USS Constitution (Old Ironsides), the US Navy's oldest commissioned warship afloat

USS Constitution (Old Ironsides), the US Navy's oldest commissioned warship afloat

Analysis

Lima Charlie: From AK47s To Subs And Tanks – Is 'Old' Tech A Burden Or An Asset?

Do you know which country claims to have the oldest commissioned warship?

USS Constitution (Old Ironsides), the US Navy's oldest commissioned warship afloat

USS Constitution (Old Ironsides), the US Navy's oldest commissioned warship afloat

The US Air Force has announced that the B52 bomber will be given a series of upgrades that will help the aircraft continue flying into the 2040s, potentially making this venerable aircraft the first major bomber to see its 100th birthday.  

This incredible achievement is even more impressive when you consider that there is a growing list of military equipment being operated for ever longer periods of time. All around the world, some of the most impressive pieces of equipment used, from warships to tanks are getting older and staying in service longer than ever previously imagined.  

As this equipment gets older, it raises a lot of questions about how to support and maintain vehicles and aircraft never designed for a life this long, and how to replace them in the long term. This article will look at some of these incredible machines and consider how their operational lives have changed, and what the future may hold for them.  

Over the next 20-30 years there are several different vehicles, aircraft and ship types that are likely to see their designs hitting anywhere between 70 and 100 years in service, and they may well go on far beyond this point too.  

On land the Russian T44 and T55 tank remains in widespread service around the world, even to this day. First introduced in 1947 as a successor to the T34, the legendary Soviet tank from WW2, the T55 design is 74 years old.  

Originally intended to be a mainstream tank facing off against NATO in Europe, the T54 was built in vast numbers- between 1946 and 1958 no less than 35,000 T54 tanks were built, and then a further 27,500 T55 tanks were built until 1981.  The tanks were produced in a huge number of variants and modified designs over time, but at its heart is a main battle tank that was designed in 1945 to reflect the hard-learned lessons of WW2.  

A T-44 on display in Brest, Belarus. Online Tank Museum
A T-44 on display in Brest, Belarus. Online Tank Museum

After leaving front line Soviet service, the tanks were passed in huge numbers around the world, serving with practically every Warsaw Pact member state, and a lot of other allies too. As the Soviet Union collapsed, many T54 and T55 tanks passed into the hands of successor states, where they remain in service to this day.  

Across the world, dozens of countries still have stockpiles of these tanks in their arsenals, although some are probably more effective than others. Many remain in active use, for example, the licence-built Type 59, which is used in China and several other countries, is still in front line service with many countries army’s, including Bangladesh, China and North Korea.  

Even though the basic design entered production almost 75 years ago, it is likely that there will still be hundreds of these tanks still in service in the 2040s. Although upgraded and fitted with new weapons, sensors and equipment, the core of the tank is still a 1940s design. It will almost certainly become the first tank in history to reach its 100th birthday of operations.  

The Russians clearly know how to build a long-lasting tank design. The WW2 era T34 tank, the iconic veteran of so many battles in WW2 remains in service, with a few hundred estimated to be found in various third-world militaries around the world – now extremely old (production stopped in the 1950s), it is unlikely that these will make it through to the centenary of the design, but anything seems possible with Russian tanks.  

The British and American post-war equivalent tank designs have also had a long life. It seems unlikely though that either the M48 or the Centurion will make it to their 100th birthday, unlike their Russian counterparts.  

The US M48 Patton, in service since the 1950s, is still active in some countries. Meanwhile, the British Centurion MBT design, which was the mainstay of the British Army in the 1950s is still in service in South Africa, where the type, known locally as the ‘Olifant’ has been in service for around 50 years.  

Although only in use in small numbers now, the Olifant is a good example of how a design can change over time, evolving from the original British design into what is an entirely new vehicle. The South African Defence Force has estimated that there is less than 30% of the original vehicle design left on the chassis.  

Of course, tanks are not the only land vehicle that are likely to stay in service for a long time. There are a lot of other vehicles that form essential parts of an army that can be found in service still. The British Army for example still has several hundred FV432 Armoured Personnel Carriers in service, the youngest of which are around 50 years old but are likely to see service for many years to come until much delayed replacements arrive.  

The US Army developed the M113 APC, which entered service in 1960 and still has several thousand of these vehicles in use. With the vehicle in use still by dozens of countries, it seems entirely likely that this will be in service for many more decades, and thus the M113 is also likely to see its 100th birthday too.  

T55 during a Croatian exercise

One device that will certainly see its 100th birthday, and quite possibly its 150th birthday, is the AK47 Kalashnikov assault rifle. Introduced to service in 1947, tens of millions of these rifles have been produced and remain in use all around the world.  Simple, rugged, and reliable, the AK47 is one of the most successful weapons ever produced and is likely to continue in service for many decades to come in armed forces all around the world.  

Among the world’s air forces, there are a number of long-lived aircraft that are likely to remain in service for many years to come …

Incredibly, the B52 first flew less than 3 months after Queen Elizabeth 2nd began her reign, in April 1952, and entered service properly in 1955.  

Throughout the Cold War, the aircraft has been at the centre of US nuclear and conventional bombing capability, and to this day over 70 B52’s remain in service with the US Air Force. The youngest airframe in service today is 60 years old, and the aircraft is scheduled to last in service into the 2050s, and may yet be extended further, making it probably the first operational warplane to see its 100th anniversary.  

It will have outlived its successors the B1 and B2 bombers, both of which will have been retired by the 2030s. Even these aircraft will be long-lived though, with the B1 likely to be in service for about 50 years. The B52 is being kept in service longer as reportedly it is easier to maintain than the younger bombers. Theoretically, the B1 and B2 are being replaced by a new, and still mysterious design, called the B21 bomber. This has yet to have its first flight, and little is known about the design yet.  

The B52 though is not the only long serving military aircraft out there. The Russian equivalent (the TU95 ‘Bear’) first flew in 1956 and is still in service and likely to remain in use until the early 2040s. Meanwhile, the C130 Hercules is also another 1950s design that continues to deliver incredible service. First flying in 1955, the C130 has been used by dozens of nations around the world as a ubiquitous airlifter of choice.  

With the aircraft used for everything from shuttling cargo and passengers, delivering VIP transport, electronic warfare and even as an airborne gunship (including carrying an airborne 105mm howitzer!).  

The aircraft has been used on every continent and even been flown off an aircraft carrier (the USS Forrestal) and will doubtless continue to be used for many decades to come in increasingly modernised versions and variants. It remains in production, and although the US military has talked about replacing it, there is no sign of a successor arriving yet.  

In the UK, the C130 has been in use since the mid-1960s, and seen different models and variants. On current plans, the C130J force will be in use well into the 2030s, marking some 70 years of continuous flying operations by the type.  

There are also a lot of helicopters out there racking up long lives too – the Chinook is a long-lived and incredibly potent support helicopter. It first flew in 1961 and has been in RAF service since 1980.  

Deployed around the world on military operations, the RAF plans to operate the Chinook force into the 2040s, at which point it will have been in service for some 60 years with the RAF alone. It’s entirely likely that it will remain in service with other countries for longer and may well make it into the 2050s.  

Para's deployed out of two C130 Hercules aircraft
Para's deploy out of C130 Hercules aircraft. Crown Copyright

The Puma helicopter is another long-legged transport helicopter – first flying in 1965, the RAF has now been operating the type for 50 years, since the first were delivered in 1971. On paper its due to retire in 2025, but may yet be extended further, and could well last until the 2030s to tie into other replacement projects are delivered. This may make it the first RAF helicopter to stay in service for 60 years.  

While the long lifespans of aircraft sound impressive, they also pale in comparison with some warships. On paper, the oldest active commissioned (and afloat) warship in the world is the USS Constitution, in commission since 1797, and still able to sail at sea. The US Navy estimates that some 10-15% of the ship is still from the original timbers when built in the 1790s.  

There are some indications that navies in South America have a variety of very elderly gunboats in service ranging from the 1900s – 1930s that are technically still in commission, but these reports are hard to verify.  

The Russian Navy is known to have a submarine repair ship in service which first commissioned in 1915 and served during WW2. The Kommuna was laid down in 1912, and remains in service to this day, handling the repair of submarines and other naval support roles and even played a part in the siege of Leningrad. She has served the Imperial Russian, Soviet and Russian navies, and has now been in commission for 106 years. 

The oldest known warship in active service is believed to be a Brazilian gunboat commissioned in 1937 and remains active to this day. There are also still a small number of other WW2 vessels in active service, mostly amphibious ships, including some in the Philippines navy. One of their landing ships was originally commissioned in 1943, and took part in D-Day, and has now served for almost 80 years.  

For many of these elderly vessels, it remains unclear how much longer they can stay in service. If they are relatively lightly used and well maintained, then it is entirely possible that they could keep sailing for many years to come, although whether they would be credible combatants in war is debatable.  

There are plenty of more modern ships out there though that are surprisingly old designs. The largest aircraft carriers in the world are the US Navy'sNimitz’ class. The oldest of these, the USS Nimitz began construction in 1968 (53 years ago) and has been in service since 1975.  

Now approaching her 46th birthday, the USS Nimitz is likely to remain in service until at least 2025, and possibly longer. This will make her well over 50 years old by the time she leaves active service. The last of the Nimitz class (USS George Bush) entered service in 2006 and is likely to remain in service until the 2060s, suggesting that the Nimitz class will spend somewhere in the region of 80- 90  years in active service. 

In the Royal Navy, there are fewer elderly ships in service. The oldest warship in active commission is HMS Ledbury, a Hunt class mine warfare vessel, which has been in service since 1981 and turns 40 this year. The Hunt class are unusual as their hull is made from glass-reinforced plastic, making them much easier to keep in service for longer as their hull requires less maintenance and support than comparable steel hulls.  

formation of five RAF Puma helicopters (5-Ship) from 33 Sqn, RAF Benson
Formation of five RAF Puma helicopters from 33 Sqn, RAF Benson. UK MOD © Crown copyright 2020

The issue of maintenance is important to consider when thinking about how long military equipment can stay in service. Many designs were not intended for the service life they are likely to have – the designers of the B52 almost certainly never envisaged the aircraft lasting until its 100th birthday.  

This poses a range of challenges, for example keeping an aircraft or ship going for far longer than originally planned can be a maintenance nightmare. Some systems may not be intended for the extended length of use, and not be intended for replacement or upgrading.  

Keeping vehicles, ships and aircraft going for longer can be an expensive and technically challenging business. It requires a lot of work to keep legacy equipment going, often long after the original equipment manufacturer has gone out of business, and spares can become hard to find.  

At the same time, these designs were never intended to cope with the sort of modern technology that exists now, so fitting new weapons or sensors can be a challenge. How do you wire up and integrate an entirely new radar system to a warship that was never designed to carry it, using technology that wasn’t invented when it was built? The business of keeping older ships refitted and able to use this equipment without causing wider technical issues is extremely challenging.  

Modern military planners have a difficult balancing act to strike. In a time of limited budgets, it makes sense to try to keep older equipment in service for as long as possible, getting the maximum possible value from it. This means that carrying out life extensions is a good way to keep equipment in service and can be far more economical than buying new kit.  

But, if the refit is delayed or goes wrong, then that can lead to a massive hole in a country’s defences while the work goes on. In India for example, the purchase of a second hand former Soviet aircraft carrier (the Admiral Gorshkov), and conversion to extend the ship’s life massively overran in both cost and budget, with the ship eventually entering service nearly 8 years later than planned.  

There is a wider risk too in that as the older designs continue in service, well past the initially planned lifespan, the greater the risk is that something catastrophic could happen to force the grounding of the fleet. For example, the RAF had to withdraw its Valiant bombers far earlier than planned in the 1960s due to unexpected fatigue issues – at the time there were other aircraft available that could fill the gap.  

But if something happened that grounded the Chinook or B52 force in the future, and which was so serious that it would keep them on the ground for years to come until fixed, would it be possible to replace them and the military capability they provide in a hurry? How do you fill the gap if your main airlift force is grounded, and what do you do if faced with an unexpected bill for hundreds of millions of pounds for repairs?

US Air Force B52 aircraft seen out of RAF Typhoon. Credit Corporal Alex Scott . MoD Crown Copyright 2020

This is a real concern because the older these assets get, the more likely it is that something will happen which poses a major challenge. The risk is that with no money to pay for repairs, it forces governments into either withdrawing desperately needed military assets, impacting on operations, or having to make difficult decisions about what to cut to fund repairs. 

The final challenge with running equipment on long past its planned retirement date is that it can make it harder to maintain a domestic industry to replace the kit in due course.

For example, in the 1960s the Canadians built a series of ship classes to re-equip their navy.  

These ships were run on longer than expected, and there were delays to starting the replacement vessels to the point that an entirely new shipbuilding industry had to be built from scratch to build the Halifax class frigate in the late 1980s.  

In turn, the Halifax class are now elderly, but due to the lack of interim orders, the shipbuilding industry that created them has closed. Their replacements (likely to be the Type 26 frigate design), will be more expensive due to the need to rebuild from scratch a Canadian military shipbuilding industry.  

In the UK, the decision was taken in the 1990s to delay ordering the design following on from the Trafalgar class of nuclear attack submarine. This meant there was nearly a 20-year gap between HMS Triumph entering service, and HMS Astute commissioning. This led to a huge collapse in skills in the submarine building facilities in Barrow and put the programme at significant risk.  

Keeping production lines going, and ordering replacements may be expensive, but it needs to be balanced off against how much more expensive replacements may be years later. It also may be the difference between building a design at home, supporting a national defence industry, or having to rely on foreign industries to build it on your behalf.  

There are some really difficult decisions for military planners and budget officials to grapple with when deciding to keep extending equipment in service. It brings real benefits but can also come with a much bigger price if something goes wrong – trying to strike that balance is difficult at times, and there is no easy answer.  

The only certainty is that we live in a world where equipment is likely to stay in service longer than ever before. In the UK, the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier is likely to be in service until the late 2060s, meaning that the last Captain of the ship has almost certainly not been born yet, nor have the parents of some of the younger crew members    

Meanwhile, in the US, at least three generations of families (grandparents, parents and their children) have now flown the B52, and it’s likely that their great-grandchildren may also fly it too.

It is, quite literally, a family affair!

 

This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.

This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.

Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.