Attrition: Cold War Memories Blown Away

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September 4, 2008:For the third time this year, a Cold War era Russian ammunition deport caught fire and exploded, with the mayhem going on for days. It began on August 27th, with a nearby forest fire. This spread to the ammo dump, and soon the explosions began. That continued for several days. Troops and families were evacuated from a nearby military base in Lozovaya. This is in eastern Ukraine, near the city of Kharkov. Before 1991, the depot, and army base, were part of the Soviet Union armed forces. The Ukrainians inherited the base, and its vast quantities of ammo (stockpiled for an invasion of West Europe), after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

The last such ammo catastrophe took place on July 10th, when the old Soviet military base in Uzbekistan, bear the city of Bukhara, caught fire and began exploding. Windows were shattered in Bukhara, even though it is 12 kilometers from the depot. There were hundreds of casualties, and apparently the fires are still burning.

Poor Russian ammo storage practices led to a major loss of expensive missiles three months ago, on May 23rd, at an airbase 250 kilometers northeast of St Petersburg, Russia. A fire in a missile storage facility there, led to the destruction of nearly 500 air-to-air missiles. For over an hour, nearby civilians could see and hear explosions, including several missiles which flew skyward and landed outside the base.

Since the end of the Cold War, there have been several known accidents in Russian designed missile storage areas. Each time, it was apparently poor layout and management of the sites which caused the problem. Many existing munitions storage sites still have the poor layout, and lax practices of the Soviet era.

The list of known disasters is long. Three years ago, in the Kamchatka Peninsula, at the main naval base of the Pacific Fleet, a fire broke out in an ammo depot. Like many other Cold War era ammo depots, this one contained large quantities of very old ammunition. In this case, thousands of shells were stacked in the open, in preparation of destroying them. Somehow a fire broke out, and hundreds of these shells exploded. Some 4,000 local civilians were evacuated.

In 2004, an ammunition storage depot in Ukraine went up in flames, accompanied by massive explosions. Eleven years ago, a major ammunition depot in Siberia caught fire, and thousands of tons of ammo burned and exploded. But hundreds of tons of grenades, shells, and bulk explosives were blown clear of the area. For years, local civilians have been collecting this stuff, and selling it to criminals. A year later, another Siberian depot exploded, sending some shells flying for over ten kilometers. Several local civilians were killed.

The worst of these disasters occurred in 1984, when the main ammo depot of the Soviet northern fleet went up, destroying so many missiles that the fleet was critically short of munitions, and not combat ready, for six months.

The end of the Cold War left millions of tons of military weapons, equipment and ammunition scattered all over the Soviet Union. Nearly half of the Soviet Union turned into 14 new nations, when the union dissolved in 1991. All Soviet military gear sitting in those new nations, when the split became effective, now owned that stuff. These new nations could not afford to take care of all this military material, nor dispose of it safely. Some was sold, but there was no market for much of it. So there is sits, waiting to burn and explode. Russia and some Western nations are contributing cash and expertise to get rid of the most dangerous items. But this takes times, and frequently, the local government does not cooperate (they want a bribe, or to be paid for the destroyed goods, or are simply paranoid).

 


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