WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Army imported top-line Sovie tanks and other military hardware through the port of Baltimore last month as part of a secret arms-transfer program arranged recently with Germany, according to U.S. and German military and diplomatic officials.
The weapons are expected to improve U.S. intelligence assessments of Soviet military technology while helping the German government dispose of equipment it inherited from the East German National People's Army after East and West Germany merged last October, the officials explained.
Some of the equipment is also likely to end up in the arsenal of the "opposing force" at the Army's National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., where teams of experts in Soviet-style battlefield tactics routinely engage U.S. forces in mock desert warfare, the officials said.
"I don't think [all] this has seen . . . the light of day," said a staff member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who confirmed the existence of the secret program but declined to discuss it.
"You might say that this comes under the saying, 'We share many things with our allies.' "
Several U.S. officials and arms experts agreed that the Soviet materiel from Germany could be more valuable than the plethora of Iraqi-owned Soviet equipment U.S. troops are now hauling back from the Persian Gulf.
The tanks sold to Eastern European allies were usually equipped with high-tech accessories and improvements that were missing from most Middle East export models, they said.
Within the Soviet bloc, the East Germans were known to have received the best in Soviet weaponry.
Because considerable secrecy surrounds the arms transfers, it remains unclear how much equipment will be obtained from Germany and how many other shipments are due in Baltimore.
At the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Charles Eichelberger, the Army's deputy chief of staff for intelligence, advised subordinates last week not to answer any questions about the program.
Nonetheless, a senior German military official said Friday that the U.S. Army has received at least tentative approval for the delivery of 50-70 Soviet tanks for the National Training Center alone.
"I understand larger numbers to be coming in," said the German official, who did not want to be named.
In Washington, a Defense Department spokesman and the U.S. Military Sealift Command responded to inquiries by acknowledging that the Sealift Command chartered a freighter, the Mallory Lykes, to carry "Soviet-bloc equipment from East Germany" to the United States last month.
The container ship docked in Baltimore April 17 and unloaded Soviet T-72 and T-55 main battle tanks, assorted signal and communications equipment and small battlefield weapons, apparently including grenade and rocket launchers, automatic rifles and mortars, according to the Military Traffic Management Command, which handles the movement of military cargo.
Mona Goss, a spokeswoman for the command, said the ship carried 50 pieces of Soviet equipment, half of which was delivered to Aberdeen Proving Ground and the rest bound for Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.
Another MTMC official suggested that the actual number was much larger since an entire cargo container was counted by the command as a single "piece" of equipment.
L Military manuals were also part of the cargo, Ms. Goss said.
The T-72, bearing a 125mm gun with an automatic loader, has been one of the leading tanks in the Soviet army, its former WarsawPact allies and such longtime Soviet clients as Iraq.
The tank entered production as early as 1971, but several later versions have been fitted with night-fighting capability, tougher armor and a computerized fire control system with laser range finder to find targets, aim and fire.
The T-55 is a much older, simpler tank with a 100mm gun. But reconfigured versions, which were deployed mainly among Warsaw Pact armies, have been equipped with advanced fire control systems and tougher armor.
Of particular interest to some analysts is the extent to which the tanks have been protected with shell-resistant composite armor -- consisting of many layers of steel, ceramics and plastics -- or state-of-the-art "reactive" armor, which uses explosive material that can defeat a variety of anti-tank weapons.
Saying he would like to have a chance to fire ammunition at it, an Army officer who recently commanded a tank battalion in Europe said, "We'd want to make sure we have the ammunition that can penetrate [the latest Soviet armor] to make sure we have the right match."
Both the Aberdeen and Yuma facilities serve as weapons testing grounds and "foreign materials intelligence" centers.
At both sites, research teams are likely to run the Soviet tanks through test courses, fire their guns and hit them with a variety of armor-piercing ammunition, the Army officer said.
It is also possible that analysts would study how the tanks are protected from nuclear, biological and chemical warfare.