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Controversy ignites over chemical bomb.

Controversy ignites over chemical bomb

The Reagan administration has proposed spending $56.9 million in the up-coming fiscal year to resume production of chemical weapons after a 17-year hiatus (SN:6/29/85,p.407). The first of these weapons slated for production is the 595-pound "Bigeye" bomb. But a new congressional analysis of the Bigeye project identifies many serious problems with the weapon, several of which it says "appear to be intractable." Its conclusion -- "That other technologies and other chemical weapons be examined to accomplish the deterrent and retaliatory mission assigned to Bigeye" -- has kindled a fiery debate over the necessity of this bomb.

As a "binary" weapon, each Bigeye bomb would store two chemicals separately until the weapon was released from its launcher and en route to its target. Then the chemicals would be mechanically mixed, creating the lethal nerve as VX, the same organophosphorus compound contained in the United States' older, stockpiled "unitary" (premixed) chemical weapons.

According to unclassified portions of the new report, released last week by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the congressional watchdog agency, the 14-year, on-again-off-again Bigeye program has not yet demonstrated that these binary weapons will achieve their design potency, will function as expected or can be delivered reliably and safely. Unless these uncedrtainities involving the chemistry and design of the bomb can be fully resolve -- something the report says is unlikely -- GAO recommends that the Department of Defense (DOD) postpone or even abandon production of the bomb.

In congressional testimony last week describing the study, Eleanor Chelimsky, director of GAO's program evaluation and methodology division, described some of the uncertainties identified. These, she said, include tests "conducted under conditions that would produce an acknolwedged bias in the results" and calculations in which "DOD analysts have somehow moved from reporting a totally failed component to reporting a totally (100 percent) reliable system which uses that failed component."

"Most troubling of all, perhaps, with regard to the design and to the overall credibility of DOD's testing," Chelimsky said, "is the way in which important evaluation questions are posed at the start of a test, fail to be aswered (or are answered inconclusively), and then disappear from serious consideration."

At a Pentagon briefing for reporters last week, DOD officials disputed not only GAO's interpretation of their agency's test data but also the need to postpone bomb production. DOD Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas J. Welch described some of GAO's criticisms as "nonproblems" -- such as its concern that the VX might ignite while being sprayed over a target, rendering the weapon useless. For this to be a problem, said Welch, an ignition source must be present, and Bigeye has none. A more serious problem, he said, was the report's dated nature. He said many tests completed since GAO concluded its data collection in April 1985 suggest that earlier problems are on their way to being resolved.

DOD plans to begin construction of a facility this fall to produce the "hundreds" of bombs it will need for operational tests of the weapon. The first Bigeyes could be ready by September 1988, Welch says. But that's providing DOD gets funding for the bomb -- not yet a certainty. In fact, Sen. David H. Pryor (D-Ark.), Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.) and Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.) -- all critics of renewed chemical-weapons production -- have seized on the new GAO report as the basis for an intended campaign to cut funds for DOD's Bigeye development program.
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Title Annotation:Bigeye bomb
Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 21, 1986
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