Chemical Weapons: Neglected Menace

By Smithson, Amy E.; Boulden, Laurie H. | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Chemical Weapons: Neglected Menace

Smithson, Amy E., Boulden, Laurie H., Issues in Science and Technology

More often than not, it is the less-recognized threat that materializes with devastating consequences. Such might be the case with chemical weapons, which have been overshadowed as a threat to U.S. security since the end of World War II ushered in the nuclear age. Several factors, however, point to a need for a post-Cold War reassessment of the relative threat posed by different types of weapons of mass destruction.

To begin with, chemical weapons quietly continued to proliferate while the world was preoccupied with containing the nuclear arms race. More than 25 countries are believed to possess chemical weapons or the capability to make them, compared with a nuclear club of about eight and a dozen or so biological-weapons proliferators. The spread of chemical weapons is not altogether surprising, since the ingredients for them are readily available and their formulas widely known. Chemical weapons are cheaper and easier to make than their nuclear or biological counterparts, earning them the nickname of the poor man's atom bomb.

By contrast, the end of the Cold War markedly reduced the likelihood of a nuclear war. The United States and Russia began cutting their nuclear arsenals by more than half, pulled ballistic missiles off 24-hour alert, and stopped targeting each other. Although the possibility remains that a rogue leader or terrorist group might get their hands on a nuclear weapon, the reality is starkly different: Last year terrorists crossed a previously unthinkable line - using weapons of mass destruction in an attack - not with a stolen or crudely made nuclear bomb, but with chemical weapons. A series of incidents across Japan involving unidentified toxic fumes culminated on March 20, when the Aum Shinrikyo cult released deadly sarin gas on crowded subway trains in downtown Tokyo, killing a dozen commuters and injuring 5,000 more. Suddenly, poison gas, the symbol of World War I trench warfare, became an omen for the future.

Aum Shinrikyo's actions rewrote the terrorist handbook, a fact that Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) grimly acknowledged during hearings in the fall of 1995 on the chemical and biological weapons threat. "The activities of the Aum should serve as a warning to us all," said Nunn on Oct. 31. "This is a lesson that we will ignore at our own peril." The hearings revealed that the United States was alarmingly ill-prepared to avert or cope with a copycat terrorist attack.

The outcome of a terrorist attack using chemical weapons could be disastrous, for the deadliness of World War I-vintage choking and blister agents was surpassed many times over when nerve agents were discovered in the 1930s. Exposure to as little as 15 milligrams of the nerve agent VX, for instance, can be lethal. Although gas masks and other protective gear can effectively shield trained soldiers from the effects of chemical agents, few countries can afford to mount the type of civilian defense staged by Israel during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. All Israelis were issued gas masks and practiced safety drills in the event that Saddam Hussein carded out his threat to lob chemically armed Scuds at Israel. No doubt terrorists, too, are acutely aware of the civilian population's vulnerability to chemical attacks.

One would think that Washington would throw its full weight behind efforts to address this grave problem. Yet neither the Clinton administration nor, especially, the U.S. Senate have yet to fully embrace a far-reaching and vitally important effort to deal with the chemical menace: the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The treaty, which has been signed by 160 countries, including the United States on Jan. 13, 1993, would prohibit not only the use of chemical weapons but also other activities associated with their acquisition. The CWC would require the destruction of existing chemical weapons and the plants used to manufacture them. The treaty's pioneering verification procedures go far beyond what is now required in nuclear weapons agreements. …

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