CONGRESS has appropriated $20 million for a plant to make new chemical weapons. The relatively small amount of money clouds the significance of the decision, which breaks a decade-long moratorium on the production of these weapons.

True, this is not a decision actually to make the weapons. But it is the key first step. Once the plant is built, it is unlikely that it will not be used. It would cost several billion dollars to construct a modern chemical arsenal. Before Congress and the administration start down that road, a number of questions need to be debated.

Unlike traditional chemical weapons, the new type--called "binaries"--are inert until after they are fired. They remove any danger to people who manufacture, transport or use them; the new technology thus makes chemical weapons more attractive to military commanders--and presumably also to terrorists.

But despite their improved safety, chemical weapons are still of questionable military utility at best. Strategists argue that the United States must be able to retaliate in kind to a chemical attack. But why? On a practical level, troops wearing protective gear are largely unaffected by chemicals, so that many other types of weapons would provide a much stronger response.

Because most of the casualties from chemical warfare would be civilians, nearly all Western European countries oppose--or legally forbid--the production or storage of chemical weapons on their soil. A U.S. chemical aresenal could therefore disrupt rather than strengthen NATO forces. At the very least, a prior agreement needs to be reched with our NATO allies before money is spent on weapons that might never be allowed on European soil. b

U.S. production of binary chemical wepons could damage or destroy one of the most hopeful arms control opportunities still available. A treaty outlawing chemical warfare has been under negotiation for several years. And while it is a more difficult undertaking than banning biologicl warfare, the agreement already reached in that closely related area suggests that a satisfactory treaty on chemical warfare can be achieved.

It is a truism that not all defense spending contributes to the nation's security. The decision to begin making a new generatin of chemical weapons is an example. It shoud be reconsidered.