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'Poor Man's Bomb' Goes Global : Technology Puts Chemical Weapons in Most Volatile Hands

May 01, 1988|KEITH B. BICKEL | Keith B. Bickel is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and an intern at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Chemical weapons and missiles--the poor man's nuclear bomb--are replacing traditional arms use in some of the roughly 40 extended conflicts in the Third World.

Chemical warfare, for example, has become a regular feature of the Iran-Iraq war. More than 10,000 have died from chemical gassing between the two nations, including reported Iraqi usage during its recent offensive on the strategic Faw Peninsula. Libya and Vietnam have also been accused of using chemical weapons in Chad and Kampuchea.

The supply of long-range missiles, meanwhile, is beginning to spread. In March, Saudi Arabia bought Chinese intermediate-range ballistic missiles as an offensive deterrent to Iran. But with a range of 2,000 miles, they could also reach Israel and other nations in Africa and Eurasia.

The range of Israel's new Jericho 2 surface-to-surface missile includes Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and (reportedly) the Soviet port of Odessa.

The implications for Western security are disquieting. The ease with which some chemical gases can be manufactured, the facility with which these weapons can now be purchased on the world arms market, and the ability to marry missile technology with nuclear or chemical warheads means that Third World nations may soon have the means to expand previously limited conflicts. There is also the growing danger that political extremists, becoming ever more sophisticated, might adopt these weapons for terrorist purposes.

Previously, the United States, the Soviet Union and their European allies were the primary sources for Third World arms. They had, therefore, a modicum of control over the escalation and spread of conflict through control over the supply of weapons. Today the Third World arms supply network includes Vietnam, North Korea, Syria, Egypt, Libya, South Korea, Israel and Argentina. Each is believed to have chemical weapons.

China has built a lucrative arms export business in response to perceived worldwide demand and to domestic hard currency needs. Beijing has shown few ideological preferences in its Middle East dealings, exporting long-range missiles to Iran and Saudi Arabia and importing high-tech weaponry from Israel.

Brazil's defense industry has been motivated by the profit potential in arms exports. It is now just one of a handful of major suppliers of long-range weapons to Third World markets. Libya's Moammar Kadafi, for example, reportedly has been negotiating for a Brazilian surface-to-surface missile. Tel Aviv would be within its 625-mile range if it were launched from northeastern Libya.

Building an arsenal of chemical weapons has become easy. Many of the older toxins such as mustard gas, cyanotic gases and nerve agents can be manufactured in the same factories, using the same compounds originally intended for fertilizer and insecticide production. The basic ingredients are commercially available on the open market, often from West European nations with lax export laws.

Ironically, the proliferation threat emerges at a time when the superpowers are finally beginning to work on regional conflict. At the same time, however, they are losing control over the number of worldwide arms suppliers. The major powers should take the initiative now to stop the spread of chemical weapons and missile technology.

The 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the use of chemical weapons serves as a solid basis for further measures. The United States and its allies should begin cooperating multilaterally to halt the export of chemical weapons-related and missile technology to Third World nations. The role that China and Brazil play on the arms market is crucial, and they should be brought into this process.

Specific controls should include bans on the export of fertilizer and insecticide ingredients that can be used for chemical weaponry. The United States began doing so in 1984, when the Commerce Department added five such chemicals to its list of exports requiring security checks.

Also, the United States must be realistic about its arms sales to the Third World. When the United States fails to meet the legitimate needs of its friends, it faces the prospect of losing what is left of its control over regional stability. Saudi Arabia, for example, turned to the Chinese after the United States refused to sell it Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.

Finally, the current agenda of Soviet and American arms-control priorities should be expanded to include bans on related missile technology and chemical weapons and sanctions against those who use them. Nuclear and conventional arms negotiations have become symbolic of recent U.S.-Soviet cooperation. Containing the spread of chemical and missile weaponry should be accorded equal status.

The danger to the United States is not theoretical. Some Third World nations have demonstrated their willingness to use these weapons. If the United States does not move quickly, it may one day be faced with a military threat against which it is uniquely unable to act.

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