BRUSSELS — NATO defense ministers Thursday endorsed a set of alliance military plans that cleared the way for the United States to produce a new generation of chemical weapons despite persistent objections from several allies.
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger hailed the decision to adopt the "force goal"--projected military requirement--for the new weapons as a major step toward strengthening the conventional defenses of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
He also sought to play down complaints expressed by several European allies who do not want to see the United States break the 17-year moratorium on the production of nerve gas.
The U.S. Congress has stipulated that new funds will be appropriated for the chemical weapons only if the allies give their approval and join consultations about deployment plans. The legislation was passed after many congressmen contended that it makes no sense to produce chemical weapons if the European allies would never permit their use on their territory.
Under the U.S. plan, the weapons would be stored in the United States but brought to Western Europe in the event of a military crisis.
Modern binary weapons consist of two harmless chemicals that become lethal nerve gas only when they are mixed together. They would replace an estimated 30 tons of aging chemical weapons stockpiled in the United States and West Germany over the next decade.
The 16-member NATO alliance estimates that the Soviet Union has about 300,000 tons of nerve gas and 80,000 military men trained for chemical warfare.
Weinberger said, "Some member nations expressed unhappiness about the idea of chemical weapons and everybody is against their use." But he said the United States felt obliged to modernize its arsenal to gain more bargaining leverage with the Soviet Union and the 40-nation Geneva disarmament conference.
The Geneva negotiations are intended to achieve a global ban on chemical weapons, but the search for an accord has been stymied by disputes between Washington and Moscow over verification methods.
U.S. officials insisted that Thursday's actions by the NATO defense ministers complied with the legal requirements set forth by Congress to launch production of the new nerve gas supplies. Despite the objections of several allies, none of those countries could impose a veto because they are not empowered to block the force goals of another NATO member.
But the fact that at least six allies expressed varying degrees of opposition to the plan could arouse congressional skepticism.
The objections came from Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg, Iceland, Greece and the Netherlands. They later said they explicitly told Weinberger to inform Congress about their absolute rejection of new chemical weapons.