GLOBAL SECURITY NEWSWIRE. JULY 22, 2009. By Chris Schneidmiller
WASHINGTON -- A leading international nonproliferation official is urging the United States not to retreat from providing sufficient funds to accelerate the complete elimination of the U.S. stockpile of chemical weapons (see GSN, May 6).
“We hope that … every [funding commitment] will be completed in good time for the facilities to be completed in good time and be able to destroy the remaining chemical weapons in good time,” said Rogelio Pfirter, director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The Defense Department’s Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program stands to receive about $550 million in fiscal 2010 as it continues construction of demilitarization plants at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky and the Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado. That would be a nearly 30 percent hike in resources from this year, and news reports indicate that the organization could collect $1.2 billion in extra funding over several upcoming budgets.
The Pentagon today has destroyed more than 60 percent of its chemical arsenal, which was stored for decades at nine locations. The Colorado and Kentucky sites will be the last two installations to begin -- and presumably complete -- destruction of their stockpiles. As it stands, the end is more than a decade away.
Proposed ACWA funding in the next budget is “substantially sufficient for a one-year effort,” Pfirter said in a June telephone interview with Global Security Newswire.
There should be no letdown in spending, he said: “It will take much more than that just to complete the facilities.”
Pfirter was in Washington last month for his first meetings with Obama administration officials at the White House and the State and Defense departments, along with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
During the subsequent interview, he avoided discussing details of the visit. However, the former Argentine diplomat said he left convinced that the new U.S. leadership is engaged on meeting its commitments under the international Chemical Weapons Convention.
The United States is one of 188 member nations to the 1997 pact that prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, use or proliferation of chemical warfare materials such as mustard blister agent and the lethal nerve agents VX and sarin.
Any nation that joins the pact while in possession of banned armaments -- the list to date encompasses Albania, India, Iraq, Libya, Russia, the United States and a publicly unidentified nation widely understood to be South Korea -- is required to destroy those weapons and any production capabilities.
“The administration fully recognizes the convention and is totally aware. It doesn’t need anyone else to remind them,” Pfirter said. “The commitment is very, very strong toward the convention. I’m sure the United States will continue to look for ways of bringing their own destruction program in line with the convention.”
Officials in Washington also said little about Pfirter’s day and a half of talks. One congressional source said Pfirter met for a short time with then-Representative Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), who has since become undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. The two discussed the challenges facing the U.S. disarmament program, the source said.
“There was no big strategy discussion. I think it was a courtesy call on his part,” according to the Capitol Hill official.
The administration’s public face on arms control has to date been squarely aimed at nuclear weapons, with President Barack Obama in April giving a highly publicized speech in Prague on disarmament (see GSN, April 6). More recently, the U.S. president signed a pledge with his Russian counterpart to draw down their nations’ strategic nuclear arsenals (see GSN, July 6).
“The State Department and Defense Department have taken President Obama’s Prague speech as their marching orders. So they view the president’s top arms control priorities as entirely nuclear, with much less of a focus on the other categories of WMD,” said chemical-weapon expert Jonathan Tucker, a senior fellow at the Washington office of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
Concerns in the intelligence community regarding the threat of terrorists developing and using chemical weapons have not resulted in new international policy initiatives, Tucker said. The White House has also not scheduled any sort of meeting on chemical-weapon issues similar to a planned August session on biological threats, he added.
Meanwhile, the State Department has yet to appoint a high-level diplomat to replace the Bush administration’s envoy to Pfirter’s organization, which monitors compliance with the convention, Tucker said. That position will be crucial for preparing Washington to deal with the diplomatic fallout expected when it inevitably misses the chemical-weapon disarmament deadline set by the document.
A Pressing Schedule
The convention originally set a deadline of April 29, 2007 -- one decade after its entry into force -- for its member nations to do away with their chemical stockpiles. In 2006, all declared arsenal holders but Albania received schedule extensions, with the United States and Russia being given a full five extra years (see GSN, Dec. 11, 2006).
In the intervening years, Albania, India and South Korea have all completed their chemical demilitarization work (see GSN, April 29).
The Defense Department, though, has acknowledged its inability to eliminate its weapons on time.
“The DOD review has concluded that there are no realistic options available to destroy the complete U.S. stockpile by the CWC deadline of April 2012,” the Pentagon said last May in a report to Congress.
The latest plan calls for the Army Chemical Materials Agency around that time to complete destruction operations at storage sites that held 90 percent of the U.S. chemical warfare holdings. The organization by June 30 had eliminated more than 63 percent of the original U.S. arsenal of 31,500 tons of warfare materials.
The remaining 10 percent would be eliminated by 2021 by the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program, according to the report.