TECHNOLOGY

The return to nerve gas

IAN AUSTEN September 16 1985
TECHNOLOGY

The return to nerve gas

IAN AUSTEN September 16 1985

The return to nerve gas

TECHNOLOGY

The industrial buildings of the U.S. Army arsenal outside Pine Bluff, Ark., now stand idle, portions of their equipment missing. But it seems almost certain that this fall the U.S. government will give the Pentagon permission to return the factory near the Arkansas River to full production capability. And that authorization will put the United States back into the chemical weapons business for the first time in 16 years.

The use of chemical warfare has been widely feared ever since the first reports of troops dying painful, choking deaths or being blinded during the chlorine and mustard gas attacks of the First World War. Former president Richard Nixon imposed a ban on production of biological and chemical weapons in 1969, but Ronald Reagan has sought to reverse that policy since he took office in 1981. The President has argued that the existing U.S. arsenal of nerve gas—which experts estimate has the potential to kill every person on Earth 5,000 times over—is obsolete and must be updated to keep abreast of Soviet technology. It now appears likely that Reagan will finally get his way, but the move is certain to create tensions between his country and its NATO military allies.

Although Nixon ordered the destruction of biological warfare stocks when he banned chemical arms production, the United States still maintains a powerful chemical warfare capability. The exact size of the stockpile is classified, but 40,000 tons of chemical agents are apparently stored, mostly in bulk form or loaded into artillery shells, at 10 sites. They include Pine Bluff, Johnston Island in the mid-Pacific and a secret location in West Germany. About onethird is believed to be highly lethal nerve gas and the balance old-style mustard gas as well as experimental compounds which include LSD-related hallucinogens. But proponents of new nerve gas production say that because the average age of the stockpiled weapons is 26 years, they are inadequate for modern military purposes. Marvin Leath, a Texas Democrat, called the situation the country’s “greatest military vulnerability.” Pentagon officials add that the deterioration of the old weapons in storage could pose a safety threat.

A confidential study by the U.S. government’s General Accounting Office —portions of which became public —dismissed claims that the current weapons are inadequate and unsafe. But the current administration wants to destroy the entire stockpile of nerve gas weapons and replace it with a new “binary” system. The new weapons would hold two separate compartments of chemicals which would only combine to produce nerve gas when released in battle. The Pentagon is proposing to build two different types of binary weapons —one of them a shell designed to be fired from standard NATO field artillery and the other a bomb. The weapons, which together make use of four different compounds, would not be as dangerous in storage as the current chemical arms, but they would not be entirely safe either. One of the chemicals is almost as

toxic as methyl isocyanate, the gas that leaked from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, last year and killed 2,500 people. Another is highly volatile.

The Pentagon plan, which could ultimately cost as much as $12 billion, won Senate approval in 1982. But the House of Representatives has turned down nerve gas funding requests three times since then. In June the House approved nerve gas funding but attached a condition that the administration could not meet. Under the House proposal Pine Bluff would not start up

up production until all U.S. NATO allies agreed to store the new weapons on their territory. Lord Carrington, NATO secretary general, for one, has said that chemical weapons do not fit into the conventional warfare plans of the alliance. What is more, the issue is extremely controversial in Europe, where there is widespread fear that any chemical war is likely to kill more civilians than troops. Soldiers on both sides of the Iron Curtain have access to protective

suits, gas masks and special ventilation systems, but civilians do not. Matthew Meselson, a specialist on chemical weapons and professor of biochemistry at Harvard, says that for every soldier poisoned during a European nerve gas attack, 20 civilians would die.

Those deaths would be particularly terrifying. A drop of nerve gas about the size of a pinhead immediately causes its victim to sweat intensely, while filling the lungs with mucus, dimming vision and setting off convulsions and uncontrollable vomiting and

Congress is expected to consider an-

defecation. Death, from asphyxiation caused by paralysis, generally comes within a few minutes, although smaller doses can cause victims to suffer for several hours before they die.

other nerve gas bill this fall that will replace the earlier condition with one restricting the U.S. military to developing a plan for emergency deployment of the new weapons in NATO countries. A Pentagon spokesman—who declined to be named—said that the armed forces do not intend to ask any other nation to accept the arms but that they have not ruled out the tactic in an emergency. He added that all NATO allies, including Canada, will be briefed on the contingency plans. And an official at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, who also declined to be identified, said that the U.S. government has not yet discussed any such plans with Ottawa but added that he believed deployment in Canada was unlikely. Said the official: “It is mostly a problem for the West Germans.”

Still, many observers say that the obstacles to new nerve gas production have now been removed, and that the conditional approval already granted by the House of Representatives will give way to a full-scale go-ahead during the current session. Said David C. Morrison, senior research analyst and chemical weapons expert at the Washingtonbased Center for Defense Information: “Once the camel’s nose is in the tent, it is not too long before the hump comes too.”

IAN AUSTEN

in Washington