US chemical program races in a game of catch-up
Washington — THE United States and Soviet Union are stockpiling lethal chemical weapons in a poison race eerily reminiscent of their competition in nuclear arms. Moscow has a large toxic arsenal built up by years of steady production. US chemical weapons factories, quiet since 1969, rumbled back to life in December 1987 - and the Pentagon is planning further upgrades of US chemical offense and defense capability.
Among plans for modernization:
A special Pentagon ``Deep Fire'' study group is considering new long-range chemical weapons. One option: chemical-tipped cruise missiles.
A new and classified type of lethal nerve agent is under development. The US is designing the agent for use in a new warhead, the Multiple Launch Rocket System, which enters production in 1990.
Deadly mixed cocktails of venom and other natural poisons, believed under development by the Soviets, are increasingly worrying the Pentagon. Development of masks and suits that can stop new agents is a top US military priority.
Repugnant, yet `extraordinarily effective'
While nuclear weapons threaten the brute horror of obliteration, chemical war would be a ghastly painter's art, with wind-borne streaks of poison laid across the battlefield.
The US has pledged never to use nerve gas or other poisons first in a conflict. Top government officials say chemical weapons are repugnant and should be banned from the face of the earth. At the same time the weapons are an integral part of US defense and - to some officers - a weapon like any other.
``It's hard to claim degrees of morality when you're dealing with weapons systems that are designed to kill people,'' says Gen. Gerald Watson, commander of the US Army Chemical School.
Well-trained troops with good masks and suits can survive a gas attack without mass casualties. But protective gear can slow soldiers down, as if they were fighting sealed in a giant garbage bag. (See story, Page B10.) Chemicals can snarl the chessboard of a battlefield, blocking routes of attack or escape and stealing time from a less-protected enemy.
The Monitor interviewed Defense Department officials at installations all over the country for this report. In addition, much information was gleaned from declassified transcripts of secret congressional hearings held over the past 10 years.
Critics of the US possession of chemical weapons hold that, because troops can be protected, the weapons are good only for massacring civilians.
To some in the Pentagon, the weapons are the embodiment of the fog of war, a weapon that greatly complicates an enemy's calculations and thus is capable of having a decisive effect in any future conflict.
``They are extraordinarily effective weapons,'' says Thomas Welch, deputy assistant for chemical matters in the Defense Department.
A Pentagon growth industry
IT it took a bitter fight on Capital Hill before chemical weapon production could resume in 1987, after an 18-year lull. Many members of Congress felt that the US, with its nuclear arsenal, didn't need new chemical weapons to offset the Soviets' chemical stockpile.
Democratic Rep. Dante Fascell of Florida remains particularly critical of US plans to modernize the chemical weapons inventory.
``You need to keep a lid on their use,'' he says. ``I understand that you have to be `strong on defense.' But being strong does not mean spending a lot of money foolishly.''
Out with the old, in with the new
BY now chemical war has become a Pentagon growth industry. In 1983, chemical-related military spending totaled $597 million, the bulk of which went for the purchase of defensive equipment. In 1988, chemical appropriations totaled $1.07 billion - $777 million for defense, $98 million for ``binary'' weapons, and $198 million allocated to destroy old chemical stocks. (Binary weapons hold canisters of two harmless chemicals, which become lethal upon firing the weapon.)
Today the US stockpile of chemical weapons is divided into old and new. The new stockpile is made up of binary weapons. The old include chemical-filled shells, rockets, mines, and spray tanks made before the 1969 moratorium. Most are filled with nerve gas; a few contain less-lethal mustard gas.
The Pentagon considers 90 percent of the old weapons to be unusable antiques. Old nerve-gas rockets are particularly unstable; inspections locate an average of 64 leaking rockets a year.
``Leaking,'' however, does not mean nerve agent is running onto the ground, says Army Brig. Gen. David Nydam, manager of chemical demilitarization. It means that small amounts of vapor are escaping into the air.
The Army plans to incinerate these chemical weapons where they are stored, at eight posts in the continental US and one on Johnston Island in the Pacific. (See map, Page B7.) Because work on the incinerators is just beginning, the Army estimates that destruction will probably not be finished until 1997.
Pentagon officials say the new binary weapons are much safer to store than old ``unitary'' weapons. In fact, the Department of Defense, by law, cannot store the two chemicals for a binary weapon at the same depot. In a conflict, the two canisters would be shipped separately overseas and assembled into a working weapon in the battle zone.
The first US binaries, 155-mm artillery shells, began rolling off an assembly line at Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas last December. Two other types are in development.
A weapon for every purpose
EACH of the three new binary weapons is planned for a different battlefield purpose, Army commanders say.
The artillery shell, loaded with short-lasting nerve gas, is intended to hit areas close to the front. Since the chemical would quickly lose its toxicity, US troops could then occupy the area.
A rocket warhead intended for targets behind the forward line of battle is in the final stages of engineering development.
The Pentagon is developing a secret type of lethal chemical for use in the new rocket, according to congressional documents recently declassified. Likely another variety of nerve gas, ``it will stick around for a couple of hours,'' said Col. Robert Orton, head of the Army's chemical weapons modernization program, before a congressional panel last spring.
A chemical of intermediate longevity could be used to clear a more distant area for US troops to move into.
The purpose of the third weapon, the ``Bigeye'' bomb, is to douse targets, such as airfields, deep in enemy territory with long-lasting chemical agents.
The Bigeye has had its problems - it has had a tendency to explode in flight - but the Defense Department claims that recent tests show its problems have been eliminated.
What has generally escaped public notice is that this new chemical bomb is intended only in part as a counter to Soviet forces. As a weapon capable of use by Navy carrier planes, it is also supposed to scare potential third world aggressors, such as Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
``... in the Middle East, the weapon of choice, the weapon of need, is the Bigeye,'' said Dr. Welch, deputy assistant for chemical matters in the Defense Department, in a congressional session earlier this year.
NATO planners believe that fixed installations - ports, command centers, airfields - could be particularly vulnerable to chemical attack.
``Virtually any piece of key terrain can be made less desirable by contamination,'' notes an Army manual on nuclear and chemical operations.
Chemical war would not involve huge gas clouds rolling over thousands of troops. US commanders say contamination would be localized to small units. Still, this does not mean the effects of chemical battle would be less than horrific.
``Chemical warfare would not be a pretty sight by any stretch of the imagination,'' says Maj. Fred Evans of the Army's Chemical School at Fort McClellan, Ala.
Nerve gas and other modern poisons are highly lethal to unprotected humans. A pinprick, a whiff, a drop, can kill. But relatively simple devices can defend against chemical attack - at least for a short period of time.
Quirky protective gear
IN the early 1980s, congressional investigators uncovered what they judged to be ``serious neglect'' in the Pentagon's chemical defensive capability. Since then, the Defense Department has devoted much money and time to development and production of new masks and other equipment. But congressional aides say they are still concerned, and Army chemical officers admit to gaps in their defensive coverage.
Army troops are issued charcoal-impregnated gas masks, hoods, suits, gloves, and overboots to encase themselves. (See drawing and story, Pages B10 and B11.) Properly worn, the ensemble can protect against all known nerve and mustard gases. But the equipment is mostly of old design, and does have its quirks. An Army equipment manual warns that the zipper on the chemical hood sticks easily. Soldiers in European maneuvers have been known to have mud suck the overboots right off their feet.
US forces have various group protective devices, from inflatable tents with air filters to concrete chemical shelters now being installed at US Air Force bases in Western Europe. But few large military vehicles have built-in chemical protection for their crews.
The newest M-1 tanks have an air-pressure system that keeps gas out, but older tank models do not. Navy ships are particularly vulnerable to chemical attack; only one, the Marine assault ship Belleau Wood, has the filters and air system necessary to protect crews without gas masks. Nor can the fleet be retrofitted with collective protection.
``Our ships are beyond the price of going back and fixing for airtightness,'' said Adm. James Flatley, director of strike and amphibious warfare, during a 1987 congressional hearing.
In contrast, the Soviets have long emphasized collective protection for chemical defense. The Pentagon's annual publication ``Soviet Military Power'' claims that every USSR combat vehicle fielded today is equipped with collective protection filters.
Detection devices are another US defensive gap. Individual soldiers use detection paper - a cousin of litmus paper - which changes color in the presence of chemical weapons.
More sophisticated electronic alarms are issued to reconnaissance units, but even they require the user to be in, or perilously close to, the chemical cloud before detection.
Army chemical officers say they hope someday to have the capability to spot chemical clouds from far away. Laser and infrared vapor detectors are among the technologies being tested.
Decontamination of equipment is still done using scrub brushes and bleach. The Army hopes someday to make decontamination a much easier process. One goal, says an officer at the Army Chemical School, is a neutralizing chemical that could simply be sprinkled over contaminated vehicles or areas, rendering them safe.
THE biggest problem with defensive gear may be that wearing it greatly reduces fighting effectiveness. The side that uses poison first, forcing its enemy to button up, could gain a tactical advantage.
Army officers are reluctant to discuss details of how much US troops in masks and suits would be slowed down. Maj. Gen. Gerald Watson, Chemical School commandant, says only that on a hot day, ``loss of combat capability would be in excess of 50 percent.'' Tests run by Army doctors in the summer of 1985 showed that in hot weather defensive gear ``severely limited soldier endurance,'' according to the report.
Among the findings: Howitzer crews in gear could last only two to four hours in high temperatures; their firing rate was one-half to one-quarter the normal rate during that time; the average time a tank crew member could stand wearing mask and suit was 6.3 hours.
Heat might not be the only problem. A 1987 test by researchers at the Army's research and development center in Natick, Mass., found that:
The standard-issue gas mask ``imposes serious impairment on functional vision.''
Dexterity while wearing protective gloves was ``considerably impaired.''
Two men conversing while wearing mask and hood were able to understand only 64 percent of words spoken - below what the report says is ``the minimally acceptable level.''
The gray line between defense and offense
ONE prominent critic of the US chemical warfare program is skeptical of such findings. Harvard biochemist Matthew Meselson claims the Defense Department purposely exaggerates the debilitating effects of protective gear to establish that defensive equipment alone is not good enough to deter chemical use. The Pentagon uses this to justify production of offensive chemical weapons, he charges.
Dr. Meselson, who has been known to lecture wearing a gas mask, says that chemical gear would be a minor irritant compared with the noise, fear, and smoke of a modern battlefield.
``The Duke of Wellington's troops fought in gigantic bearskins which make chemical suits look like gabardines,'' Meselson says. He concludes that the effectiveness of simple defensive measures in fact means that chemicals are weapons of only marginal military use.
For its part, the Pentagon adopts a deterrence argument in advocating US possession of chemical weapons. It runs: Chemical weapons are effective weapons of war. The Soviets have them in great supply. If we don't have them, the Soviets might use them against us.
Furthermore, new weapons are needed to fit in with modern tactics and to match Soviet advances. ``There is always going to be a need for a modernized stockpile,'' Welch of the Pentagon says, echoing arguments traditionally made in defense of new nuclear weapons.
Thus, even as the first binary chemical shells come out of production, Pentagon planners are considering what other types of nerve agents to propose in the years ahead. Advances in electronics and sensors that allow munitions to be guided more precisely could be applicable to chemical weaponry, Welch says.
`Deep Fire' and deep strike
QUIETLY, by order of an obscure paragraph in a congressional military spending bill, a Pentagon study group called ``Deep Fire'' was created in the last year to look at deep-strike weapons more sophisticated than the Bigeye bomb. A key purpose would be to bolster the Navy's ability to threaten Middle East trouble spots with chemicals.
According to declassified congressional documents, both air- and sea-launched cruise missiles are being considered for this role. Another option is the GBU-15, a laser-guided glide bomb.
For the short term, the superpower chemical arms race involves new ways of delivering deadly chemicals. The chemicals themselves - mainly varieties of nerve gas - have remained largely unchanged for 40 years. But there are sobering hints in congressional testimony, budget documents, and officials' comments that a whole new generation of poisons, more complex than any before, have been made possible by modern advances in biology and could soon throw the chemical arms race off balance.
At issue are so-called novel agents. The building blocks of some of these new agents are natural poisons, such as rattlesnake venom. Technical advances now allow different venoms to be artificially produced, and then combined into an entirely new deadly mix.
Pentagon sources say they are worried that the Soviets will field such weapons, and that current US masks and suits will be useless against them.
Dr. Robert Barker, assistant to the secretary of defense for atomic energy, last year told a secret House hearing: ``In the next few years, the [chemical] defensive program is going to be primarily directed at trying to address the issue of new or `novel' agents,'' according to the declassified transcript.
Whether the Defense Department is working on its own novel agents is an open question. It was asked at the House hearing by Democratic Rep. Norman Dicks of Washington.
``We are grappling with that question right now,'' Welch replied. ``We do have a program running at around $10 million a year, as we have had for the last 10 years, that looks at new chemical agents and new chemical munitions. So we are keeping our R&D [research and development] options open....''
Glossary Binary weapons: Ones in which two chemical are kept separate, and become lethal only when mixed on firing. Blister agents: Chemical agents that injure by blistering (burning). Blood agents: Chemical agents that enter the body through the respiratory system and attack the blood cells. Usually lethal. Mustard gas: Chemical warfare agent that blisters skin and can be lethal in large amounts. Nerve agents: Chemical agents that attack the body's nervous system. They are highly toxic and usually kill very quickly. Novel agents: Mixtures of venom and other natural poisons. Technical advances now allow different poisons and toxins to be artificially produced, and combined into entirely new poisons. Unitary weapons: Ones in which the chemical agent exists in the shell in its lethal state.