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Pentagon Backs Off Chemical Weapons Destruction Study

Michael Nguyen

Following intense criticism from Congress, the Department of Defense has put a controversial chemical weapons disposal study on the back burner. The study included an option for the removal of weapons from two previously planned disposal sites as part of the Pentagon’s efforts to eliminate the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile.

Simultaneously, Congress and the Defense Department have taken steps to move forward with design work for disposal facilities at the sites in Pueblo, Colorado, and Blue Grass, Kentucky.

The Pentagon decisions came in an April 15 memorandum written by Michael Wynne, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, and obtained by the private Chemical Weapons Working Group. Nearly a month later, lawmakers reinforced the decisions as part of a supplemental spending bill.

The Defense Department had been looking for ways to bring the total costs of destroying weapons at the two sites down while still meeting U.S. obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). That treaty’s extended deadline calls for the destruction of all U.S. chemical weapons by 2012. About 10 percent of the U.S. stockpile is at the sites in Colorado and Kentucky, but the Pentagon is leery of constructing new facilities at a time when costs at existing facilities have already exceeded their budget.

Besides transportation, the study was to consider other destruction methods such as incineration or acceleration of the neutralizing process. It was also tasked with consulting with the CWC’s implementing body to determine if it was possible to receive credit for destroying chemical weapons earlier in the destruction process. (See ACT, March 2005.)

Facing congressional opposition to the possibility of moving the weapons, the Pentagon opted to back off portions of the study that would have examined whether it should shift the weapons to currently operating disposal facilities in other states. Wynne wrote that officials had enough information to proceed with design work without “the necessity to address the concept of transportation at this time.” Current federal law prohibits the transportation of chemical munitions.

Wynne also released nearly $300 million in funds for design work at the two sites, the only remaining stockpile sites of nine total sites without operational facilities. The Defense Department had stopped design work at each site and placed them in caretaker status while it determined how to lower costs.

Still, Wynne hinted that someday it might be necessary to reconsider the ban on transportation. At a April 11 subcommittee hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he told senators that it was his intention to study all alternatives and that “we should all hold that alternative open and never let it go until such time as we see that we can meet effectively, efficiently, and…safely the on-site destruction.”

When and if the study will be released is unclear. Gregory Mahall, a spokesperson for the Army’s Chemical Materials Agency (CMA), told Arms Control Today that, although CMA has completed the study of alternatives in late March, Wynne has not asked CMA to present its findings.

Lt. Commander Joe Carpenter, a Defense Department spokesperson, said there is still interest in the study, but “we need an opportunity to look at it.” He said the Defense Department planned to present its findings to Congress in late June.

At the same time, Congress has moved to reinforce existing laws and provide the Colorado and Kentucky sites with additional funding. The most recent fiscal year 2005 supplemental appropriations bill passed by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush May 11 requires the Pentagon to release funds for the two sites and prevents their redirection to other facilities. Many in Congress had been concerned that funding for the sites was being diverted to help cover rising costs at the operational sites. The legislation also obligates the Defense Department to spend at least $100 million within 120 days and banned any future studies that involved the transportation of weapons.

At a recent markup of the fiscal year 2006 defense authorization bill, the Senate Armed Services Committee also added $20 million to the amount requested by Bush in his budget for the two sites, raising the total to $53 million. It is not clear, however, if the additional funds will allow the completion of all destruction activities by 2012. At congressional hearings held last year, Defense Department officials asserted that the Colorado and Kentucky sites were scheduled to finish their work right before that deadline, but recent design work stoppages may have affected the overall schedule.

As it becomes more likely that the United States will miss the 2012 deadline, a Senate Armed Services subcommittee asked Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Donald Mahley to speak about the consequences of missing the CWC’s final deadline.

“I do not believe we will damage our international influence fatally if we have not completed our destruction,” said Mahley, “so long as we are continuing to devote obvious and extensive effort and resources to the program and…continue to inform other parties of the nature of our progress.”

Mahley said that there is no automatic penalty for noncompliance, although other states-parties could choose to pursue individual or collective actions. Under Article XII of the CWC, a stateparty could choose to suspend the CWC between itself and the noncompliant state, vote to bar the noncompliant state from voting in the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or seek sanctions, such as restricting trade in industrial chemicals.

Still, Mahley expressed concern that the other major chemical weapons holder, Russia, would use the U.S. failure “as an excuse to further submerge its own destruction program in competing budget priorities and to justify its own failure to meet the treaty deadline.”

The United States has destroyed about 35 percent its chemical weapons stockpile, the second-largest in the world, and must destroy 45 percent of its stockpile by the next interim deadline in December 2007. Russia has destroyed less than 5 percent of its stockpile, which is the largest in the world.