Visitors to Davis-Monthan AFB near Tucson are often surprised by the huge number of old aircraft, parked in neat rows in the desert, and slowly baking in the Arizona sun. It looks like some sort of "ghost fleet," encompassing everything from retired fighter jets to decommissioned airliners. More than 4,200 aircraft are now "stored" at the base, and their numbers continue to grow.
But there's a mission behind those aging aircraft. The Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) is a one-of-a-kind unit within the Air Force, providing critical maintenance and restoration capabilities for both DoD and allied militaries around the world. Tucson's desert climate allows retired aircraft to be stored in the open, almost indefinitely. The former warbirds and civilian jets can then be cannibalized for spare parts, saving money on replacement components.
In some cases, the AMARG may be only option for spares. Like an outdated car, it is often difficult to find parts for an aircraft that is past its operational prime. Rather than fabricate a new component from scratch, the same part can often be procured--at much lower cost--from the "Boneyard," as the AMARG is more widely known.
Sadly, some of the old warbirds at the boneyard face a different fate. While stationed at D-M in the mid-1990s, I would sometimes watch a guillotine device bludgeon retired B-52s. Under terms of an arms control treaty with the Russians, the bombers had to be destroyed, and the guillotine chopped the Buffs into unusable pieces. After a short interval (to allow Russian satellites to record the destruction), the debris was sold for scrap and trucked away.
Now, the former pride of the Navy fighter fleet--the F-14 Tomcat--is facing a similar, ignominious end. A St. Louis firm is in the process of shredding 23 retired Tomcats at the AMARG, and others may follow. In January, the Associated Press reported that sensitive F-14 equipment had made its way to buyers representing Iran, China and other U.S. adversaries. After that disclosure, DoD elected to shred the F-14s, despite the fact that the technology is rather dated.
The Missouri company--TRI-Rinse, Inc.--has been paid $900,000 to destroy the first batch of F-14s, and the 142 Tomcats remaining at Davis-Monthan may meet the shredder in the future. An AMARG spokesperson told the AP that the Boneyard's collection are all that remain of the 633 produced for the Navy in the 1970s. The rest were cannibalized for spare parts, crashed, or were transferred to aviation museums.
Iran, of course, has a vested interest in obtaining F-14 parts. It was the only other country to receive the Tomcat (back in the days of the Shah), and Tehran has labored for years to keep its F-14s flying. Today, the Iranian Air Force has no more than 6-8 "flyable" Tomcats, and there is considerable doubt about that operational status of their powerful radar and long-range "Phoenix" missiles.
That's why we've been skeptical about efforts to limit the flow of F-14 technology; not only is it old, the apparent trickle of parts hasn't been enough to get more of Iran's Tomcats in the air. By that standard, perhaps we ought to be shredding F-4s stored at D-M; after all, the Iranians have had much more success in getting parts and components for their Phantoms, which pose a far greater threat (at least in terms of numbers) than the F-14.
Better yet, how about redirecting the money spent on shredding Tomcats toward protecting newer technology that is being targeted by our enemies? As Bill Gertz of the Washington Times reported last Friday, the Commerce Department has actually loosened some export licensing requirements for selected items (with military applications) that can be sold to China. While the new rules do provide tighter restrictions on other items, one defense official described the modified requirements as "a road map for...weapons collection efforts, in essence a target list."
Meanwhile, that shredder keeps churning in Arizona, reducing once-proud combat jets into 2'x2' chunks of scrap metal and preventing "proliferation" of state-of-the-art military components--from 1978. The F-14 deserves a better fate, and quite frankly, we deserve a better approach for "protecting" sensitive defense technology.