Or, When Is It Time To Toss Old Equipment?

 

M-35 2.5ton cargo truck By U.S. Army Reserve [Public domain]

USMC M923 Cargo truck By U.S. Air Force [Public domain]

Military equipment, like all man-made products, breaks down over time. Worse, items can be rendered obsolescent, if not outright obsolete, before they even reach the field. When things like this happen, it is of course the smart move to retire such gear to museums and movie studios...And yet, some equipment survives: the M35-series 2.5ton cargo truck was produced from 1950 to 1988; the M939-series 5ton cargo truck has been in continuous production since 1982. The B-52 strategic bomber - designed in the 1950's - is expected to remain in service until the 2050's.

B-52 Stratofortress, Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, 2006 By U.S. Air Force [Public domain]

 

A Type 63 MRL, in Vietnam By Bình Giang [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

This is not limited to Western countries, either: the Chinese Type 63 multiple rocket launcher  was first designed in 1961, and went into production some time around 1963...and remains in production to this day. Likewise, the Soviet-design T-54/55 series main battle tank was produced in massive numbers, and remains in service in many countries.

 

 

 

But -- why? Why do some weapons persist in use, and others barely make it to the battlefield?

While MilitaryGazette has touched on the subject of supply in the past, in this article, we will look into "procurement rationale": why does a military adopt a system, and keep it in service, or retire it.

Fenced House, Rotorua, NZ 2013 By Bob Linsdell [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Technology advances. This has always been the case. The times where technology seems to have retreated (and there are very few such examples to study) were brought on by catastrophic impacts on society at large. In general, however, there is a noticeable back-and-forth between offensive and defensive technologies: is it raining on you? Build a house to keep the weather out. Worried about predators dragging you off at night? Build a wall around your house. Are people able to get over your wall? Make it taller and thicker...You can apply this theme to pretty much every endeavor where people have to deal with something other people have invented.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, president of Liberia, congratulates graduates of the Armed Forces of Liberia, 2008 By MC2 ELIZABETH MERRIAM, U.S. Navy [Public domain]

For the budding military Procurement and/or Supply Officers out there, let's start from zero  -- we will assume that you have a brand new country, with a brand new military; insert whatever history you find plausible to make this happen...What do you do?

First, you have to determine your country's needs. This is in no way as easy as a lay person might think.

How large is your country in land area? How much is urban, vs rural? How much arable land is there? How extensive are your road and rail networks? How long is your coastline? What is your country's population? How many of them are of military age (16 and up)? What is their education level? How extensive is your internal industrial and chemical base?...

We can literally go on all night. This is where all those pedantic-seeming entries in the CIA World Factbook start to look very, very important. For example, most military field manuals  (but not technical manuals!) around the world are written at the equivalent reading level of the 8th Grade in the United States (Year 8 or 9 elsewhere). This is because that is deemed the absolute minimum reading level necessary to properly utilize the information that has to be presented. The terrain, road suitability, and farming/ranching details all directly impact a military's ability to form itself, long before discussing what type of operations it may need to execute. Of no small importance, is the nature of threat your country expects to face.

All of these factors are (or should be) considered when trying to understand why military forces buy the gear they do.

Clearly, a force will need a certain basic level of equipment; the frustrating and terrifying thing, is how frequently even long-established military forces simply ignore this basic notion. Clearly, the factors involved are extraordinarily complicated, and it is easy to take a wrong turn -- and sometimes, those wrong turns can be lethal.

British Vickers machine gun crew wearing PH-type anti-gas helmets, during the Battle of the Somme, July 1916 By John Warwick Brooke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The reason military forces are, by and large, conservative to the point of being hidebound, is that they know that older systems and techniques work. Old gear that worked in the last war...worked. As well, the limitations, problems and quirks of older systems are well-known, and are usually worked into the training of new recruits. Look back through the historical archives of any established military, and you will find volumes of correspondence deriding new technology as expensive, tactically-useless toys...and frequently, such correspondence is not wrong. Much has been made over the resistance of European militaries' to deploying machine guns in continental wars, in the decades before World War 1. Part of that was "Old Stick In The Mud" intransigence, but also from the very real fact that a Vickers water-cooled machine gun at the start of World War 1 cost the modern equivalent of just under US$25,000 (per George Coppard, With A Machine Gun to Cambrai (1969)). Each. In a time where budgets were incredibly restricted, compared to the modern era, a Procurement Office needed to be absolutely certain that the item in question did everything it advertised.

Soldier wearing basic ALICE equipment, 1973 By U.S. Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It is only around the 1980's that this attitude began to change, with ever-increasing speed. Talk to many professional soldiers of the last forty years, and they will say that the speed of adopting new gear has been too fast.

What are the general considerations for adopting new gear?

First, there needs to be a real need for the item. Many things "look" good or useful, but they really aren't -- or, they may be useful, but only in a limited way, too limited to justify the expense of reequipping a force. Perhaps the classic example of the latter phenomenon is the US Army's "SPIW" Program. Beginning in the 1950's, the US Army began looking for a way to increase the lethality of the individual rifleman. While the data this entire project was based on may have been faulty, at best, after forty years of development, the US Army and various NATO allies watched the adoption of the the G11, developed by Heckler & Koch of West Germany, for the latter's army (the Bundeswehr). Although test data indicated that the G11 was superior to conventional weapons, both ballistically as well as mechanically, it wasn't superior enough to warrant immediate, widespread adoption; having West Germany adopting it as a "test bed" was deemed acceptable, as the necessary funding would only be for a comparatively small force.

That, of course, is the moment that the Communist Warsaw Pact chose to collapse under its own weight.

As the G11 was "good" - but not overly so - the idea of an "advanced combat rifle" (as the project had come to be called) was dropped, for that, among many other reasons. Logistically speaking, how long would the caseless ammunition remain good in storage, under various conditions? No data - there were estimates, nothing more. Water immersion? Again, no hard data, only estimates. The rifle was "better" than its conventional, established competitors, but not enough to justify retooling the entire military logistical system of dozens of first-line national militaries.

"Appreciate America Stop the Fifth Column", US WW2 propaganda poster National Archives at College Park [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Next, military gear needs to be both durable, and simple to operate. In military circles, this is the polite way of saying "Idiot-Proof". The damnedest things happen to gear and weapons in the field, even when it is just an exercise, to say nothing of actual combat. It is a generally-held tenet that uniforms - especially boots - can be expected to last about 3 - 6 years in normal, peacetime use...and about 3 months, if that, in actual combat. War is highly wasteful, even when you are winning, and troops need a constant flow of resupply of weapons, ammunition and equipment once the fighting actually begins. This is in addition to losses in transit, be that from simple accidents, enemy air or sea raids on convoys, to enemy guerillas or special forces striking supply bases and convoys in the theoretical "rear areas", as well as sabotage inside your own country, whether from enemy agents, or sympathizers.

 

A South African soldier with the 9th South African Infantry Battalion, 2013 By US Army Africa [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Two other factors, ease of maintenance and reliability, enter the picture here. Military equipment, when needed, will see hard use. That equipment needs to remain in operation for as long as possible, before needing any but the most rudimentary maintenance. As well, when the time comes to perform serious maintenance on a piece of equipment - and it always does - it needs to be easy and fast to pull major components out, get them onto a bench to be worked on, then get them back into place; this was, in fact, one of the strong points of the T-55, mentioned above.

What all this translates to in terms of supply and procurement budgets, at its most basic level, is that you need a minimum of three separate sets of everything: if you have 10,000 troops, you need to maintain an additional 20,000 sets of gear for them, on hand, at all times, aside from the normal new-issue and replacement gear amounts...In the real world, supply officers are lucky if they can beg, borrow or steal enough equipment to maintain an extra 10% of everything for their units.

USAF medical supply warehouse, South Korea, 2015 By U.S. Air Force [Public domain]

Thus, keeping old gear around, gear that may be dated, but that may still be "good enough", is something real supply establishments try to hide from the people writing budgets, lest those people (the dreaded and hated "Bean Counters") insist that one-generation old gear be transferred to client countries, or to the civilian "surplus or scrap" market.

There is, of course, another aspect to this, one that certain defense contractors - and even established militaries, who should know better - do not like to talk about: Amateur Hour.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) technical, near Raqqa, Syria. 2016 By VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There used to be a running joke, that three hundred angry farmers, armed with 100 rifles and 200 machetes, made a revolution. In the post-9/11 world, however, it is no longer a laughing matter. Starting in the early 1980's small, poorly-funded, badly equipped, yet desperately embattled armies in the Third World began adapting in unexpectedly innovative ways. The clearest early example of this was the "Toyota War", where the forces of Chad went up against the might of Muammar Gaddafi's Libyan Army. On paper, it should have been a cake-walk for the Libyan forces: Chad had no ability to match the Libyans, who were well supplied by the Soviet Union. The Chadians, however, responded by militarizing commonly-available Toyota Hi-Lux and Land Cruiser 4x4 pickup trucks, mounting them with anti-tank guided missile launchers (ATGMs), eventually achieving more or less a standard with MILAN units, supplied by the country's former colonial master, France. In the process, the Chadians developed what would later be called "technicals".

Potential rebel forces around the world took note. Eventually, another group would take note, as well -- and burn its way into infamy.

In sum, military supply and procurement establishments need to keep up with modern developments in technology and systems, but also need to take care that they don't bankrupt the nation in order to buy some kind of "New and Improved!" system -- unless said system is truly revolutionary, and they can honestly justify the need for the expense.

US Army supply trucks on the Ledo Road, Burma, WW2 By U.S. Army [Public domain]

Conversely, there are many people out there who understand very little of how actual military operations work. In most countries, there is a dedicated military force to handle those things. If a person with no military experience sees their national military forces holding on to what looks like hopelessly outdated gear, or sees them spending hard cash - that came from tax monies - to purchase what looks like pointless "new" gear, take it from a former Supply specialist: take them out to dinner, and politely ask them why. Don't scream hysterically at them for waste. There is almost always a very good reason behind them doing these things, reasons the local media may have decided are too complex to try and explain...And yes, there is a certain level of sarcasm at that last.

 

 

 

 

 

 

South Vietnamese troops, 1961, armed with ex-US weapons from World War 2

 

 

 

 

 



 

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