Demilitarization: from fighter jet to civilian aircraft

It is a little known fact that civilians can obtain, own and even operate a fighter jet. However, there are two conditions that have to be met before this can become a reality. Firstly, the process must be permitted in the country of residence and, secondly, the buyer must have incredibly deep pockets. 

If both of these conditions are met, then there is nothing standing in the way of piloting your very own fighter jet. At least, this appears to be the case if we’re to believe the countless tales of millionaires owning MiGs that are often published in lifestyle magazines. 

However, the reality is far more complicated. Even if a seller is willing to part with a retired fighter jet, the aircraft must go through a lengthy and rigorous process to ensure that the product can no longer be used to cause harm. While owning a supersonic war machine may seem like an exciting opportunity, providing a tech company CEO with the capability to carpet-bomb their competitors is not on anyone’s agenda. 

The process of removing or damaging important bits of a weaponry, so that it can no longer be considered a weapon, is called demilitarization.

Now, in aviation this word can mean several different things depending on the context. This is because demilitarized jets can be used for multiple purposes, including as display pieces and real combat aircraft stand-ins. Each requires a different approach. 

So, what needs to happen to a fighter jet before it can be owned by a civilian?

Used fighter-jets: what are they used for? 

Normally, when an air force decides that a fighter jet is no longer needed, it faces one of two possible outcomes. The jet can be scrapped, which means it will be recycled at a boneyard where it is likely to be turned into items such as soda cans and keyrings. Or, it will be sold to a foreign power that believes it can still make use of the aircraft. A rare third outcome is Military-to-civilian transfer, a process that lies somewhere in the middle. 

Certain transfers continue to utilize the aircraft for military-related purposes. This can include selling jets to private military corporations (PMCs). Some PMC-owned ex-military aircraft actively participate in military actions and, presumably, do not undergo significant transformations when changing hands. But those cases are often shady and not particularly legal, so it’s impossible to acquire further information. Nevertheless, we can presume this method of transfer is the most uncomplicated. For example, ex-Russian Air Force MiG-29s were used by the Wagner Group in Libya and it is highly likely that the only conversion was a coat of paint applied over their red star roundels. Yet, referring to these jets as ‘civilian’ is also not entirely correct. 

Most PMC-owned air forces do not go to war and jets are strictly used for training and various exercises. The US Air Force alone pays billions of dollars to companies that provide adversary air services (ADAIR) – fly foreign-made aircraft in simulated combat.  These aircraft, often bought from France, Israel, Australia or other NATO countries or allies, undergo more significant changes than those transferred between just two air forces. But they also retain part of their military capability. 

It is another fate entirely for jets purchased by non-military-affiliated individuals (basically, people that want a fighter jet for their own entertainment) rather than PMCs. This is the most complicated case as decisions are based on individual cases and need to factor in various circumstances.  

Demilitarizing military jets often means completely gutting the aircraft to remove all traces of military hardware. But the flight capabilities are retained. Another type of demilitarization is the preparation of an aircraft for static display.. In this case, transferring a jet to civilians can require the removal of all military hardware and the flight capabilities are retained. However, sometimes these are also removed. When carrying out the demilitarization of an aircraft for a static display, say, for a museum or some other facility, every aspect of the aircraft must be deemed safe. 

Who does it?

When a military jet is sold to another air force, the unit personnel, which served with the jet, is typically tasked with preparing it for departure.  

The preparation usually includes a form of downgrading where any equipment deemed not for sale is removed. Usually, this does not take long. A good example took place in early 2019, when Australia sold two dozen of its McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornets to Canada. The aircraft was disassembled and ready to be airlifted within a couple of months. While some political and technical hurdles stalled this departure for over a year, the transfer process was uncomplicated. 

At the other end of the spectrum, is the complete transformation of aircraft as it is returned to a shell. The Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, a cold-war icon and the first mass-produced stealth aircraft, was endowed with a host of features that the US military did not want to divulge. This included a top secret stealth coating. So, when retired, F-117s were not only sripped of their engines, avionics, weapon systems and parts of fuselage such as exhaust tiles, but blasted with toxic chemicals to remove any trace of classified material. The process was difficult and dangerous, so much so that it was abhorred by the Lockheed Martin personnel who performed it. Additionally, the task was carried out by workers at Skunk Works, the same division that designed the aircraft. In the end, all the Nighthawks located in aviation museums across the US are, in essence, simply empty airframes with mock-up parts and basic, non-stealth paint.

When an aircraft is going to be transferred to a private air force or to an individual, demilitarization usually involves a unit or company that also performs regular maintenance on the jet. For example, other Australian F/A-18 Hornets were bought by a PMC called Air USA. Their conversion was significantly more difficult than those sold to Canada and required 24 additional workers added to the personnel of RAAF Base Williamtown. 

Most of the work was to ensure compliance with US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of Justice, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) regulations. To receive an import permit, and then be approved for civilian operation, an aircraft has to no longer feature “guns, cannons, targeting radars, electronic jammers, jettisonable stores or explosive devices”. Perhaps in the coming years, laser systems might be added to this list. In most cases, a PMC, which imports aircraft, works closely with an air force, which sells it, to ensure that all dangerous devices are removed in the correct manner. This is even the case if some of these capabilities need to be reinstated at a later date. 

One might think that American fighter jets purchased by American companies or citizens would be an exception to the rule. Sometimes, that is the case. For example, in 2019, three non-demilitarized General Dynamics F-16s were put on sale in Florida through the company JetLease. The jets came from the Royal Jordanian Air Force and, despite the media buzz surrounding the sale as the aircraft still retained their capabilities, the jets have not yet been imported to the US. However, they have still been cleared for sale without undergoing the demilitarization process.

Conversely, there have been several cases where US regulators have prevented fully demilitarized aircraft from private ownership. For example, in 2007 four Grumman F-14 Tomcats were seized – three museum pieces and one TV show prop – and were declared as having not been demilitarized “properly”. Why? Well, the reason for this is quite simple. After being retired in the US, the F-14 was only operated by Iran, an adversary country, which has been forced to maintain their Tomcats without proper support. So, any possibility of spare parts finding their way to Iran was seen as unacceptable. Therefore, owning an F-14, even one deemed unflyable, is practically impossible for a private individual. 

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