ROME — Nations traditionally have had two options for countering the menace of chemical warfare. The United States, the Soviet Union and, to a smaller degree, France have chosen to possess a chemical retaliatory capability. Defense without deterrence is the option that has attracted most of the industrially advanced nations and particularly all the European countries, with the exception of France.
A worldwide ban of chemical weapons, agreed to by treaty, has been a third, much broader objective common to the international community during the last two decades. The optimists predict that it can be reached within the year. The Europeans are enthusiastic supporters of such a treaty. Two European foreign ministers, Giulio Andreotti of Italy and Hans-Dietrich Genscher of West Germany, told the Feb. 4 opening session of this year's U.N. conference on disarmament in Geneva to work quickly, because pressure is mounting against an international ban on chemical weapons.
The pressure comes from the policies of a number of nations, from the increased number of candidates to the "chemical club" and from some vested interests. And there has been an alarming acceleration in the binary-munitions programs of France and the United States.
The United States has launched full-scale production of a 155-mm howitzer projectile, first of the new binary (so named because two chemical components must be combined to produce the toxin) nerve-gas munitions. The fabrication of the Big Eye--a 500-pound spray-bomb--should start next April with a reported production target of 44,000 units. With delegates from five continents working hastily in Geneva to complete a treaty banning chemical weapons in the next few months, the Pentagon could hardly have come up with a more effective way to undercut negotiations.
Meanwhile France, a government staunchly opposed to any reduction of its nuclear arsenal, is advancing a chemical-rearmament program announced by Premier Jacques Chirac in November, 1986. According to unconfirmed reports (mostly from Soviet sources), France's production targets include nerve-gas munitions in 155-mm artillery shells, air bombs, spray tanks and aviation cluster ammunition--a very nice arsenal, indeed, and no doubt a model for those nations still hesitating on the threshold.
There are, in fact, many countries tempted to "go chemical," particularly to redress what they regard as an intolerable and unjust imbalance with their neighbors. "If they have the nuclear bomb--in spite of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty--why should we not restore a kind of balance and build an arsenal of nerve-gas weapons, which is not forbidden, up to now, by any treaty?" I have heard such contentions by representatives of Third World countries at several forums, when talking about hot zones like the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.
Thus the world should not be surprised when the Iranian prime minister declares, "The Islamic republic is capable of manufacturing chemical weapons and possesses the technology, " as was reported on Dec. 30. Or when we read that Libya has agreed to send Soviet-made sea mines to Iran in exchange for Iran-manufactured chemical weapons. Or when Israel denounces the chemical-weapons capabilities of Syria and starts a civilian-defense training program.
Some of the countries likely to opt for chemical rearmament have both technology and material to produce such weapons. The majority, notably the developing nations, need the know-how and the basic substances (the so-called "precursors") from which the final product, nerve gas, can be fabricated. It is important to realize that most nerve-agent precursors are also used in the manufacture of such useful products as pesticides and are produced by thousands of tons in chemical plants around the world.
In principle, representatives from both the market-economy countries and from state-controlled plants of the socialist countries have indicated they would be agreeable to a verification plan. Difficulties arise, however, when verification controls are applicable not only to the few facilities that handle toxic compounds, but are extended to include larger plants that process huge amounts of chemicals for civilian use, such as pesticides. Will all these facilities be subject to verification? How much verification will secure ratification by, among others, the U.S. Congress? For their part, management of these plants fear that commercial and technical secrets might be disclosed to visiting foreign inspectors during the verification procedures; they oppose inspection.