Like smoke in the wind, the effort to expand and modernize US chemical weaponry is drifting away from the Reagan administration. The President wants to end what has been a 14-year unilateral freeze on the production of chemical weapons by the United States. But growing numbers of congressional Republicans and Democrats (some of whom oppose the nuclear freeze) are saying that the US should retain its high moral ground on this particularly alarming aspect of the arms race. As it did last year, Congress seems likely to refuse a Pentagon request to build a new generation of chemical weapons. ''The world perception of the US may be that we are partners in crime with the Soviets when it comes to nuclear weapons, but it doesn't have to be that way with chemical weapons'' says Rep. Ed Bethune. The Arkansas Republican is leading a bipartisan group calling for a worldwide ban on chemical weapons. By refusing to follow the Soviet lead in this area, these lawmakers say, the US can rally international support and pressure Moscow to be more forthcoming in chemical arms control negotiations scheduled to resume next month at Geneva. GAO questions administration rationale
Mr. Bethune (in whose state the existing US stockpile of such weapons is stored) cites new evidence critical of the administration position. The General Accounting Office recently called into question the administration's rationale for new chemical weapons. The GAO also reported that the major new chemical weapon sought by the administration may not work as advertised and may present new safety problems. Citing evidence that the Soviet Union is using chemical and biological weapons in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia, the Pentagon says the US needs to beef up its chemical-weapons capability to deter any potential use of such weapons by an adversary in wartime. Officials cite World War II, when both the Allies and Germany had poisonous gas but refrained from using it. The administration wants to spend $6 billion to $7 billion during the next five years to increase America's chemical warfare capability. This includes new systems and equipment to defend against chemical attack, as well as new binary chemical bombs and artillery shells. These are said to be safer to handle and transport because the chemicals are not joined in a lethal mix until just before use. But citing US Army data, the GAO noted that the new binary bomb (called ''Bigeye'') may not be safer or more militarily effective than existing weapons. ''We found that a lack of field-test data leaves a substantial gap in what is known about binary weapons,'' GAO investigators wrote.More broadly, GAO found ''a multitude of unanswered questions related to chemical-warfare modernization, '' including whether existing US chemical stocks are deteriorating and outmoded to the extent claimed by defense officials. Congress's watchdog agency also suggested that binary weapons could make any eventual chemical arms control agreement more difficult to verify. Allies refuse to store chemical weapons
West European allies have refused to allow storage of new chemical weapons on their soil. In calling for defense budget cuts including funds for new binary shell and bomb production, Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan says that ''production of binary shells without agreement by our allies to deploy them in Europe robs them of significant deterrent value. ''In a letter to Representative Bethune, President Reagan said, ''It is essential that the nation take some visible steps this year toward reestablishing the credible retaliatory chemical capability essential for an adequate deterrent.'' Using an argument similar to those made for the MX and Pershing II nuclear missiles, the President warned that failure to build new chemical weapons could ''reduce the Soviet Union's incentive to negotiate seriously.''There is little argument that US forces need better clothing, masks, and other equipment to defend against possible chemical attack, and Congress is likely to fund these programs. But, as was the case last year, new chemical weapons may be one of the few items in the Pentagon budget on which Congress issues a loud and clear ''No.''