As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The U.S. military occasionally takes that idea to an extreme, using some equipment every day that has been around for decades.
Task & Purpose asked the services to name some of the oldest pieces of equipment they still use to this day. Here’s what we found:
Analog navigation tools
Today’s sailors use analog tools like the sextant, paper charts, protractors, and the compass for ocean navigation, some of which even predate the founding of the U.S. Navy, said David L. Clark, a spokesperson for the Navy.
Sailors are taught to use these tools in case digital communications systems, like GPS, go down or get jammed by an enemy.
“The ability of a sailor to go out on the ship’s deck and use visual indicators to understand their location is important,” Clark said. “The use of tools like these is how the U.S. Navy won the Pacific War against Japan.”
The USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship afloat and one of the Navy’s six original frigates. It was commissioned on Oct. 21, 1797. Made of wood and vaguely pirate-esque, the ship’s construction was authorized by the Naval Act of 1794.
The Constitution is most known for its actions during the War of 1812 against the United Kingdom where sailors captured merchant ships and defeated five British warships. It earned the nickname “Old Ironsides.”
Following the war, the ship took up various non-combat roles and has remained an active duty ship for over two centuries. The ship’s crew of active duty sailors promotes American naval heritage through educational outreach, public access, and historic demonstrations. It regularly sails around its home port in the Boston Harbor.
The KC-135 Stratotanker is primarily used for aerial refueling support to Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and allied aircraft. Almost all of its internal fuel can be pumped through the aircraft’s flying boom, with a boom operator stationed in the plane’s rear of the plane during in-flight air refueling. The KC-135 can refuel two receiver aircraft at once.
The Air Force’s oldest KC-135Rs that are still active were delivered and accepted into service inventory in the summer of 1958.
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The Air Force has been working to phase out KC-135s for a generation, first with KC-10s — which themselves will now all be retired by the end of 2024 — and the KC-46 Pegasus. But the Air Force’s fleet of nearly 400 KC-135s remains flying and refueling around the world.
The Stratotanker can be used for aeromedical evacuations, and carry up to 83,000 pounds of cargo and up to 37 passengers. Each KC-135 costs roughly $39.6 million, versus over $240 million for each KC-46.
The B-52 Stratofortress is a long-range, heavy bomber that can be used for both strategic attacks, including carrying nuclear bombs and close-air support for troops in direct combat on the ground.
Though the first B-52s were delivered to the Air Force in the early 1950s, all of the oldest B-52 models have retired. The Air Force only currently flies the B-52H models. Still, they are getting up in the sky. The oldest one actively flying entered the service’s inventory in January 1960, according to Maj. Kaitlin D. Holmes, an Air Force spokesperson.
The bomber can fly up to 50,000 feet and can carry nuclear or precision-guided munitions.
The first B-52s arrived just after the Korean War and have been used in every U.S. conflict since. B-52s played a significant role in the Vietnam War and more specifically in Operation Linebacker II. B-52 aircrews dropped more than 15,000 tons of bombs on military targets during the operation and “helped force the North Vietnamese back to the peace table,” according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
During Operation Desert Storm, B-52s delivered 40% of weapons dropped by coalition forces.
The B-52 returned to the Central Command in 2016 for the first time in a decade with nearly 1,800 combat sorties against ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq.
The Air Force expects to operate B-52s through 2050.
M2 .50-caliber machine gun
Known among troops as “Ma Deuce,” soldiers have used the M2 .50 caliber rifle since World War II. It’s also seen combat in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada, Operation Just Cause in Panama, the Gulf War, the Battle of Mogadishu, and the Global War on Terror.
The Army is still buying them today. In October, a Nevada company, U.S. Ordnance, was awarded a $16,364,451 contract for M2A2, enough to buy approximately 1,000 of the machine guns.
The modern-day M2 was modeled after John M. Browning’s Model of the M1917 .30-caliber Browning heavy machine gun, a crew-served, belt-fed, water-cooled weapon system that saw use toward the end of the First World War. The munition Browning developed, known as the .50 BMG, entered official service with the Army in 1921 and is still being used today.
After WWI, the M1917 became the standard heavy machine gun of both the Army and the Marine Corps. The gun’s design was modified and refined over the years. In 1933, Colt unveiled the M2 Browning which became the modern-day M2A1 with a quick-change barrel. Today, it’s also used by the Marine Corps.
Another piece of equipment that’s stuck around, while less impressive, it’s still just as useful – the metal canteen.
American soldiers have drunk from essentially unchanged canteens in the French trenches during World War I, at Special Forces camps in Vietnam, and with coalition forces during the invasion of Iraq.
During the American Revolution and early 20th century, soldiers used canteens made of wood and tin. In 1909, the Infantry Equipment Board shifted to containers made from aluminum and steel. In 1962, the M-1961 became the Army standard and was made out of olive drab polyethylene.
Modern canteens have also been made of hard plastic, but metal ones are still around.
“The metal canteen cup is intended to hold hot liquids, such as coffee or soup, and can be used to boil liquids. Because of this need to handle heat, the metal cup is still used with the M1961 plastic canteen,” according to a Facebook page titled “Army Water Bottles and Mess Kits Collection.”
Eventually, troops’ need for water on the battlefield led to the creation of the modern-day CamelBak. However troops in Afghanistan and Iraq still sometimes opted for the green, kidney-shaped plastic canteens.
The Marine Corps still has two swords from the 19th century in its stock but they are only used for ceremonial purposes these days.
The Mameluke Sword is the oldest weapon still in use in the U.S. Marine Corps’ arsenal. The Mameluke Sword was originally given to Lt. Presley O’Bannon in 1805 by a Mameluke chieftain in North Africa. O’Bannon and his Marines marched across 600 miles of North African desert to rid the “shores of Tripoli” of pirates and rescue kidnapped crew from the USS Philadelphia. By 1825, all Marine Corps officers carried the sword in recognition of the Marine Corps’ first battle on foreign soil, according to the service.
The NCO Sword, adopted in 1859, is carried by Marine Noncommissioned Officers and Staff Noncommissioned Officers.
Amphibious assault vehicle
Today’s modern-day amphibious assault vehicle can trace its origin to the 1920s and 30s when Marine Corps planners were preparing for a Pacific war against the Japanese empire.
The Marine Corps took the Alligator, an amphibious rescue vehicle, and developed a more powerful steel-plated military version called the Landing Vehicle Tracked, or LVT. It was originally built in 1941 as an unarmoured cargo carrier but eventually acquired armor. There were two types: an armored amphibious personnel and cargo carrier and a turreted amphibious gun-vehicle for close fire support during landing operations.
Around 18,620 LVTs were built during World War II. They played a prominent role in the island battles in the Pacific like Guadalcanal.
After several iterations, in 1985 the LVTP-7 was redesignated the AAVP7A1, going from a landing vehicle to an assault vehicle. Despite its amphibious qualities, the AAVP7A1 has been used in land-centric conflicts like the Iraq War.
The Marine Corps is currently phasing out the AAV with the amphibious combat vehicle. The AAV continues to be used by Marines for ground training while being permanently banned from the water.
“AAVs will only return to operating in the water if needed for crisis response,” Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Jim Stenger said in 2021.
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