East meets west, without much friction, in the restructured German army

June 10, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

NEUBRANDENBURG, Germany -- In Europe's biggest tank workshop, the new German army has found an unlikely symbol: a 45-ton armored firetruck.

Built on the chassis of a Soviet T-55 tank, the "water buffalo" is a mixture of East and West, built in the East German workshop but now integrated into united Germany's Western-equipped army.

And with proposals calling for the tank to be sent to catastrophes around the world, it also exemplifies the army's plans to be active overseas.

This and other signs of the East and West German armies' smooth integration have confounded many critics who expected the 41-year archenemies to mix like water and oil.

In fact, the West German Bundeswehr has managed to absorb the East German National People's Army more easily than the two countries themselves are integrating.

And more importantly for the future, the newly expanded Bundeswehr is setting an example for the public and politicians by confidently taking on unprecedented overseas commitments that give skeptics little room for criticism.

Currently, for example, Bundeswehr helicopters are flying missions to remote Kurdish refugee camps in Iran. Although this means that the Bundeswehr is being deployed outside NATO territory for the first time, few left-of-center critics have been able to criticize an action that is saving lives.

"For some, this sounds the alarm," said a military analyst, Joerg Bischoff. "But who can oppose helping the Kurds?"

Other actions, such as sending helicopter minesweepers and armyoil-spill experts to the Persian Gulf, also are viewed by most people as humanitarian and thus uncontroversial, Mr. Bischoff said, although some are worried about setting precedents.

And now the "water buffalo" is being touted as a possible reinforcement for oil-fighting crews working to extinguish and cap the Kuwaiti oil fields. Capable of shooting 15,000 liters of water 80 yards in less than five minutes, it is also seen as an ideal forest fire fighter.

The huge tractor, however, is one of the few pieces of East bloc equipment to make it in the high-tech Bundeswehr.

Most of the other systems, such as the Soviet-built Type 764 armored-infantry fighting vehicle and the MI-8 and MI-14 helicopters, are viewed as temporary replacements for equipment donated to the allied war effort in Iraq or stopgaps until new NATO-standard equipmentcomes on line.

Other Soviet high-performance weapons, such as the MiG-29 fighter, have already been rejected because using them could make the military dependent on Soviet spare parts.

Tanks have also been rejected for similar reasons and because refitting them to meet more stringent Western noise and safety requirements would cost too much.

Putting career East German soldiers under Bundeswehr command has also worked relatively smoothly.

The Bundeswehr's 500,000 troops and the East German army's 130,000 are required by treaty to be united and then cut to 370,000.

The former East German army is already down to 64,000, and the Bundeswehr is slicing its share by reducing the length of military service to 12 months.

Still, there have been grumblings in the east about the low number offormer East German officers who have passed strict Bundeswehr screening procedures into the new western command structures being established.

A true assessment of the army's integration may not be possible until eastern officers successfully function in the new decentralized command structures, Mr. Bischoff believes.

"The slogans about being an armed organ of the working class have disappeared from the barracks, but what the old officers are thinking may not be apparent until they get their own command, although I don't think that this will happen for years," Mr. Bischoff said.

Some former East German soldiers, however, believe that the Bundeswehr troops are the ones with the wrong attitude.

"I sometimes feel that there is a victor's mentality among the western officers. Some are decent, but others feel they've won a war," Cpl.Karl Strauss said at the Neubrandenburg tank workshop.

Unlike most of his colleagues who collected $4,500 in compensation and left last year, Corporal Strauss has decided to try his luck with the Bundeswehr. He passed one screening, in which party activists were sent packing, and feels he has a good chance at staying on because of his specialist's knowledge in scrapping tanks.

Employment is one of the Bundeswehr's biggest roles in former East Germany.

Besides keeping an eye on the 340,000 Soviet troops still in eastern Germany, the Bundeswehr is also an employer in many economically depressed areas. With its huge halls the size of four football fields, for example, the tank workshop in Neubrandenburg employs 4,300 people.

"There are a lot of tanks here, and all of them have to go. It's a satisfying job," Corporal Strauss said.

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