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A biochemist's case against the new nerve gas

We do not know whether the Soviets have or have not increased their stockpile of lethal chemical weapons over the past 12 years, during which we refrained from producing such weapons. The Russian obsession with secrecy prevents reliable estimates. It is therefore only prudent to assume that the Soviet Union poses a substantial chemical threat.

This assumption would be appropriate with or without the very disturbing reports of the use of toxic weapons in Afghanistan and of possible Soviet involvement in their use in Southeast Asia. It does not in itself, however, provide a sound basis for deciding specific procurement issues.

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I will focus on the issue of whether to start production of the M687 155-mm binary GB nerve gas artillery projectile. The M687 is the only binary munition thus far certified ready for production.

* The already existing quantities of 155-mm and 8-in. GB and VX nerve gas artillery projectiles (M121A1 and M426) are more than ample for United States artillery requirements for 30 days of chemical warfare in Europe.

For causing casualties to well-trained, well-protected troops, as the Soviets certainly are, chemical artillery fire will generally be considerably less effective than conventional artillery fire. By forcing troops into protective posture, however, chemicals will degrade mission performance and slow the tempo of operations. Since firing more chemical rounds means firing fewer conventional rounds, there will be an optimum ratio, dependent on the amount required to force the other side into protective posture. Firing more chemical rounds than this optimum will reduce, not increase combat effectiveness. Avoiding additional casualties to unprotected civilians down-wind is a further reason for not exceeding the optimum.

* Stocks of serviceable M121A1 and M426 nerve gas artillery projectiles are not deteriorating.

Tests done several years ago were mistakenly interpreted to suggest deterioration of nerve agent in US artillery munitions. Subsequent tests show no deterioration. While it is true that some types of chemical munitions are deteriorating or obsolete, these do not include the M121A1 and M426.

* The M121A1 and M426 nerve gas artillery projectiles are not obsolete nor are they becoming so.

Contrary to a prevalent misunderstanding the M121A1 and M426 nerve gas artillery projectiles are fully compatible with currently deployed artillery weapons and can be fired to their full range.

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* Presently stockpiled US nerve gas artillery projectiles have been extensively field tested. The proposed binary projectile has not been field tested.

In addition to revealing possible unsuspected design faults, field testing is needed in order to develop munitions effectiveness tables, which presently do not exist for the M687 binary. Only such testing can provide reliable information as to whether the M687 is reliable and equal in effectiveness to the currently stockpiled M121A1 GB round.

* Presently stockpiled chemical artillary munitions can be safely stored and transported.

Binary chemical munitions are intrinsically less likely than single-fill munitions to cause unintended release of nerve agent until they are assembled, which would be done only in or near the battlefield. In considering the safety of single-fill munitions, certain extremely improbable accidents, such as the crash in a populated area of a plane carrying nerve gas munitions may be envisioned. Even then, however, with their fuses and buster charges packaged separately, the release of nerve agent from single-fill chemical artillery shells is unlikely.

* Production of the M687 risks undermining the NATO political balance on which defense planning ultimately rests.

The governments of Norway and Holland have recently stated that they would not allow their forces to use chemical weapons or permit chemical weapons deployment on their territory. The stated policy of the Federal Republic of Germany is not to train its troops in the use of chemicals ''now or in the future.'' There is no evidence that the FRG will permit replacement of US chemical weapons already deployed there with binaries, let alone permit deployment of increased quantities.

Indeed, there are indications that US production of short-range nerve gas weapons, such as the M687, which are perceived as being most likely to be used on German soil, could force the government of the federal republic to request withdrawal of US stocks presently positioned on its territory. This would leave the US with no stocks whatever in Europe for prompt retaliation in case of chemical attack.

Much of the opposition to chemical weapons in European NATO countries is based on awareness that major chemical war on their territory could cause millions of civilian casualties, a catastrophe of strategic proportions for Western Europe. There is also concern, whether justified or not, that NATO emphasis on chemical weapons (as opposed to emphasis on chemical protective measures) may lead the Soviets to doubt NATO resolve to use nuclear weapons, on which the deterrence of war itself is felt ultimately to depend.

I conclude that there is no need for the M687 and that a decision to produce it at this time would waste defense resources and would jeopardize our present forward-based chemical deterrent capability and risk undermining NATO cohesion on even larger issues.

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