Europe debates US plan to produce chemical arms

The expected decision by the United States Congress to resume production of chemical weapons has caused both controversy and embarrassment among NATO allies. Many analysts here believe it is most likely that the weapons would be stockpiled and used in Western Europe.

Discussion is most heated in West Germany, where a political row has erupted in recent weeks over whether the US plans to deploy the chemical weapons under consideration in Congress.

Elsewhere in Europe, the proposed US plans have met with mostly evasive silence. Typical is the British attitude. When top British foreign and defense officials are questioned about the US proposal to produce chemical weapons, they emphasize the need for a negotiated global ban on such weapons.

The Reagan administration and NATO supreme allied commander, US Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, have stressed the need to counter the Soviet lead in chemical warfare capability. General Rogers has also urged the Western allies to decide on guidance to give him on the eventual use of such weapons.

The European response is of considerable importance in view of the potential deployment and use of such weapons in Europe in case of an East-West military conflict. At one point, a provision in the pending US defense-authorization bill would have required European allied consent before US manufacture could be resumed.

That provision was dropped, and the latest version would require only that allies be consulted before October 1986 about eventual deployment plans. There has been debate in the US about whether early deployment of the proposed chemical weapons to Europe would be necessary or whether they could just be stockpiled in the US and deployed on ships until a conflict made shipment to Europe more urgent.

Generally, US government statements have said there ``are no plans'' for a European deployment and that the requirement to consult with allies is not an extraordinary one since coordination about security needs is routine.

But these recent US discussions have sparked a political storm in West Germany and embarrassment in other countries. These follow in the aftermath of years of controversy that accompanied the 1979 NATO decision to deploy a new generation of US cruise and Pershing nuclear missiles in Western Europe.

In West Germany, the row over chemical weapons has pitted the government of Helmut Kohl against the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD). Earlier this year the SPD proposed that central Europe be declared a zone free of chemical weapons.

And just this month, SPD parliamentary leader Erwin Horn, returning from a visit to Washington, alleged that the US planned to elevate chemical weapons to the same strategic importance as nuclear arms and that this included stationing the proposed new shells and missiles in West Germany.

He added that the Bonn government's lack of clarity on the subject had given US officials the impression Germany would be willing to accept such weapons.

This version was challenged by Alfred Dregger, a parliamentary leader of Chancellor Kohl's Christian Democratic Party. Mr. Dregger stated US officials told him there were no deployment plans and that older existing chemical weapons in Germany would be withdrawn as proposed new ones were produced.

One NATO official remarked that ``the Germans go berserk whenever chemical weapons are mentioned.'' Germany is where existing chemical weapons are stored. But other European governments have also been loathe to discuss the issue.

Earlier this year, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was forced to deny press reports that a British ministerial committee was also considering resumption of chemical weapons' production, abandoned in the late 1950s. She and other British officials have subsequently stressed the need to seek an international ban at Geneva talks on the issue. Those talks are stalled.

In France, the other NATO country said to possess a small arsenal of chemical weapons, some experts have urged a review of the stated government policy that if attacked by chemical weapons, France would retaliate with nuclear weapons, a position some critics find unrealistic.

But with final US congressional approval on the chemical weapons' proposal expected in September, European governments are expected to face additional pressure from the US and General Rogers to come to grips with the issue they have sought to evade for over a decade.

Rogers, in a recent interview, remarked that ``discussion of chemical weapons is so sensitive here in Western Europe that the role the political authorities wish to play has been placed in the `too-sensitive, too-tough-to-handle' box and it continues to repose there.''

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