Toxic paradox: America still has one of the world's biggest chemical weapons stockpiles. Why?
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Sep 08, 2013 | 9737 views |  0 comments | 86 86 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A cache of explosives is shown in 2008 after they were removed from mortars. (Anniston Star file photo by Bill Wilson)
A cache of explosives is shown in 2008 after they were removed from mortars. (Anniston Star file photo by Bill Wilson)
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MONTGOMERY — This time next week, the United States could be at war with Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons. But for Mike Abrams and his colleagues, the battle against nerve gas is already over.

Two years ago this month, workers at Anniston Chemical Activity loaded 72 mustard-gas projectiles into an incinerator and burned them — destroying the last local vestiges of a massive stockpile that included lethal gases such as sarin and VX. Since then, workers have been dismantling the chemical weapons facility itself. Eventually, even their jobs will be gone, but Abrams has no regrets.

"The fact that they were never used indicates that diplomacy won over the battlefield," said Abrams, spokesman for the chemical weapons facility.

Sixteen years after ratifying a treaty banning chemical weapons, the U.S. has destroyed 90 percent of its stockpile of poison gas. But the remaining 3,100 tons, stored in Colorado and Kentucky, represent one of the largest chemical arsenals in the world. Federal officials say it will take another 10 years to destroy it all.

That day likely can't come too soon for U.S. policymakers, for whom America's chemical weapons are an increasingly uncomfortable paradox. America and other nations have long denounced the use of chemical munitions on the battlefield. In recent weeks, Secretary of State John Kerry and others have accused Syria of chemical attacks that have killed more than 1,400 people — an accusation based largely reports by Western intelligence agencies. Kerry called those alleged attacks a "moral obscenity," while British leaders called them "abhorrent."

But for decades, the United States presented itself as capable of using chemical arms on the battlefield. That flirtation with chemical war cost the country billions of dollars and saddled some communities — including Anniston — with stockpiles of the world's deadliest poisons.

Why they exist

"If the enemy had a rifle, we needed a rifle," Abrams said, when asked to explain the logic behind the long-ago chemical weapons buildup.

At the end of the Cold War, Abrams said, the Russians had about 40,000 tons of chemical weapons. America had roughly 30,000 tons. Abrams and other federal officials said that for much of the Cold War, the United States built the weapons as a deterrent. If the Soviets used them on the battlefield, the theory went, the United States would respond in kind.

Histories of the chemical weapons program — including one compiled by the Army Chemical and Biological Defense Command’s official historian — tell of a chemical arsenal that grew in fits and spurts, as America's vision of chemical weapons changed.

Those histories start with World War I, when poison gas was commonly used on the battlefield. A latecomer to the war, America started making chemical weapons, and continued to research chemical warfare through the 1920s and 1930s. The deterrence policy didn't emerge until World War II, when the Army built a stockpile and announced that any use of gas by the Axis powers would be met "by the fullest possible retaliation."

The deterrent policy extended into the Cold War, federal officials say, when planners saw a need to match the Soviet effort to make chemical munitions.

There were some who wanted more than just a deterrent. During the Korean War and again during the early 1960s, some war planners pushed for a first-use policy that allowed the U.S. military to use gas to stop an advancing enemy, whether or not that enemy used gas first. Policymakers said no.

Weapons from nearly every era of the chemical program, unused, found their way into the stockpiles. But most of Anniston's arsenal was built during that Cold War period, federal officials say. By 1963, Anniston Army Depot became home to thousands of rockets and shells containing mustard gas, sarin and the deadliest agent of all, VX.

By the end of the Cold War, Anniston was home to more than 600,000 chemical munitions. If federal officials had passed those weapons out to the city's residents, there'd be enough for everyone to have about two dozen.

How much is enough?

What's not entirely clear is how, exactly, those weapons would have made it to a Cold War battlefield.

America's other major deterrent — its nuclear force — consists of missiles, bombers and nuclear subs that can be launched against foreign targets on short notice. Anniston's chemical stockpile consisted of relatively short-range rockets and shells, all in storage thousands of miles from Russia and Central Europe.

The United States also kept stockpiles in Europe and Okinawa during parts of the Cold War, said Miguel Monteverde, spokesman for Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, a federal agency that is in charge of destroying some of the stockpile.

But if there was a detailed plan for getting the U.S.-based weapons to the front, or a doctrine for using them, defense experts say it's likely classified or forgotten.

"That's a tough one," said Dan Goure, an analyst for the Lexington Institute, a Washington think tank devoted to defense policy. The best sources, he said, would be the war planners themselves, most of whom are long dead.

Another thing that's unclear is how military leaders decided they'd built enough of the weapons.

"Military thinkers all over the world estimate based on war plans," Monteverde said. "I'm sure someone had a formula."

Asked about that formula, federal officials referred The Star to the Chemical Weapons Museum at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. Attempts to reach historians there, and at Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Maryland, were unsuccessful.

A new deterrent

Even though some stockpiles of the weapons remain, federal officials and defense analysts agree that those weapons are no longer a deterrent — just a storage problem. The deterrent role ended when the Pentagon decided it would use nuclear weapons, instead of chemical arms, to respond to a sufficiently heinous chemical attack, defense analysts say.

"There was a long-running battle between the nuclear people and the chemical people, and the nuclear people won," said Goure, the defense analyst.

Some officials and analysts say that strategic shift came from the Nixon administration.

Nixon did order an end to chemical weapons production. Associated Press reports from the time, however, show Nixon renouncing “all but defensive uses” of chemical weapons, leaving open the deterrent option. Those same AP reports, citing Pentagon sources, say “the United States could not launch an immediate, massive, retaliatory chemical attack.” Weapons systems to launch such an attack, the AP reports say, were developed but never purchased by the Pentagon.

Nixon's policy changes may have been a response to popular discontent with the chemical program. News reports from the time show that members of Congress were upset by reports of open-air testing of chemical weapons in Anniston and in Maryland that came to light in 1969. An accident with a chemical bomb in Okinawa in the same year exposed some sailors to sarin — and spawned questions about why the weapons were at an Asian base in the first place. There was also backlash against the Pentagon's original chemical weapons disposal plan, Operation Chase, in which poison gas rockets were simply dumped into the ocean.

Chemical weapons had many failings as a deterrent, said Henry Sokolski, who served as deputy secretary of defense for nonproliferation in the George H.W. Bush administration. Sokolski, who now heads the nonprofit Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said the political outcomes of chemical weapons use are so messy, they almost make nuclear weapons look good.

"The value of a thing as a deterrent evaporates when it’s clear we would never use it," he said.

Still, Sokolski recalls hearing talk of chemical weapons as a deterrent as late as the mid-1980s. President Ronald Reagan, he said, pushed Congress for creation of a new generation of chemical weapons.

Leverage

Reagan was pushing for creation of the deadly chemical VX in binary form. Binary chemical warheads contain two chemicals, separated by a partition, which mix to become poison gas when the weapon is launched. They're generally considered safer to store than pre-mixed chemical weapons.

Anniston never had them, Abrams says. Binary weapons were invented long after Anniston's stockpile was complete.

In memos and radio addresses from the time, Reagan urges Congress to approve the binary weapons plan, while also saying he wanted a bilateral agreement to get rid of the weapons altogether. In a now-declassified 1983 memo available through the Reagan Presidential Library, Reagan mentions the new weapons both as a deterrent and as a means "to gain negotiating leverage in the area of arms control."

The United States eventually signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. Both Russia and the United States ratified that agreement in 1997 — well after the end of the Cold War.

More than a decade later, neither Russia nor the United States has completely destroyed their chemical weapons stockpiles. Both countries missed two deadlines for that destruction, one in 2007 and another last year. Federal officials predict the U.S. arsenal won't be gone until 2023.

'The noble mission'

For the Army's chemical weapons workers, the heroic age of disarmament is over — at least for now.

For years, workers in chemical suits dealt directly with the chemical weapons, taking them out of storage, moving them to destruction facilities where they could be destroyed or neutralized through a chemical process.

It was, by all accounts, dangerous work. The chemical munitions were indeed munitions, capable of exploding. The M55 chemical rockets that made up much of the arsenal, both in Anniston and elsewhere, were known to be leaky. News accounts from the 1990s and onward refer to the dangers of the aging rockets in the stockpile. But a history written by officials at Edgewood arsenal states that the rockets first started leaking in 1966, shortly after they were built. Abrams also confirmed that the rockets began leaking a few years after they were built.

The Army has destroyed 90 percent of the arsenal, said Greg Mahall, chief of public affairs for the U.S. Army Chemical Activity. Stockpiles in Anniston, Utah, Oregon and Johnston Island in the South Pacific have been destroyed.

Another 523 tons of VX and sarin remain at Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky, and 2,611 tons of mustard gas remain at Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado. They're the only facilities where destruction is not directly under Army control. In 1997, Congress handed the destruction process over to a federal agency called Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, created in response to public concern that burning the weapons in incinerators would lead to environmental pollution. Both plants will use chemical processes known as neutralization to destroy their weapons. The Pueblo plant is now hiring workers and is expected to destroy its last weapon in 2019. The Blue Grass plant is still being built, and is expected to destroy the last chemical weapon in 2023.

The neutralization-versus-incineration issue is still a touchy subject in Anniston, where local environmentalists tried, and failed, to persuade the Army not to burn the weapons. Asked whether neutralization had delayed the Colorado and Kentucky projects, ACWA spokesman Monteverde noted that neutralization was used at two Army stockpiles where all the weapons have been destroyed.

Monteverde said the design of the weapons has made destruction a difficult problem at every facility.

"They were never designed to be disassembled," he said. "It was always thought, at the time of their manufacture, that they were designed to be used."

Until the neutralization work begins, the Army is simply watching and caring for the weapons, to make sure they’re safe, said Mahall, the Army spokesman.

"The noble mission, the sexy mission, the more dangerous mission is getting rid of them," he said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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