The Washington Post

May 12, 1990, The Washington Post

Negotiators Ponder Fate Of Europe’s Surplus Tanks

VIENNA – Among the disarmament challenges looming in Europe is how to find a diplomatically acceptable and environmentally sound way of disposing of the 40,000 battle tanks due to be scrapped under the conventional arms treaty being negotiated here.

Cutting up the multi-ton vehicles, blowing them up or sinking them into the ocean are a few of the proposals being reviewed by negotiators now that East and West have agreed on tank ceilings to ensure parity. A consortium of British scrap dealers is reported to be preparing bids for up to 10,000 Soviet tanks that, melted down into new steel, would reappear as Japanese-made autos.

But given the vast numbers of the tanks, and the unsparing demands of treaty negotiators that the vehicles be rendered useless militarily, tank disposal could become a trap.

The Soviet Union, which will have to rid itself of the great majority of the tanks in question, presented a draft proposal April 26 for converting the tanks to civilian use as well as destroying them. “Taking into account the situation in our economy, we have a great need to convert such tanks into cranes, firefighting vehicles, bulldozers or oil rigs in the far north,” chief Soviet delegate Oleg Grinevsky told journalists after submitting the treaty protocol on destruction and conversion.

“The West is generally leery about {conversion} because of the possibility of reconverting to some type of military use,” a senior NATO negotiator said in an interview. The Western proposal on destruction does not require the East to “pulverize these things into atomic or subatomic particles” but they must be rendered completely unusable for military purposes, he said.

NATO and Warsaw Pact engineers plan meetings in Vienna to discuss the problem when the talks on Conventional Forces in Europe resume on Monday.

While the Vienna talks involve reductions not just in tanks but also in Europe-based artillery, armored personnel carriers, combat airplanes and helicopters, the destruction of the tanks poses the greatest problem since the vehicles are made to be indestructible. One Warsaw Pact member is said to be seriously weighing the use of cement-filled tanks as sea walls, while a senior NATO military adviser has suggested some could come in handy for target practice.

“Nobody knows what to do with them,” commented a delegation member. “There’s been a lot of creative thinking.”

One suggestion had the Soviet Union placing concrete-laden, decommissioned tanks in its villages as monuments to the Cold War. Soviet arms makers, at a recent trade fair in Munich, publicized their case for conversion by displaying a 36-ton T-55 battle tank rebuilt as a fire engine for putting out forest blazes in rough terrain.

But the 16 NATO states involved in the talks with the seven Warsaw Pact members resist the conversion argument. Even a top Soviet military officer, Lt. Gen. Leontiy Kuznetsov, who is chief of staff of the Moscow military district, told the West German magazine Der Spiegel that widespread civilian conversion of tanks is “economically useless” in view of their enormous fuel consumption.

Grinevsky declined to specify how many tanks Moscow intends to convert to civilian use, saying, “We are just estimating our economic needs.” The Soviet press has reported that about half of the 10,000 battle tanks currently being withdrawn from army service-many pulled out from Eastern Europe under unilateral cuts announced by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1988-will be subject to conversion.

Three Warsaw Pact members, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Bulgaria, have already begun destroying some of their tanks as part of the disbanding of tank regiments under these unilateral cuts. It has proven a painfully slow process.

“We are dismantling the tanks piece by piece,” said Col. Milos Cech, military adviser to the Czechoslovak delegation. “We are using the spare parts and cutting the rest of the tank with torches and melting it down.”

As of late April, 256 had been destroyed, an average of two to three tanks a day, Cech said. At that pace, it would take the Soviet Union up to 55 years to fulfill its treaty-mandated reductions.

The pace could quicken for sales in the international market, where scrap steel currently brings about $100 a ton-perhaps $3,600 per tank. Those under the treaty, though, must be rendered militarily useless first, and transport costs could be considerable. Still, most of the steel is high grade.

East Germany tried using lasers to demolish its T-55 battle tanks, but has found cutting them with acetylene torches and acid to be more effective and environmentally sound, Maj. Gen. Hans Deim, deputy chief of operations for the East German army, said in a recent speech. The destruction of each tank costs an average of $25,000 and requires 500 man-hours. Only 15 can be destroyed each month, he said.

“It’s only been for a relatively short period of time that people have turned their attention to this in any kind of creative way,” said the Western negotiator. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people started out to do it . . . in a kind of mechanical, very expensive, heavy way. But the more you learn about it the easier it’s going to get.”

All that is really required is the effective placement of explosive charges at two spots in the tank to destroy the gun turret as a functioning mechanism and make it impossible to replace, the senior negotiator said. The West has also submitted proposals to provide for slicing up tanks to render the chassis unusable for military purposes, while allowing for the salvage of radios and other parts.

“We’re willing to be reasonable,” said the Western representative. “They don’t have to be blown up in a ball of fire that scatters smoke and so forth all over the countryside.”