ROME — Libya is building the largest chemical-weapons plant that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has yet detected anywhere, the world was warned last month by CIA Director William H. Webster. He called it "one of the most serious threats to world peace" in the years ahead, and said that "virtually every city in the Middle East" would be subject to attack if chemical weapons and ballistic missiles are combined.
His fears are valid, shared not only by the Western allies but by the Soviet Union as well. Concern about the spread of intermediate-range missiles, particularly in the Middle East and the Mediterranean area, was much in evidence in Moscow last month at a meeting between American and European analysts and senior Soviet military and foreign-policy officials.
Yet the Soviet interest in halting the missile proliferation is recent. It is a promising development, because Moscow's cooperation is essential to any plan to limit these weapons.
Such a plan must be ambitious. The existing international program--the Missile Technology Control Regime--agreed to by the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Japan and West Germany in April, 1987, to restrict access to missile technology, is not sufficient. Its application is entrusted to the good will of each national government. What is needed instead is a treaty with strict rules and penalties and an organization to monitor compliance.
China, which piously protests that it will never sell nuclear warheads for the long-range East Wind missiles it sold to the Saudis, must be included in such a treaty. Brazil, India, Israel, Iraq, Pakistan, South Korea and all other countries producing or having the potential to produce missiles must also be involved.
Argentina, with its burgeoning military-industrial complex, needs to sell abroad. During their meeting here in Rome on Sept. 8 and 9, representatives of the seven countries that established the control regime focused attention on Argentina's development, with technical and financial assistance from Egypt and Iraq, of a missile with a range of 500 to 600 miles, the Condor 2, which is likely to be exported to the Middle East when production begins.
The Soviet Union is not a member of the control-regime agreement. But there are elements in the new leadership in Moscow that are convinced that unrestrained missile sales are as dangerous to global stability as is the proliferation of nuclear or chemical weapons. There is hope, therefore, that the Soviet government might associate itself with the agreement or at least fully participate with international efforts toward its implementation.
The Soviets share the concern of the West about the capabilities of missiles produced by such states as China or Brazil. These countries place few restrictions on the sale of missiles, whose range, formerly a few hundred miles, has increased to nearly 2,000 miles--a change of tremendous consequence. The traditional concept of defense of smaller nations has been based until now on the assumption that a country's borders were the farthest perimeter of concern. The proliferation of missiles overturns that concept. A nation can now be threatened by a hostile country as far as 2,000 miles away--not just by neighboring states.
Nerve gas has an enormous potential for mass destruction. A milligram is more than enough to kill a human being. Worst of all, know-how for the production of this deadly weapon has now spread to several states possessing or likely to acquire missiles. That is why a concerted effort is currently under way by the advanced industrial countries, including the Soviet Union, to take some interim measures, short of an international agreement, to arrest this sinister development.
Poison gas can hardly be effectively employed on the battlefield without previous intensive training and sophisticated tactics for its use. Iran claims that a considerable number of Iraq's casualties were provoked by Iraqi poison gas that was blown back by wind toward Iraq's own troops. Intermediate-range missiles solve this problem. Without any particular training or tactic for their employment, a country that possesses the missiles and the deadly gas to fill their warheads can provoke a holocaust in the capital city of an adversary a thousand or more miles distant.
In short, the unrestrained sales of missiles and the spread of chemical weapons technology could have a disastrous combined effect. In Western European defense circles, some pessimists think that, if proliferation spreads, the only effective measure against the new threat is the development of anti-missile defenses. A race to deploy such systems in Europe, or elsewhere, would certainly be calamitous.
We face a vicious cycle: More missiles, the specter of nerve gas filling their warheads, anti-missile defenses to protect us from these new threats. We must break this cycle before it consumes us.