence for the RAF. The first was delivered in 2013 – following conversion – and the final one arrived in mid-2017. The RC-135 is also operated by the USAF, with RAF examples considered an extension of the USAF’s fleet.
In terms of fighter aircraft, one platform has been the most prominent on the second-hand market – the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon. These have been sourced from several air arms, including the Belgian Air Component (BAC), Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) and the USAF/US Air National Guard (ANG). Jordan has been a procurer of surplus F-16A (Block 20 MLU) Fighting Falcons for more than 20 years through the ‘Peace Falcon I/II/III/IV/V/VI’ programmes. Since 1997, 79 aircraft have been delivered to the Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF), with some originating from Belgium and the Netherlands and others being former USAF/ANG examples sourced from deep storage in the AMARC and regenerated for RJAF use. In Jordanian service, the F-16A (Block 20 MLU) replaced the air arm’s Mirage F1CJ/EJ fleets.
More updated variants of the F-16 have also been exported as surplus military equipment. In November 2011, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) approved the foreign military sale (FMS) of 24 F-16C/D (Block 25A) Fighting Falcons – along with associated equipment and support – to the Indonesian Air Force in a US$750m deal. These aircraft were once again sourced from the AMARG but were regenerated for Indonesian service under ‘Peace Bima Sena II’ (or the F-16 Indonesia Regeneration Program). They were ordered to complement the country’s remaining F-16A/B (Block 15AE/AF/AG OCU) Fighting Falcons, which were delivered in 1990. The regeneration upgraded the aircraft making them more compatible with Block 50/52-standard F-16s, although they still lacked certain features employed by more recent variants of the type. The first batch of F-16s were delivered in 2014, concluding in January 2018. Indonesia is now looking to purchase new, off-the-shelf F-16V Vipers – Lockheed Martin’s latest version of the aircraft.
Old dogs, new tricks
Procuring surplus platforms for continued operational use is not an option only available to military air arms. Defence and civilian contractors have also actively purchased fleets of aircraft that had recently been retired from service from international air forces but that fit with their operational model. Contractors supporting adversary air (ADAIR), otherwise known as ‘Red Air’ missions for contractor owned/contractor operated (COCO) requirements have been notable beneficiaries of available surplus aircraft.
The Dassault Mirage F1 in particular has found new life with these contractors, having been retired en masse over the past decade by France and Spain. This presented an excellent opportunity for the Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC) and Draken International. In mid-2017, ATAC purchased 63 surplus French Air Force Mirage F1s for €21m and the Textron-owned company is currently retrofitting and renovating the aircraft to meet the US’s ADAIR contract requirements. A year later, Draken International announced its acquisition of a 22-strong fleet of single-seat Mirage F1Ms and twin-seat F1Bs from the Spanish Air Force and is now beginning to flight test the aircraft, which have been retrofitted and modernised by Paramount Group for use in US ADAIR training.
It’s notable that these fighters must fit a very specific operator cost model to turn a profit. Military users are often looking to secure deals that cost them little, making it a challenge for contractors to source suitable platforms.
The market for surplus military aircraft for use by civil-based contractors does not just focus on fighter jets; the demand for retired air-to-air refuelling aircraft, tactical/strategic and VIP transports is also high and for different reasons. When the Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF) retired its C-130Hs and purchased four new-build C-130Js from Lockheed Martin at a cost of US$600m, the idea of those particular aircraft continuing on with a different operator in a new role grew. This was caused by a number of factors. The five C-130Hs had around half of their useful service life left and they had recently been upgraded.
From the RNoAF’s perspective, moving to the C-130J provided a capability increase – the Super Hercules offers a glass cockpit as well as a number of enhancements. It also allows the flight deck crew to be reduced from five to three and Norway was able to cut its overall fleet by one aircraft. The country also sought to sell its old C-130Hs to help offset the cost of the new acquisitions. Initially, Canada looked to buy the older Hercules, which had been placed into storage in Arizona. However, in November 2019, Coulson Aviation (USA) Inc purchased the stored C-130Hs from the Norwegian Defence Materiel Agency (NDMA) for them to be modified into aerial firefighters. The NDMA initiated the sales process in March 2018, but of the six companies that had initially responded, ultimately only Coulson Aviation were able to provide the required documentation.
Surplus tanker aircraft particularly attract interest from civil-based defence contractors. One of the best examples being Omega Aerial Refueling Services (OARS), which provides support to air arms – such as the RAF, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) – when on deployment. OARS operates three tanker aircraft – two Boeing 707-320s and a McDonnell Douglas DC-10-40 – but in November 2018, the company also took delivery of the first of two surplus McDonnell Douglas KDC-10 tankers from the RNLAF. OARS received the KDC-10 directly after it was retired from Dutch service. The Netherlands is replacing its current tanker force with the Airbus A330 MRTT, which it will operate jointly with Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Luxembourg and Norway as part of the European Defence Agency’s Multinational Multi-Role Tanker Transport fleet.
OARS is not the only example of second lives for surplus military tankers though. In March 2014, the RAF retired its nine-strong fleet of Lockheed L-1011 TriStars following the introduction of the Airbus A330 MRTT Voyager KC2 and KC3. Of the nine aircraft, three were scrapped and the remaining six were stored at Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome, Leicestershire, earmarked for sale on the surplus market. Not long afterwards, Texas-based Tempus Applied Solutions (TAS) announced its intention to acquire the aircraft, aiming to provide services to the US military. However, as a new decade begins, the potential sale has seemingly gone cold, with the ex-RAF TriStars still in storage, despite having received US registrations.
The market for former military operated VIP transports is much larger, with the aircraft themselves being smaller, cheaper to operate and having spent their operational lives in less role-specific duties. Many of them are unmodified business jets that can continue flying in a similar capacity, being used as private transport, training aircraft and in some cases can be retrofitted into test platforms by companies.
Despite the growing trend and the positives for both second-hand sellers and customers, some deals can be considered controversial – look no further than the MOD’s decision to retire the British Harrier GR9 Force wholesale in 2010. This caused a backlash from the UK general public and media outlets, despite the MOD citing the need to make budget cuts. The axing of the UK’s Harrier Force in late 2010 was criticised when Operation Ellamy (NATO’s military intervention in Libya in 2011) kicked off. UK-based media outlets, members of parliament and some of the general public were vocal about the Harrier’s absence. Further to that, in November 2011, the MOD announced that it had sold the 72 recently retired Harrier GR. 9/9As along with associated spares to the United States Marine Corps (USMC) for £116m (US$180m) to be used as spares for its own McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II fleet as part of a Reduce-to-Produce (RtP) scheme. In fact, due to a lack of commonality, the canopies were reportedly the most useful part of the aircraft for the new owners.
The RtP process sees retired aircraft essentially gutted of valuable equipment, spare parts and systems for use on non-retired examples that are still being used operationally, thus giving remaining aircraft more available spares. This fuelled the already negative response to the retirement of the UK’s Harriers. The criticism centred around the fact that the UK upgraded 69 aircraft to GR9/9A standard in 2003 and the fleet still had viable operational life in it.
As a new decade begins, the trend for procuring surplus military aircraft is continuing, but it’s worth noting that as air arms diminish in overall mass, the pool of available airframes is relatively smaller. Presenting budget-constrained air arms or commercial contractors with opportunities to buy ‘kit’ that is no longer needed is an essential part of the military aviation ecosystem, providing a wealth of solutions in a wide manner of scenarios.