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No to nerve gas

The news dictates comment on another military matter, and we beg the reader's indulgence for a page that must seem like our own defense buildup. The Senate has responded to an unusually intense administration lobbying effort and gone along with House approval of $20 million for the production of nerve-gas weapons. Now President Reagan ought to seize the opportunity to work no less vigorously for Soviet and world agreement to outlaw these and other means of chemical warfare. A first step would be to end his suspension of the Geneva talks in which Moscow and Washington have for years been seeking chemical disarmament along the lines of the 1972 international convention against biological warfare.

There is no moral excuse for any nation to use such horrifying weapons, ones to which unprotected civilians are more vulnerable than the increasingly well-protected military. And the difficulties of effective military use add to the reasons for resisting a new arms race in the chemical realm. At the least the United States should not plunge ahead -- in a program for which $20 million would provide only the first "module" -- without the full public airing that has never taken place.

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Two arguments have been advanced form plunging ahead.One is a supposed -- but undocumented -- Soviet buildup of chemical weapons, and their possible use in Afghanistan. Another is the supposed -- but disputed --gas weapons the administration wants.

One technical problem is that the binary weapons have not been fully tested, as existing chemical weapons have been. Indeed, the particular artillery shell designated for the first production module would be an uncertain version of well-tested nerve-gas artillery shell already in good supply and with a recognized record of full safety.

Complicating the matter further is the reluctance of the US's NATO allies to accept more stores of chemical weapons on European soil. They know the projections of millions of civilian casualties, contrasted with relatively few military casualties, if such weapons were used in a 10-day war. (The binary shell itself is known to have a leakage problem that could result in trailing its cargo over the people of the side firing it.)

The experience of World War I shows that, despite the agony, the use of chemical weapons was never militarily decisive except in a first surprise use on unprotected victims. Now Moscow's buildup of protection against chemical warfare is known, even though its production is not; and the US also is making strides in protecting personnel.

Experience likewise shows, as in the case of biological warfare, that when the sides see that a weapon is really not to their benefit they can be persuaded to limit its production and use. Chemical weapons could be seen in this light, if thoughtless action does not bring an arms race neither side wants. Last year in the Geneva talks a step of progress was achieved toward agreement on how the outstanding question of verification could be approached. Mr. Reagan's combination of suspending the talks and asking for the $20 million makes it incumbent on him to reassure friend and adversary alike tha t his country continues to abhor such weaponry.

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