The problem of disposing of unwanted armored fighting vehicles is not a new one. In fact, it can be traced back to 1919, when the armies of Europe first had to deal with the huge stocks of tanks they had so rapidly accumulated since 1916.
The first and most obvious answer is to scrap them, but one issue that often crops up after major conflicts is a surplus of scrap metal, which depresses scrap prices. This means heavy armored vehicles often cost more to dismantle than they are subsequently worth as scrap. Furthermore, with the advent of new composite armor designs, recycling has become even more complicated, as the materials have to be separated and sorted out.
In Britain, many of those post-WW1 unwanted tanks were donated to the towns which had raised funds through war bond drives. These tanks were delivered by the army and gifted to the town as memorials to the war. For various reasons, very few lasted past the 1930s, as it was not long before their presence became an unwanted reminder of a war that left barely a town or village in the country without a lost son, brother or father. The few that remained were almost all taken for scrap as the Second World War began.
Over the decades, the problem has remained and the solutions have remained pretty much the same as well. Scrapping, donation or sale to smaller, less developed nations, donation to museums, private sale to collectors, conversion into other military roles (something done with particular prevalence by Israel) have all been used, but there is one last role that is growing in popularity. This is the deliberate sinking of surplus military vehicles to form artificial reefs, for either environmental or tourism projects.
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One of the best known of these military surplus reefs is just off the Jordanian coast, in the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea, near the town of Aqaba.
Save the Corals with Tanks!
The project started in 1985, when the Jordanian King, King Abdullah II, requested that a Lebanese freighter, the ‘Cedar Pride’, be sunk to form an artificial reef for divers. The 74-meter wreck lies on its side in 28 meters of water. In 1998, another wreck was added, this time by the Jordanian Royal Ecological Diving Society (J.E.D.S.). This was the first ‘tank’ of the reef, in fact, an American-built M42 ‘Duster’ self-propelled anti-aircraft gun. The Duster is only 20 meters from the shore and only 6 meters deep, making for an accessible wreck for snorkelers as well as divers.
In November 2017, another wreck was added, this time a plane, to be exact, a C-130 ‘Hercules’. Sitting in about 18 meters of water not far from the Duster, the Hercules’ giant tail rises to just below the water’s surface. The plane was entirely stripped, including all doors, so the interior is completely accessible to an experienced diver.
In July 2019, the reef complex at Aqaba was added to again, this time on a scale not seen before. The Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA) was responsible for sinking the new additions and they became known as ‘The Military Museum’. Nineteen different vehicles were added in an operation that lasted seven days, at depths varying from 15 to 28 meters. Whilst snorkeling is limited to a few meters in depth, recreational scuba divers are typically limited to a maximum of 40 meters (depending on experience and qualifications), leaving the whole site accessible to most divers. The site itself lends itself to recreational diving, as the relatively shallow water, the proximity to the shore, little or no current, exceptional water clarity all allow divers to navigate from one vehicle to the next with ease. The location was deliberately chosen away from existing natural reefs to try and alleviate some of the tourism pressure on these natural reefs and to encourage coral growth in new locations.
The Underwater Exhibits
The vehicles sunk include main battle tanks, such as the Khalid, helicopters, such as the AH-1, artillery pieces, and light armored vehicles both wheeled and tracked.
The main battle tanks sunk are Jordanian Khalids, the Jordanian variant of the British Chieftain tank. The Khalid was a development of the Shir 1, which was the export variant of Chieftain for Iran. It incorporated a revised rear hull for the new Rolls-Royce CV-12 engine and improved transmission, suspension, and final drives. Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the contract was canceled and Jordan negotiated to buy 274 with the addition of further upgrades to the fire control systems.
The helicopters sunk are the Bell AH-1 ‘Huey Cobra attack helicopters. These were originally developed during the Vietnam War as armed escort helicopters to support the Bell UH-1 Iroquois. The Jordanian Air Force acquired two squadrons of AH-1F Cobras from the US Army in the late 1990s.
Artillery is also present, in the shape of the M115 203 mm towed howitzer. The M115 originally dates all the way back to WW2, although Jordan retired their four M115s in 2016.
Light tracked vehicles include the CVRT Samaritan, Spartan and Scimitar. The British-built CVRT series (Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance, Tracked) was developed and built in the 1960s and eventually ran to eight vehicles on a common chassis and a ninth using a lengthened chassis. Jordan acquired theirs through a combination of direct sales from the UK, surplus sales from Belgium, and some reportedly from Iraq after they were captured from Iranian forces.
Wheeled armor includes the CVRW Ferret (Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance, Wheeled), often just called the Ferret Scout Car, a post-war development by Daimler using much of the experience the company gained from wartime production of armored cars. The reef also includes the South African-built Ratel 20 Infantry Fighting Vehicle, built through the 1970s and 1980s. Due to sanctions in place against South Africa at the time, the vehicle was not available for export until the early 2000s, when the South African Defence Force cleared hundreds of its surplus vehicles for sale. Jordan purchased 321.
All the vehicles were stripped of anything that could cause marine pollution, including fuels, lubricants, and electrical wiring. Doors, hatches, and windows have also all been removed or secured open to allow safe entry for divers. A number of the vehicles have been placed in a mock tactical formation, giving the impression of an armored unit advancing.
In May 2020, the latest addition was made to the Aqaba man-made reefs. ASEZA scuttled a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar. ASEZA purchased the retired airliner, which had been parked at King Hussein International Airport for several years. In addition to the plane being stripped as the other vehicles had been to prevent pollution, the TriStar had to be dismantled, transported to Aqaba, and then reassembled before being sunk in a similar depth of water to the other wrecks.
At the time of writing, it is still too early to say how successful the Aqaba reefs will be, but judging by the ever-growing popularity of recreational diving and the near-perfect conditions of the location, it is hard to see it failing as a venture. Recreational diving has seen a huge uptake in participation over the last couple of decades, including a continued increase even through the global COVID-19 pandemic with its many travel restrictions in place.
The man-made reefs at Aqaba are hardly unique. In fact, there are many other man-made reefs around the world, many from scuttled ships, including the 44,000-ton former US Navy aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, sunk off the Florida coast in 2006. In service, she was nicknamed the ‘The Mighty O’, but now she is often called ‘The Great Carrier Reef’.
While the Oriskany might be the largest single vessel used for an artificial reef, Aqaba is the largest complex of artificial reefs, and that in itself puts it high on any diver’s wishlist.