The Cold War Is Really Over Now

As Russia begins to spend $650 billion to modernize their armed forces (by the end of the decade), the prime minister also ordered a dramatic step to permanently cut the Russian military loose from their Cold War past. This requires scrapping over 10 million tons of obsolete weapons (including over 20,000 tanks, over 100,000 other armored vehicles and artillery, hundreds of ships and thousands of aircraft). During the 1990s, this stuff was just left to rot in open fields, remote airbases and dingy corners of ports and naval bases. In the last decade, Russia has spent over half a billion dollars providing some security, and minimal upkeep for this stuff. For a long time, there was the hope that the abandoned weapons might be useful if there was another major war. But there's no one to operate the stuff, as the current Russian armed forces are a fifth the size of the Soviet Union military that used to own all these weapons. Moreover, more than half the equipment to be scrapped is considered obsolete (by Russian standards). Nearly all of it is considered obsolete by Western standards. The rest of the world has picked over this pile of Cold War surplus for the last two decades, and bought what they thought might be useful. That made hardly a dent in the pile of abandoned weapons and equipment.

In addition to the hardware, there are millions of tons of munitions that must be dismantled and disposed of. The explosives and rocket propellant in these devices must be carefully deactivated (or just blown up). This is an expensive process, and the government believes it will cost over $2 billion, and over five years, to get it done. The scrap metal from weapons and munitions is expected to bring in nearly $400 million.

The Russians know how to carry out this huge and complex effort because for the last two decades they have been monitoring a small firm in Germany that has dismantled, for scrap and spare parts, over 14,000 armored vehicles. Most were tanks and armored personnel carriers, and about half the vehicles were from the former East German Army (and often of Russian design or manufacture). This force, and all its Russian equipment, became surplus when the two Germanys merged in 1990. The West German Army had nearly 10,000 armored vehicles, and most of these have been scrapped because of the end of the Cold War in 1991 and a disarmament treaty (Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, or CFE) that limited the number of armored vehicles Russia and Western nations could maintain in Europe. While Western nations scrapped lots of gear to get down to the treaty limits (and replaced some of it with new stuff), Russia moved their surplus gear further east, beyond the "treaty line."

While most the German scrap metal went into the furnace to be recycled, many engines were sold off as spare parts for remaining vehicles of the same type, or for other uses. Some of the steel is very high quality, and was melted down for industrial and consumer items that require quality steel. Also removed and sorted were other types of metal, like copper. Many automotive and electrical components were also removed intact for reuse.

The work was monitored by Russian CFE inspectors, and photo satellites, to insure that combat vehicles were definitely destroyed. It takes 2-3 days to take apart a tank. Some components have to be cut into pieces that will fit into the furnace. No special tools are required for disassembly, just a lot of hard work. The firm doing all the work is called, not surprisingly, the Battle Tank Dismantling Corporation. It is located 300 kilometers southwest of Berlin. Now there will be several similar Russian dismantling operations set up, to take apart and melt down the Cold War once and for all.