More chemical weaponry?

President Carter's military budget for 1981 did not call for funds to resume the production of nerve gas. He at least wanted to await the results of an interagency review on whether to break the past decade's moratorium on the production of chemical weapons. But the House this summer went ahead without debate and added funding to a military construction appropriations bill for the first nerve gas production plant in the United States since 1969. The Senate still has time to refuse to go along with this dangerous move at least until there is full public debate. If it does nothing, the provision could slip through a House-Senate conference and commit the country to something it might well not have chosen after an airing of the facts.

For one thing, according to expert independent judgment on the subject, the US already has "a gigantic stockpile" of chemical weapons. There is old-fashioned mustard gas. There are two nerve weapons, a gas and a liquid. Some supplies are stored in West Germany.

For another thing, the proposed plant would be for producing so-called "binary" nerve weapons. Though the handling of present nerve gas has so far been safe, it is argued that the binary gas would be safer. It would involve shells or bombs having two containers with a different nonlethal substance in each; when mixed during flight they would turn lethal. Production would be easier and maintenance less complex than with existing chemical weapons. All these inviting points are actually arguments againstm production of the binary weapon, which would make resort to chemical warfare all the more likely since "anybody could do it."

A third reason for not taking a new nerve gas step without a thorough debate is that Washington and Moscow are in the midst of talks about banning chemical weapons for the good of all humanity. These talks are one of the few avenues of Soviet-American discussion kept open despite the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Congressional concern about America's chemical preparedness has been prompted in part by allegations of Soviet use of such weapons in Afghanistan. But just a month ago Moscow showed some positive movement in agreeing to the important concept of joint negotiations toward on-site investigation of chemical weaponry. These discusions should not be undercut by chemical weapons initiatvies on either side.

To humanity's long abhorrence of gas warfare must be added the harsh irony that soldiers' protective equipment is not so effective that the greatest threat would be to civilians. In Europe, for example, the extreme threat to civilians could be a temptation to go to nuclear weapons sooner rather than later.

In short, President Carter has been right not to call for nerve gas production; those who do call for it should have to take their case to the public before being authorized to subject the country and the world to its grave risks.

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