The General Accounting Office is warning that the United States may once again fail to meet a key milestone for destroying chemical agents. More troubling, GAO noted, are warnings that the United States may miss the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) ultimate 2012 deadline if these problems continue.
The United States originally pledged to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international body created to carry out the CWC, that it would destroy 45 percent of its stockpile by April 29, 2004. Last September, the United States asked for and received an extension to December 2007. (See ACT, October 2003.) But with the U.S. weapons depots having destroyed only 27 percent of the stockpile, GAO is warning that this new deadline may also slip. Testifying before a House subcommittee on April 1, Raymond Decker, director of defense capabilities and management at GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, cautioned that “the optimism to reach the 45 percent in 2007 is if all the stars line up exactly right.” He listed several unplanned requirements that have delayed operations in the past. To avoid these obstacles, he said that program planners need to be “forward-leaning, forward-thinking, anticipating anything that could derail or stop the schedule, and that has not happened.”
Delays could lead to a domino effect. Already, the earlier extension means that the United States will be unable to fulfill its original intention of destroying its entire stockpile by April 2007. The Department of Defense has indicated it will ask for a five-year extension of that deadline as well. Such a one-time, five-year extension of the final deadline is permitted under CWC rules, although member-states cannot formally submit extension requests until one year before the deadline.
GAO noted several sources for the delays, including continuing operational incidents, environmental permitting, and community opposition. Auditors expressed support for the program’s recent reorganization, despite concern that two of the nine sites with chemical agents and munitions remain under the control of the Defense Department’s Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives (ACWA) program. The Army’s Chemical Materials Agency (CMA) maintains responsibility for the other seven.
The GAO report praised the chemical demilitarization programs for their improved coordination with federal and local emergency preparedness agencies but warned that costs related to the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP) are likely to rise. Many states and communities near chemical agent and munitions sites have submitted additional CSEPP requests in excess of their approved budgets, forcing the diversion of funds from agent destruction to cover the unfunded requests.
Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities, noted that current estimates predict the last agent will not be destroyed until 2014. Such a timeline “place(s) our obligations and commitments under the Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty at risk,” Saxton stated. “They are frankly unacceptable. We must find ways, and affordable ways, to accelerate the destruction of the stockpile.”
In his fiscal year 2005 budget request, President George W. Bush proposed $1.37 billion for chemical agent and munitions destruction programs in the Defense Department, a decrease from $1.5 billion appropriated in 2004.
Funding for the chemical demilitarization program has become a controversial issue. Contractors at the two sites operated by ACWA, directed to accelerate agent destruction, have provided cost estimates that exceed the program’s expected budget. This has delayed destruction while the issue is being resolved. Although the accelerated methods proposed would be faster than incineration, a method in use or planned use at five other sites, the Defense Department may scale back or abandon the acceleration effort if there is not sufficient budgetary support. As Michael Parker, CMA director, explained at the same hearing attended by Saxton and Decker, the two sites operated by ACWA “are going to be pressing up very, very hard on 2012, and depending on how the overall budget and the availability of funding to accelerate those sites will determine whether or not we’ll be able to hit that 2012 mark.”
In 1998, the Defense Department estimated that the cumulative cost of the chemical demilitarization program would be $14.6 billion but in 2001 revised that number to be $23.7 billion. GAO now believes the total program cost will be substantially more than $25 billion.