NATO defense ministers today endorsed a set of alliance military plans that could clear the way for the United States to produce a new generation of chemical weapons, despite persistent objections from several allies.
U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger hailed the decision to adopt about 1,500 "force goals" as a major step toward strengthening the conventional defense of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Force goals are each nation's goals for the number of forces and arms it will have ready to fight.
Development of the new generation of chemical weapons was among these goals put forward by the United States. Such proposals are not subject to veto by any other member of the alliance.
Weinberger sought to play down complaints by several European allies who did not want to see the United States break the 17-year moratorium on the production of nerve gas.
The U.S. Congress has stipulated that new funds will be appropriated for the chemical weapons only if the allies give their approval and join consultations about deployment. Many congressmen contended that it makes no sense to produce chemical weapons if the European allies would never permit their use on their territory.
Modern binary weapons consist of two harmless chemicals that become lethal nerve gas only when they are mixed together. Over the next decade, they would replace about 30 tons of aging chemical weapons in the U.S. stockpile.
Weinberger said, "Some member nations expressed unhappiness with the idea of chemical weapons, and everybody is against their use." But he said the United States felt obliged to modernize its arsenal to gain more bargaining leverage with the Soviet Union and in the 40-nation Geneva disarmament conference.
The Geneva negotiations are intended to achieve a global ban on chemical weapons, but the search for an accord has been stymied by disputes between Washington and Moscow over verification methods.
U.S. officials here insisted that today's actions by NATO defense ministers complied with the requirements set forth by Congress, clearing the way for production of the new nerve gas supplies.
Ten members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, however, said in a letter to President Reagan that the North Atlantic Council, NATO's governing body, must approve the plan rather than just the defense ministers. The State Department has said that the council only deals with political matters and that the meeting of defense ministers is the only body that can approve force goal decisions.
Despite the objections of several allies, none of those countries could impose a veto because they are not empowered to block the force goals of another NATO member.
The fact, however, that at least six allies expressed varying degrees of opposition to the plan might arouse congressional skepticism.
Defense ministers from Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands voiced the strongest reservations. They later said they had explicitly told Weinberger to inform Congress about their absolute rejection of new chemical weapons.
"I made it totally clear that Norway cannot support or endorse the U.S. decision to resume production of chemical weapons," said Norway's Defense Minister Johan Jorgen Holst. He told reporters that his country would refuse to allow the storage or transport of any chemical weapons on its territory. He also said Norwegian soldiers would not receive any training in the use of such arms.
Holst dismissed Weinberger's argument that new binary weapons would persuade Moscow to seek an early agreement banishing use and stockpiling of nerve gas. "There is a good case for showing continued restraint in connection with the current negotiations and recent positive political signals from the Soviet leadership," he said.
A majority of the ministers who spoke at today's meeting questioned the wisdom of resuming the manufacture of new chemical weapons, NATO sources said. None volunteered to join West Germany in deploying the gas if a crisis arose, sources added.
West Germany, the only European ally that currently has American chemical weapons, has backed the proposal because it would eliminate antiquated nerve gas stocks from its territory in peacetime.