A case against nerve gas

By a vote of 50 to 48, the Senate in May took a major step toward putting this country back into the business of producing chemical weapons. It approved the spending of $20 million to equip a facility for the manufacture of nerve gas at the arsenal in Pine Bluff, Ark. From $2 billion $4 billion will be spent in the coming years, when the entire program is projected to be finished.

These binary weapons will contain two chemicals, both inert as separate elements but lethal when combined in flight.

It might be politically expedient for me to support a project of this kind, considering that about $170 million will find its way to my home state. But I was against the proposal when it came up last fall in an earlier stage, and I remain opposed to it today.

There is an impressive list of unknown factors concerning the issue. And the one short, closed hearing held in the Senate did not produce adequate information for a decision.

* We don't know what the Department of Defense has planned beyond its current proposals. If we are to spend this amount of money on what is described as a "tentative" proposal, we should have a better idea of what lies ahead.

* We don't know what the Russians have in chemical weapons, how sophisticated their supplies are, or how extensive their stockpiles might be. We should have this intelligence before moving in reaction to supposition. We don't know for sure, as some have suggested, that the USSR has used nerve gas in Afghanistan and Laos. In fact, the best evidence we have shows that they have used only riot-control agents and not lethal gas at all.

* We don't know whether the binary weapons, once produced, would detonate correctly and be effective in warfare, because there have been no field tests of the proposed artillery shell, and there are no plans for making live tests in the future.

The United STates has not produced chemical weapons since 1969, when it ceased production as a matter of policy. In spite of a lapse of 12 years, our present supply is more than adequate. We have thousands of tons of chemical weapons stored across the country and in other parts of the world. Most of this is nerve gas, and the present budget already provides $5 million to maintain it. These stocks should be good for another 20 years.

The proposal comes at a singularly awkward time in our relations with European allies. The West Germans are a key factor here, since chemical weapons would have to be readily available if used effectively. Yet our European allies have made it clear that they will not store additional nerve gas, and that they will not train their people to use it. Here is a section of West Germany's white paper of 1970:

"The Federal Republic neither possesses nor does she store any biological and chemical weapons; she does not seek possession of or control over weapons of that kind, she has made no preparation for using them, does not train military personnel for that purpose, and will abstain from doing so in the future."

Pushing ahead without full agreement from our allies typifies the procedure currently under question: there are no hearings, no debate, no open discussion, and no consultation with those affected by the proposal.

The US now finds itself developing a nerve gas program that repeals the spirit of what the civilized world has been working toward since the Geneva agreements of 1925. It rolls back a 12-year commitment through three presidents not to resume nerve gas production.

Finally, one is left with the simple issue that nerve gas is inhumane. It doesn't kill soldiers who are equipped with masks and protective clothing that make them invulnerable. It kills civilians who would have no protection from aerosol clouds that cause fatalities many miles from their detonation points. It goes against everything our country stands for.

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