Soviet chemical arsenal: How superior is it?

OVER an orange soda, his conversation casually turns to mass casualties. If fighting forces lack protection, he warns, ``in one stroke 5,000 troops can be lost.''

The subject is chemical warfare; the question is whether there is any point in developing new lethal chemical agents.

``The country that uses new agents will have the surprise factor in their favor,'' he says. ``In a chemical exchange, that can be decisive.''

Later, he notes, ``these weapons are dangerous as theater weapons, and also to civilians.''

On a chemical battlefield, he adds, ``it's not possible to confine the destruction.''

``These are invisible weapons. A human being does not know where the danger lies. If I see a bomb dropping, or a tank, I can protect myself. But this is a very treacherous weapon - a kind of aerosol that moves noiselessly, without warning, and hurts everyone in its way.''

All in all, he says, chemical warfare ``is a very peculiar way of killing people.''

Anatoly Kuntsevich should know.

HIS formal titles: lieutenant general, Soviet Ministry of Defense; academician, Soviet Academy of Sciences.

His actual job: deputy head of the Soviet Army Chemical Corps.

He heads a fighting force that, by Western estimates, is unmatched when it comes to waging chemical warfare.

``We don't have plans for using chemical weapons,'' General Kuntsevich says. ``These plans would be raised only after we are attacked.''

Even then, he says, the decision to launch a chemical strike would ``depend on a political decision'' - direct and specific approval from the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party.

Not so long ago, the Soviet Union would not even confirm that it possessed chemical weapons. Today, it's the only nation in the world that has given figures on its stockpile. It has even conducted a tour for Western diplomats, military officers, and journalists at one of its most sensitive chemical warfare complexes.

Western specialists are deeply skeptical about the stockpile figures, and doubt they saw the most modern weapons in the Soviet chemical arsenal. Nonetheless, when it comes to Soviet chemical warfare, says Brad Roberts, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, ``glasnost [openness] is in full swing.''

Kuntsevich's willingness to meet an American journalist at a Moscow restaurant to discuss chemical war-fighting strategy underlines that phenomenon.

But the general has his own reasons to talk. One is to underscore Moscow's opposition to an American buildup of a new generation of chemical weapons.

He's talking about so-called ``binary'' systems - shells, bombs, and rockets that contain two relatively harmless chemicals, which combine to become a lethal nerve agent only as they speed toward a target.

Kuntsevich asserts that a balance now exists between the United States and the Soviet Union in chemical war-fighting capability.

Binary weapons might provoke a new arms competition that ``could lead to a growth of chemical weapons in an explosive manner. Parity will be ruptured, and that will be a serious problem for us in security terms,'' he says.

In a few spare phrases, Kuntsevich has laid bare some assumptions, concerns, and conundrums that complicate superpower efforts to rid themselves - and, ultimately, the world - of chemical weapons.

Is there parity between the US and USSR, or NATO and the Warsaw Pact, in chemical warfare capability?

And is the Soviet Union genuinely worried about heading off a new chemical arms race - or merely trying to preserve its own advantage in chemical war-fighting capability?

Figuring out what the Soviets really have

IT is at this point that glasnost gives way to groping.

For, although the US and Western nations know a great deal about the Soviet and Warsaw Pact chemical warfare capability, much more is cloaked in the kind of official secrecy that has prevailed for decades.

Confusing, piecemeal, and even contradictory Western intelligence estimates of the Soviet threat only exacerbate the problem.

Assessing Soviet chemical warfare capability is of more than academic interest. The US spends tens of millions of dollars each year on chemical and biological weapons defense, as well as on improving its offensive chemical warfare capability. The driving rationale is to counter a Soviet threat.

Yet the exact dimensions of that threat remain obscure.

``It's amazing how little we know after all these years,'' says Gordon Burck, a staff associate of the Federation of American Scientists, in Washington.

What is known, however, causes unease - and controversy - in the West.

``We know where their production facilities are. We know where their storage depots are. And we know a substantial amount of information about the materiel they contain,'' says Maj. Gen. Gerald Watson, commander of the Army's Chemical School at Fort McClellan, Ala.

The main Soviet chemical warfare proving ground is at Shikhany, southeast of Moscow. It's a complex of storage sheds, research laboratories, and test grids that has been regularly expanded since construction in the 1920s.

During 1988, new test grids - to measure the concentrations of agents released by chemical ordnance - have been under construction, according to Western intelligence officials. But there is disagreement over the significance of the new grids.

``There's always ongoing construction at Shikhany,'' a US intelligence analyst says. ``To me that doesn't mean that much. You would expect them to do that.''

``The threat is static now,'' he adds. ``[The Soviets] are maintaining currency.''

Others are not so sure.

``Does it make sense to start a whole new testing program if they're only trying to consolidate a program?'' General Watson asks.

One intelligence analyst simply refers to the new grids and other work under way at Shikhany as ``anomalies'' - developments that are evident, but can't be easily explained.

``They're either going all out to build up the stocks before a treaty [banning chemical weapons], or they're in the process of consolidation'' of the facilities before inspections, he says.

The Soviet Union, undeniably, has extensive facilities at which it can create chemical warfare agents. The Soviets captured two German nerve-gas plants at the end of World War II and transported them back to the USSR, where they still operate today. One is at a chemical complex at Volgograd.

But US analysts say there are other manufacturing facilities as well - ones that are harder to monitor.

The Soviet Union is different from the United States, where special Pentagon-controlled facilities manufacture and load chemical agents. The USSR manufactures at least some of its lethal chemical agents in bulk at ordinary chemical plants, and loads them into artillery only at special military complexes, a US intelligence analyst explains.

That, he says, makes it much more difficult to make valid assumptions about Soviet production capability.

For one thing, the Soviet Union has a large and complex chemical industry. Pesticide plants produced 348,000 tons in 1985, according to official Soviet figures. And by 1990, plans call for a rise to between 440,000 and 480,000 tons. Determining whether any fraction of that figure is siphoned off to chemical arms production is a difficult task.

Soviet officials say it would be unproductive as well.

``I disagree completely with the notion that Soviet plants are made in such a way that one day they produce fertilizers, and the next day they produce nerve agent,'' says Kirill Dumayev, deputy chairman of the USSR State Committee on Science and Technology. ``It's wrong. It's not so.''

``The enterprise which produces military chemical products is very different'' from a strictly civilian plant, he adds.

He concedes, however, that some of the same compounds that are used for lethal chemical agents ``could be received at any plant in any country.'' ``Such compounds, which are certainly precursors, are used in many countries, for many purposes,'' he says. ``Some of these can be used to produce plastics. Phosgene can be used to produce herbicides.''

``I think that doubts could be established as to any industry in the world, not just ours in the Soviet Union,'' he says.

Just the same, the Soviets have yet to volunteer information about production capabilities. While the US has declared sites at which it produces and stores chemical agents, the USSR has yet to follow suit.

``We've pressed the Soviets very hard for information on their production and storage facilities,'' says Max Friedersdorf, US ambassador to the chemical disarmament negotiations in Geneva.

So far, he says, the Soviets have kept the figures secret.

While most of the chemical weapons manufacturing complexes are in the western Soviet Union, the nation's chemical weapons depots are dispersed throughout the country. The Pentagon estimates there are 39 of them, including several in other Warsaw Pact countries. (See map, Page B7.)

US intelligence analysts admit that their estimates of total Soviet stocks rely upon such imprecise gauges as calculating the area of Soviet chemical weapons depots, making assumptions about the weapons they contain, and adding up the totals.

Not surprisingly, published estimates of total Soviet chemical weapons tonnage have varied wildly - ranging from 150,000 to 750,000 tons.

Many of the estimates are vague. Some refer to total tonnage, including the shells and bombs that encase the chemicals, while others refer only to ``agent tons'' - that is, the weight of the actual chemicals inside the shells.

``Certainly a lot of the claims are extravagant,'' says a West European disarmament expert. ``They can't be proven. They represent an ideologically driven view of the Soviet Union.''

The Soviets, for their part, claim to have only 50,000 tons of agents. But they've given no breakdown on whether that figure represents chemicals already in weapons, bulk agents kept in storage tanks, or both.

Whatever the figure represents, it is greeted with wide skepticism in the West.

``We don't believe that,'' Ambassador Friedersdorf says bluntly. ``I don't have any confidence whatsoever in that figure.''

Still, the Soviets are sticking by it.

``We declared this figure. We are a responsible state. And we are prepared to prove it,'' says Yuri Nazarkin, the Soviet ambassador to the Geneva talks.

Ambassador Nazarkin says proof will be forthcoming - but only after the conclusion of a treaty banning chemical weapons completely.

The `confidence building' measure that backfired

THE 50,000-ton figure was unveiled during an unprecedented tour of the Shikhany chemical warfare facility last year. Diplomats, journalists, and military observers from more than 45 countries were allowed to tour and photograph the facility. The Soviets displayed 19 chemical munitions, including rockets, chemical warheads for tactical missiles, bombs, airborne spray tanks, even a chemical hand grenade.

The move was billed as a ``confidence-building measure.'' If that was the purpose, however, it seriously backfired.

For years, the Soviets had maintained silence on the subject of chemical weapons. The sheer number of weapons systems on display only underscored how misleading that silence had been.

``There was an element of stupidity to that,'' says Nikita Smidovich, a Soviet Foreign Ministry official.

``We agreed that we had nuclear weapons that could destroy the world many times over. But we wouldn't admit we had chemical weapons.''

``The Soviets were producing while negotiating,'' says Mr. Burck of the Federation of American Scientists. ``They haven't addressed that issue. They're vulnerable on it.''

Moreover, the weapons systems on display were old - too old to be a credible inventory, according to a number of Western analysts. ``It was quite clear that the weapons they demonstrated were of World War II and 1950s vintage,'' a West European military official says. ``The visit sort of begged more questions than it answered.''

``We do not yet believe that we have seen the whole picture. We believe there is more to come,'' says another West European analyst.

Still another asks sarcastically, ``What's been going on for the past 30 years?''

Though most Western analysts don't point up the fact, however, they did make at least one discovery at Shikhany. Among the agents in the inventory was a thickened form of the nerve agent VX. Western intelligence agencies were previously unaware that this form of the agent was in the Soviet arsenal.

Even now, analysts are divided over the purpose of the agent; some speculate it's meant to lengthen the time that a target is contaminated.

Western intelligence agencies are acutely aware of their shortcomings in assessing the Soviet chemical warfare threat. A committee of the Western European Union concluded last year that Western estimates of the Soviet stockpile ``have ranged so widely that their credibility is jeopardized.''

There is widespread agreement, however, that the Soviets enjoy a clear advantage in one specific niche of chemical warfare: decontamination of buildings, equipment, and personnel.

This gives the Soviets a far greater ability to maneuver around, and through contaminated battlefields. But even here, there may be a tendency to overstate the advantage.

One US intelligence analyst explains, for example, that while the Soviets have 40,000 troops involved in nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare decontamination, ``actually, much of their work is nuclear.''

Still, he notes, the Soviets have ``around 20,000 individual vehicles'' dedicated to decontamination, and up to another 20,000 could be pressed into service during a conflict. ``I'd be willing to bet you couldn't find over 600 pieces of equipment in all of NATO,'' he says.

Enviable equipment

SOME equipment in the Soviet arsenal sparks envy in the US chemical corps.

One piece is the GSP detecting system, a truck-mounted device that collects and analyzes environmental samples to determine if a battlefield is contaminated. West Germany has developed a far more sophisticated sensing vehicle, but the US has yet to acquire it. (See story, Page B12.)

Another Soviet device unrivaled by anything in the West is the TMS-65, essentially a giant blow-dryer on wheels that decontaminates vehicles with blasts of superheated air and fluid. This neutralizes or dissipates harmful agents.

The US, by contrast, still relies ``mostly on mops and buck- ets'' for decontamination, a US State Department official says.

``I'm acutely aware of the problem with decontamination,'' says Gen. Howard Eggleston, head of the Army's Space and Special Weapons Directorate. ``They [the Soviets] have a capability to operate in a con- taminated environment that far exceeds ours.''

One congressonal source argues that the Soviet defensive capability should be seen for what it is - an effort to defend troops in the event of chemical warfare, and not a sign of eagerness to fight such a conflict.

``We think they're taking the approach that defense is a good deterrent,'' he says.

Others in the Pentagon disagree, arguing that any military advantage on the battlefield is likely to be exploited in a con- flict. And, they contend, the mission of the Soviet decontamination troops is to keep the battle lines moving forward.

``Why would they create a force structure of 60,000 ... people that's equipped and structured to keep a fast-moving army under way?'' asks General Watson at the Army Chemical School. ``These things are there to get the vehicles back into the fight,'' he concludes, not just to hold a defensive position.

Back in the Moscow restaurant, General Kuntsevich says the Soviet chemical forces have laid plans only for a retaliatory chemical strike. And even public references to those ``were negatively received by the high leadership,'' he says.

``We are not proceeding from the idea that we will be using chemical weapons,'' Kuntsevich concludes. But his final comment is hardly comforting.

``We will not only respond to chemical weapons with chemical weapons. We might use other, more effective means - even nuclear weapons.''

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