The Army is studying the feasibility of putting chemical warheads on ground-launched cruise missiles of the kind now scheduled to be based in Western Europe, according to recently released congressional testimony.
The cruise missile, with a range of 1,500 miles, is one of a number of weapons being studied as possible carriers of a controversial new generation of binary chemical munitions, according to the testimony.
By law, President Reagan must certify to Congress that production of new chemical weapons is in the national interest. Although he has not yet done so, the Pentagon has received White House approval for more than $1 billion in the fiscal 1982 and 1983 budgets that would allow one kind of chemical weapon--the first new nerve gas artillery shell--to be turned out in fiscal 1984.
A Reagan decision to resume building chemical weapons could set off new political turmoil in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, since these weapons would be primarily designed for use in Western Europe.
At a hearing before the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense last September, Maj. Gen. Niles J. Fulwyler, director of the Army's nuclear and chemical weapons directorate, said that the concern of the NATO governments over chemical weapons "derives in a great deal from the civilian population. If chemicals are used, the civilian population would be greatly affected. Neither we nor they provide protection to the civilians."
The Pentagon maintains a stockpile of aging chemical weapons in West Germany and the United States. They are of an old design that has the nerve gases and other chemicals already mixed.
The new binary weapons are considered safer by Pentagon officials since their two nonlethal chemicals that make up the eventual toxic or incapacitating agent are not mixed together until the weapon is fired.
Last year the administration lifted a 12-year American moratorium on producing chemical weapons and got Congress to approve $23 million for building facilities at Pine Bluff, Ark., where binary chemical weapons would be produced.
At that time, the NATO allies were reassured that building the facility did not necessarily mean production of weapons would be authorized, sources said.
In early January, when a Reuter wire service story said that a Pentagon study had recommended basing the new chemical bombs in England, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, according to sources, told alliance diplomats that neither a production nor a deployment decision had been made.
The United States stopped building chemical weapons in 1969, and in 1975 ratified the Geneva Protocol renouncing first use of them.
Building up American stocks of chemical weapons has long been advocated by Reagan supporters. Their position is based on the view that the Soviets not only appear to have larger stocks of chemical weapons than this country, but also because the Soviets regularly conduct Warsaw Pact training exercises that feature contaminated battlefields.
In recent months U.S. officials have alleged Soviet use of toxic agents in Laos and possibly Afghanistan. These allegations have been used by officials seeking funds for a U.S. chemical weapons program.
Although the United States in the past has built bombs to be dropped from airplanes and short-range rockets that deliver poisonous nerve gas and other chemical agents, the cruise missile would be the first time such chemicals would be in a warhead with so long a range.
Because it could deliver nerve gas from West European bases to targets in the Soviet Union, the cruise missile would be the most controversial of all weapons systems being proposed for the new chemical weapons.