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Implications for future warfare with the use of chemical weapons and Australia's defence capability against these weapons.

NEIL BOWES: The Libyan Government will be delighted by the Soviet Union's charge that the United States has not proved that Colonel Gaddafi's regime has been manufacturing chemical weapons. The Soviet Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, spelled out Moscow's position on the Libyan plant to US Secretary of State, George Shultz, during the chemical weapons conference in Paris. The conference has been dominated by the Soviet Union's announcement that it will cease production of chemical weapons and begin destroying its stockpile.

But it seems an international non-proliferation treaty is still some way off, and even with a treaty there are no guarantees that all countries will be signatories. Andrew Mack, the head of the Peace Research Centre at the Australian National University in Canberra, believes that in itself poses a possible threat to Australia from chemical weapons produced in the Asian region. Andrew Mack joins us now in our Canberra studio. Good morning.

ANDREW MACK: Good morning.

NEIL BOWES: How concerned is the Australian Government about the threat from chemical weapons?

ANDREW MACK: I think the Australian Government is very, very concerned. There are more people working in the disarmament branch of the Department of Foreign Affairs on chemical weapons issues than on any other arms control issue. We have three diplomats at the Paris conference. The Defence Department is concerned. It's an area of very, very high concern indeed.

NEIL BOWES: Well, if we're concerned about chemical weapons being produced particularly in Asia, which countries would be most likely to produce those weapons, and how would they be delivered?

ANDREW MACK: Well, according to a report published in the Wall Street Journal by one of the world's leading experts on chemical warfare, there are seven countries in Asia Pacific that have or have the capability and intention of getting chemical weapons, and they're Burma, Thailand, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan, China and Vietnam. Now, obviously it's no good just having the chemical weapon. You also have to have a delivery system. In the Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqis put chemical warheads into shells and they fired them with artillery which had a relatively short range. Had they put the same chemical warheads on the ballistic missiles which both sides used to bombard each other's cities, the death toll would have been equivalent to several Hiroshimas - absolutely horrendous.

And the real problem here, I think, is that if we look in the medium to long term, say 10 or 15 years down the road - and that's the sort of, we don't perceive, Australia doesn't perceive any threats coming up in less than that time, major threats to Australia, there is going to be a proliferation of off-the-shelf ballistic missiles. That is to say that there will be a number of countries which will be prepared to sell to any country that wants to buy them, ballistic missiles which have a range by then of probably four or 5,000 kilometres.

NEIL BOWES: Is this happening now? Are these missiles available now?

ANDREW MACK: They certainly are. The Chinese have sold a CSS-2 missile to Saudi Arabia. This is a missile which has a range of some 2,200 kilometres, and yet the missile is so inaccurate it would make no strategic sense to buy it unless you put either a chemical warhead on it or a nuclear warhead on it.

NEIL BOWES: Is Australia then, if there were missiles fired with warheads containing chemicals, is Australia in a position to respond to that?

ANDREW MACK: No, I don't think Australia is. If you look at the seven-odd billion dollars that we spend on defence at the moment, there is nothing in the defence hardware we have, or the defence hardware that we're acquiring which could stop a ballistic missile. There is some defence for soldiers against chemical warfare. It's very uncomfortable, difficult to use and hampers the efficiency of the military, but it can be done. There is, however, no effective defence for civilian populations of large cities.

NEIL BOWES: If there is an international non-proliferation treaty drawn up for chemical weapons, would these Asian countries that you've talked about be likely signatories?

ANDREW MACK: They may be, they may not be. It'll be like the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Those countries that really want to obtain chemical weapons are the ones that are least likely to want to sign the treaty. Iraq has already indicated that it's unlikely to sign any treaty that comes up because it believes that chemical weapons are legitimate. And many Third World countries believe firstly that chemical weapons are effective - this is one of the lessons of the Iran-Iraq war. A CIA report has come out saying that they made a decisive difference. And an American report has described Third World military advisers queuing up to find out how the Iraqis did it. So the countries that are most likely to want to have these weapons are the ones that are least likely to want to sign the treaty. And they would argue that morally the West is in no position to lecture to them about the poor person's, the poor country's atom bomb, which is chemical weapons, when the nations of the West continue to increase their stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

NEIL BOWES: Okay, Andrew, we'll leave it there. Thank you very much indeed.