Chemical weapons and the U.S.: The welcome end of an era

Thursday, January 26, 2012

While in most cases nations should not abandon viable weapons systems, Americans should welcome the recent news that the U.S. has destroyed the last stocks of chemical weapons stored at the Deseret Chemical Depot in Utah.

This follows news of several years ago that the U.S. military had finished incinerating similar weapons at Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas.

While the U.S. is still destroying its final chemical warheads, shells and other delivery systems, less than 10 percent of our original arsenal remains.

This destruction is in compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty from 1992-1993 signed by 188 nations. Russia, the largest producer of chemical weapons, has destroyed over half of its arsenal, and most other chemical states have already incinerated their weapons.

To this point, something close to two-thirds of the world's known weapons have been destroyed. While some nations may need to ask for extensions, given the environmental and scientific challenges that accompany this process, all signs point to a successful conclusion of these treaty commitments within the next five years.

Why would the U.S. want to eliminate an entire class of weapons? Why disarm ourselves in this way? In fact, the U.S. is relatively stronger in the world without the presence of chemical weapons.

While for nations such as Iraq and Egypt -- who developed and used poison gases in previous decades -- chemicals were a cheap weapon of mass destruction, the U.S. has a much broader range of strategic and tactical options, from laser-guided munitions to cruise missiles to expeditionary forces to nuclear weapons, the most powerful of all strategic weapons. Russia, China, India and other regional powers also have a broad range of capabilities in their military arsenals.

What the Chemical Weapons Convention does is make it more difficult -- although far from impossible -- for rogue states (such as Syria and North Korea, which have refused to sign the treaty), nonstate actors (such as al-Qaida) and international criminal organizations to develop, stockpile and employ these weapons.

Along with the destruction of the weapons themselves, there is now an international system to track precursor agents, share intelligence and apply collective action on states and organizations that refuse to cooperate in the ban.

The Russians and Chinese, for example, although not allies of the U.S., agreed to the treaty because of the unpredictability of chemical weapons. These weapons -- from nerve gas to choking agents -- are difficult to control, subject to changes in the wind, weather and uncertainty in combination with other materials. They also seriously degrade combat effectiveness, even among units that employ them, again because of their unpredictability.

While defensive measures, such as protective masks and overgarments, can provide military forces with some shielding, the presence of chemical weapons on the battlefield, and the protective gear soldiers have to wear, makes it much harder to fire a rifle, read a map or drive an armored vehicle.

As someone who has trained with live nerve agents and completed courses on tactical and strategic weapons of mass destruction, I can attest that the world, and most importantly the United States, will be safer with the final implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

With the progress achieved so far, the Obama administration should employ the full weight of the departments of State and Defense to push for final ratification and compliance by the handful of states that have not yet agreed to the convention.

Wayne H. Bowen, professor and chairman of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University, is also a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

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