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WHEN GERMANY was reunited in October 1990, after 45 years of division and Cold War confrontation, the West German army moved into bases which had previously belonged to the East Germans ranged against them. They found thousands of nearly new trucks and tanks, with just a few kilometres on the clock, full of fuel, ready to roll. The terrifying state of readiness of this equipment was - even to soldiers who had seen similar states of preparation among Nato forces - a sobering reminder of how close we had come to a Third World War.

Philip Benjamin's photographs show what has been happening since to much of the German, American, British and Russian arsenals that used to be massed in central Europe. The pictures here show US military equipment at Germersheim, 60 miles south of Frankfurt am Main, where they have been brought to be destroyed. Similar scenes can be found all across Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals, following the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty which was signed in November 1990 by the Warsaw Pact and Nato to reduce the number of heavy armaments on both sides. The process was to be checked by a rigorous programme of inspections which, it was hoped, would also build trust and confidence and make surprise attack impossible. In fact, it has all proved rather more complicated than anyone imagined: by the time the treaty came into force, in 1992, the Warsaw Pact had collapsed. The treaty, which runs in perpetuity, will be reviewed in May in the hope of taking this and other changes into account. In the meantime, however, what was designed as a treaty between two military blocs has had to be implemented in awkward co-operation between Nato and numerous countries which no longer belong to a comparable alliance (including some - the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia - which have broken up to form new states).

None the less, in spite of the transformation of the European and world order, the CFE treaty has been remarkably successful. Some 50,000 items of treaty-limited equipment - tanks, artillery, armoured troop carriers, warplanes and helicopters - have been destroyed in the three year "reduction period", which ended in November last year. Our photographs show some of the surplus equipment that is left, at Germersheim, one of the approved destruction sites.

One weakness of the treaty - perhaps an inevitable one - is that all the parties have tried to destroy old and obsolete equipment, while retaining the shiniest and newest. The hundreds of Jeeps and trucks at the US Army Depot at Germersheim are not limited by the treaty, and the Americans therefore hope to sell them. But the tanks - old M-60s - have to be destroyed. The 110-page treaty specifies four methods: severing, smashing, deformation or explosive demolition. For armoured combat vehicles, the former includes "severing sections from both sides of the hull... by vertical and horizontal cuts in the side plates" - as the photograph of a vehicle being hacked apart with oxyacetylene cutting equipment shows. Tank turrets have to be removed, the breech of the gun welded shut and the barrel chopped in half in a certain place. An alternative and much more spectacular method is "destruction by explosive demolition": four explosive charges must be fired simultaneously to crack the hull and turret, and tear the gun to pieces. But that is not always possible, especially if the site is close to buildings or packed with other equipment.

Putting the treaty into practice has been enormously expensive. In some cases, the parties have tried to convert military equipment to other uses. The Russians, for example, have converted tracked missile-launchers into fire engines, although this is probably just as costly as building them from scratch. But the destruction of surplus equipment is not the costliest element of the treaty. The real cost is inspecting each other's military sites to ensure that no one is cheating. Indeed, this has given rise to a new kind of travel, sometimes referred to as "military tourism". The Head of the Russian arms control inspection agency, Lieutenant-General Vyacheslav Romanov, recently said that he had 700 staff working full-time either inspecting Nato sites or escorting Nato inspectors who could descend on any one of 1,200 sites in Russia.

It is money well spent, though. The reductions in military equipment, significant though they have been, are probably not the most important result of the treaty. What really matters is the fact that, in the process, people who once regarded each other as enemies have been forced to work together and, as a result, have cultivated understanding and respect, and even made friends. Recently, General Romanov was asked if there was any possibility of a return to the Cold War confrontation if the ex-Soviet hard-liners triumphed and Russian policy towards the West reverted to hostility. After what has happened in the last three years, he said, he believed that there was no chance of that.