Although tests show that the new Bigeye nerve gas bomb still has many minor problems, Pentagon officials said Wednesday that should not delay destruction of older, sometimes leaking weapons that the new bomb is supposed to replace.
"We don't expect any delay whatsoever," said Lt. Col. John Chapla, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon.Maj. Randy Morger, a Department of Defense spokesman, said that despite national stories earlier this week about the Bigeye's problems, they are considered minor and should easily be eliminated by the time the the first bombs are scheduled to roll off production lines next year.
The Bigeye and a new nerve gas rocket are supposed to replace the old chemical weapons stored at nine bases nationwide. The Army plans to destroy the older weapons by 1997. Tooele Army Depot stores 42.3 percent of that stockpile, and houses the plant that developed a method to safely destroy such arms.
The Army notes that many of those older weapons are leaking - including 784 arms at Tooele with slow liquid nerve agent leaks. Those arms have been placed in special protective cases and placed in a remote storage igloo.
The new Bigeye is safer to store because it combines two harmless chemicals to form nerve gas in flight after it has been dropped toward an enemy. Susan Voss, public affairs officer at Tooele, said the Army even plans to store the bomb's two chemicals in different states, and combine them only during war.
She said Tooele has been chosen as a temporary storage site for half of the Bigeye components once its production begins.
Morger said an example of a problem found with the Bigeye during recent testing - much of which occurred at Dugway Proving Ground last year - was that ice sometimes formed on a cable between the bomb and the high-flying airplane carrying it, which caused the fuse on the bomb to fail.
"That was fairly easy to fix. The cable was redesigned, a different lubricant was used and the fuse was changed."
The office of information for the Navy, which is overseeing development of the Bigeye for the Department of Defense, said no further tests of the Bigeye have been scheduled. It said as funding is available, the Department of Defense will make small quantities of the bombs - fixing problems during production - and possibly test the bombs more later.
Morger said the Department of Defense has assured Congress that it won't proceed with full-scale production of Bigeyes until it is sure they will work as designed.
"It's still several percentage points below where we would like it to be operationally," he said.
Also, the tests of the Bigeyes at Dugway Proving Ground last year upset Utah health officials, who said the tests violated state law because the Army failed to obtain permits to allow open-air testing of chemicals in the bombs used to simulate nerve gas.
While the Army says that the chemicals used are harmless, many state officials said last month that they had never heard of the apparently exotic chemicals and were unsure about their properties. They said the Army should also obtain a permit any time it releases a pollutant in the air.
The Army has asked the state for permission to release several thousand liters of the same chemicals used in the Bigeye testing into the air during the upcoming year.