132. Memorandum From the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Secretary of Defense Brown1


  • US Chemical Warfare Policy and Retaliatory Capability (U)

1. (S) The Joint Chiefs of Staff are concerned that the Soviet Union has not matched the restraint shown by the United States in modernizing CW capabilities nor the efforts of the United States to negotiate a meaningful CW treaty. To the contrary, the Soviets not only have developed an extensive CW capability, but continuing reports indicate that they also have employed riot control and incapacitating agents (and possibly lethal agents) in Afghanistan. Their apparent willingness to employ chemical weapons is in complete disregard of internationally recognized principles to which the Soviets publicly subscribe. The Joint Chiefs of Staff view the Soviet actions in Afghanistan, following the apparent and unchallenged use of chemical weapons by the Vietnamese in Laos, as part of a developing pattern by the Soviet Union and its surrogates to employ these weapons at low levels of conflict.2

2. (S) These factors present a serious threat to US security interests, given the marginal capability of the United States to conduct CW operations and the reluctance of the Soviets to negotiate an equitable, verifiable ban on the development, production, and stockpiling of chemical weapons. The Soviets respect strength and exploit weakness. They know that the United States and NATO are comparatively weak in the area of CW. Gradually improving US chemical defense posture provides little, if any, deterrence to Soviet use of chemical weapons. Even a near-perfect defense probably would not3 deter Soviet use of chemical agents because of the significant military advantage of placing an opponent in a CW environment. Until the United States demonstrates that it has an effective CW retaliatory capability, combined with a viable defense, the Soviets are not likely to be restrained from using chemicals in any future conflict. The almost nonexistent US offensive capability, [Page 288] coupled with a severely limited defensive capability, is, in fact, seriously destabilizing.

3. (S) Considering the asymmetry between the US and Soviet chemical warfare posture, as well as the current tactical nuclear balance, the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe that the President should have a credible chemical response option to Soviet use of offensive chemical weapons—especially if the Soviets selectively employ chemical weapons against a few critical targets. Nuclear retaliation, in itself, is a questionable and possibly an undesirable CW deterrent due to the unknown level of the Soviet nuclear and chemical response to US use of theater nuclear weapons. For this reason, it is necessary to pursue a vigorous program that provides measurable and visible evidence of the US resolve to field a CW retaliatory capability. The development of a safe—and a politically more acceptable—binary weapons stockpile should be the first major step in this direction.

4. (S) The Joint Chiefs of Staff recommend that positive steps be taken now to develop a credible US CW retaliatory capability. They further recommend that a memorandum, substantially like that in the Appendix,4 be forwarded to the President requesting that US policy be changed to permit immediate modernization of the US CW retaliatory capability. Binary munitions represent the most reasonable option for insuring a credible retaliatory capability in support of the national policy of deterrence. In this regard, you may wish to recommend to the President that he support the action by the House of Representatives of adding $3.1 million to the FY 1981 budget for construction of a chemical munitions binary facility.

For the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

David C. Jones
General, USAF
Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Harold Brown Papers, Box 61, Biological/Chemical Warfare. Secret. In the upper right margin, Brown wrote “7/15—Good argument. Perhaps best handled by supporting [illegible] add-on, without at this time changing policy. (since the 3.1M merely puts US in position more to construction of binary production facility. [illegible] HB.”
  2. At the end of this paragraph, Brown wrote “Our degree of certainty is not very great (about Sov use in Afghanistan—somewhat greater re SEA).”
  3. In between “not” and “deter,” Brown wrote “alone.”
  4. The appendix was not attached.