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Pentagon grapples with how to move tanks from a Washington rail yard to the National Mall

President Trump has asked the Pentagon to marshal a broadening array of military hardware, including tanks and fighter jets, for his Fourth of July address. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Michael Rollinson rolled around a banked curve on Washington’s Anacostia Riverwalk Trail on his bicycle Tuesday, coming to a stop on a path overlooking train tracks. He’d found his target for pictures: tanks and other hulking military vehicles sitting below on rail cars.

Rollinson, a District resident, made the trip on a steamy afternoon after hearing on television that the tanks had arrived in Washington as part of an expanded Fourth of July celebration ordered by President Trump. Rollinson said when he learned that the tanks were stashed at a CSX yard in Southeast Washington, he figured he might be able to see them from the bicycle path.

“It’s a little over the top,” Rollinson said, speaking over the screech of steel as a train rolled by on a track below. “A lot of things the president does are a little over the top. But I think military hardware is cool, so I’m interested in it. I understand a lot of people aren’t, and I understand the reservations other people have. I respect that.”

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The scene captured the unusual nature of what is to come: Tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles will be trucked to the Mall to be displayed during an extravaganza that also will feature appearances by military bands, drill teams and a rare collection of aircraft that is expected to include the B-2 stealth bomber and the F-22 fighter.

But perhaps no part of the event has polarized people more than the use of two M1A2 Abrams tanks, which weigh about 70 tons each and were shipped on rail from Fort Stewart in Georgia. Their expected appearance has caused some critics to compare the celebration to something more common in a dictator-led nation such as North Korea, while others express excitement in the planned display of military might.

Part of the concern is that the vehicles will pulverize pavement in Washington, as they did during a parade in June 1991 after the Gulf War, and that the city will be left with the bill. This time, the tanks will be stationary and moved into place on flatbeds pulled by heavy-hauler trucks.

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Maj. Christian Mitchell, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday in an email that the movement of the trucks will be coordinated with the Transportation Department and carried out in a way to “protect streets in the District.” The exact location they will be placed, he said, “is still under consideration.”

The scene taking shape at the rail yard provided some clarity. Massive trucks pulling flatbed trailers rolled past softball fields in Anacostia Park onto a dirt path leading to the tanks, painted green, and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, painted desert tan. A worker in a neon-yellow T-shirt and a red, white and blue safety helmet pressure-washed the armor while standing atop one of the tanks.

In a relatively deserted part of the park, few people passed by, and even fewer noticed the spectacle below. Several news photographers lined the bicycle path capturing images, and police occasionally appeared overhead in helicopters and in the rail yard below in cruisers.

Several active-duty and retired Army officers who have worked around tanks said that transporting them into downtown Washington will be complicated, but that it can be done without causing any significant damage.

Thomas Spoehr, a retired general who is now the director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, said soldiers are trained to not tear up the roads on bases like Fort Stewart when transporting tanks. While some roads cannot handle the weight of a tank on a big rig, most major modern ones can, especially when the pressure is distributed across numerous tires on a flatbed trailer.

“The tank kind of hangs off a smidge on either side, so it takes up more than a lane when driving,” Spoehr said. “You’re going to want to do it at a time of low traffic.”

The Army has a specific big rig with a trailer made by Oshkosh Defense to carry Abrams tanks on roads. Known as the Heavy Equipment Transporter (HET), it has a “low-boy” trailer that allows tanks and other vehicles to roll on. There also are civilian equivalents that could carry the tanks, Spoehr said.

One thing to watch, he added: turns in the city. If a trailer wheel rolls over a sidewalk, he said, “you’ll crush it.”

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An active-duty armor officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operation, predicted that the traffic circle surrounding the Lincoln Memorial could be shut down as the tanks are delivered, allowing them to be removed and travel a short distance on their own.

“Most roads and concrete aren’t strong enough to handle that amount of weight driving over it consistently, and there’s contact of metal track on the road surface anywhere the rubber track pads are worn down,” the officer said. “A few tanks driving on one day wouldn’t be as much of an issue as having, say, an entire parade. But you still want to limit how much time these vehicles spend driving on regular roads or concrete.”

Trump, speaking about the tanks on Monday, seemed to acknowledge that their placement will require forethought.

“You’ve got to be pretty careful with the tanks because the roads have a tendency to not like the heavy tanks,” he said. “So we have to put them in certain areas.”