German cruise missile site on the eve of dismantling

Most of the 96 wooden crosses outside the fence of this United States air station are beginning to topple over. Thrown up during a flurry of peace protests four years ago, each cross represents a cruise missile that was supposed to be stationed here.

But like the crosses themselves, the missiles will soon be gone.

W"uschheim is one of the places where the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President Reagan last December, is being put into action.

It was the first of six cruise missile sites in Western Europe to be visited by Soviet teams, which counted missiles, weighed canisters, and poked around in storage buildings. And they'll be back - to make sure the weapons have been removed in accordance with the treaty. Sometime soon, possibly within weeks, the first US missiles will be pulled out of Western Europe.

Soviet inspectors landed in Italy last week to inspect the last of the NATO European bases called for under the treaty. These inspections allow each side to check the other's stockpile to see that information exchanged under the treaty is correct.

The two-month period reserved for inspections ended yesterday. Elimination of US missiles can now begin at any time. Indeed, the Soviets, with a much larger stockpile, began destroying missiles on Aug. 1.

At facilities such as W"uschheim, however, the focus is on nitty-gritty details such as putting up bilingual signs - in Russian and English - in the quarters where Soviets were housed during their recent inspection.

Having a Russian anywhere inside the security fence would have been unthinkable here just a year ago. Now, they even have a makeshift office on the base, equipped with a telephone that allows them to call directly to their embassy in Bonn. Next to the phone: neatly typed dialing instructions.

Members of the US Air Force's 38th Tactical Missile Wing, which operates W"uschheim, say they're getting used to the intrusions. ``I rather enjoyed it,'' says Lt. Col. Bruce Berry.

Once the order comes to remove the missiles, he says, the weapons will be taken out of reinforced bunkers, loaded on transports, and driven to a nearby air base for the flight back to the US.

Despite the wooden crosses, W"uschheim never got its full allotment of 96 missiles. Deployments were halted at 64 last December, when Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty.

Under the accord, all the missiles have to be destroyed by the end of May, 1991. Defense analysts expect the US to pace itself carefully, since the Soviets have 1,836 missiles to eliminate, while the US has only 859.

All cruise missiles will be taken to an air base near Tucson, Arizona to be destroyed. Pershing 2 and Pershing 1A missiles - the other US weapons covered by the treaty - will be dismantled and the parts shipped to Colorado and Texas for final disposal.

And it's not just missiles which are slated for the scrap pile.

The huge launch vehicles and missile storage canisters must be eliminated, as well as specially designed training equipment which mimics real missiles. And finally, to make sure the bases can't be used for these weapons again, storage bunkers and other key structures will be bulldozed.

No one is quite sure what will become of W"uschheim after the missiles are gone. Ironically, much of what's here now was built only recently - specifically for ground-launched cruise missiles.

Additionally, military planners also won't say when the first US missiles are scheduled to leave. Indeed, a visit to W"uschheim includes a strange moment in the middle of a briefing, when the Air Force spokesman stops, ponders, then adds: ``Of course, we can't confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons at this installation.''

Meanwhile, the anti-missile protesters seem satisfied that the weapons finally are on their way out. The peace movement still has an office in the nearby village of Kastellaun, but the big demonstrations outside the main gates have subsided.

Heidrun Kisters, a local activist, says the removal of the INF missiles is the first in what she hopes will be a series of arms reductions. Indeed, peace activists say they have no intention of letting up pressure now.

``Our work isn't aimed at a single weapon system,'' she says. ``Our objective is a world free of all weapons.''

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