Broken Bombers, Broken Hearts

ENGELS AIR BASE, Central Russia -- General Pyotr Sharikov scowled as he watched workers ripping chucks off Tupolev 95 "Bear" strategic bombers that littered the military airstrip like broken, oversized toys.


A general in the Russian strategic bomber force, Sharikov was helping to host a visit Tuesday by U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry to this base near the Volga city of Saratov, 800 kilometers southeast of Moscow, but it was clear his heart was not in it.


"It hurts to watch this; I flew these planes," Sharikov said as Russian workmen carved up wings with American-made power saws. "In terms of defusing tensions, this is a big deal, I guess, but it is offensive to me as a flyer.


"We don't have to destroy perfectly good aircraft," he said as he stood in what is nicknamed "the boneyard." Behind him, U.S.-built cranes and tractors pushed around amputated pieces of fuselage and turboprop engines. Propellers lay stacked in a corner, next to a heap of lopped-off wings, their red stars gleaming dully.


Perry was in Engels to witness Bear and Bison bombers being eliminated under the START I Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the help of $4 million in U.S. equipment and technical assistance.


The equipment ranges from ordinary power saws to a device called the "guillotine," a duplicate of which is currently being used by the United States to dismantle B-52 bombers under START I at an air base in Arizona. The guillotine is a 1.5-ton metal blade suspended from a large crane that is dropped onto the bombers to slice them up.


Colonel Vladimir Kurganikov, commander of Engels Air Base, told Perry that when the device becomes operable July 3, it will cut through the jets "like a knife through hot butter."


The terms of START I require that bombers be broken into a number of pieces. The tails are cut off and left on the tarmac for several days so that they can be observed by overhead intelligence satellites.


Perry was wined and dined at a sumptuous banquet and was presented a steering wheel from a dismantled Bear bomber, whose crews once trained for nuclear strikes against the United States.


"Anybody downsizing their force is going to feel badly about it," said General Gary Rubus, U.S. defense attach? in Moscow, who flew combat missions over North Vietnam against Soviet-made bombers. "But as an airman, it makes me feel pretty good watching this. These are weapons of mass destruction, and I'm glad to see them go."


Later, at a smaller banquet with U.S. officials based in Moscow, after Perry's converted Boeing 747 had departed for Kazakhstan, someone proposed a toast to destroying as many of the bombers as possible. As a Russian officer seated across from him lifted his glass, Sharikov muttered quietly: "I won't drink to that, major; watch what you are drinking to."


During the bumpy ride back to Moscow in an Antonov 26 twin-engine plane, a lieutenant colonel who introduced himself as Yura offered an explanation for the officers' dour mood.


"I served the Soviet Union all these years," he said. "Now I don't know who we serve. Probably the American government."