Originally published on April 28, 2015
In the 1950s, the US Army began to consider the development of binary nerve agent weapons to provide increased safety during storage and handling. At that time, unitary nerve agent weapons were the only ones in existence. In unitary agents, the chemicals were produced in a plant, loaded into the missile, and stored in a ready-to-use fashion. This method has several drawbacks. Because the munitions are highly toxic, storage, handling, and deployment need to be performed with extreme caution. Unitary weapons therefore pose a considerable risk to the ground crew and others who work with the chemicals. The agents in the active form are also highly corrosive; thus, extended storage times increase the risk of a leak.
The concept of binary weapons began to develop in the 1960s. Binary weapons involve nontoxic precursors that can be loaded in munitions. Once deployed, the precursors mix and develop the nerve agent. Below is a timeline (adapted from Sidell, 1997; Smart, 1996; and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) that highlights important dates in the development of binary technology:
1960s: The BIGEYE, a 500-lb bomb with binary technology, is developed for the US Navy. Its production was halted in 1990.
September 16, 1969: A 155-mm projectile filled with sarin binary reagents is test fired at Dugway Proving Ground.
1976: The US Army standardizes the M687 Binary GB2 155-mm projectile.
1976: The US Congress passes the Department of Defense Appropriation Authorization Act, which restricts the development and production of binary weapons unless the President certifies to the Congress that such production is essential to the national interest.
1985: Public Law 99-145 (US Congress) authorizes production of chemical weapons.
1987: President Reagan certifies to US Congress the need for chemical weapons.
December 16, 1987: M687 binary projectile starts production at Pine Bluff.
June 1, 1990: The United States and the Soviet Union sign the bilateral chemical weapons destruction agreement.
1991: Iraq declares to the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) a different binary munition concept. The projectiles would contain only 1 canister with a single precursor. Before use, the munition would be opened, and the second precursor would be added. The chemical reaction then starts just prior to the munition release.
A binary projectile contains 2 separate, hermetically sealed, plastic-lined containers fitted, one behind the other, in the body of the projectile. In the sarin (GB) binary weapon, the forward canister contains methylphosphonic difluoride (DF). The rear canister contains an isopropyl alcohol and isopropylamine solution (OPA). Only the forward canister is in the munition prior to use. Before the weapon is fired, the rear canister is added and the fuse is placed. The force of launch causes the canisters to break, which produces GB within the projectile.
Known binary agents include the following:
GB binary (sarin, GB2): DF is located in 1 canister, while OPA is in a second canister. The isopropyl amine binds to the hydrogen fluoride generated during the chemical reaction. After deployment of the weapon, the 2 canisters rupture and the chemical mixture produces GB.
GD binary (soman, GD2): DF is located in 1 canister, while a mixture of pinacolyl alcohol and an amine is in a second canister. After deployment of the weapon, the 2 canisters rupture and the chemical mixture produces GD.
VX binary (VX2): O-Ethyl O-2-diisopropylaminoethyl methylphosphonite (QL) is in 1 canister. The other canister contains elemental sulfur. When the weapon is fired, the canisters rupture and the chemical mixture produces VX.
Novichok agent (“Newcomer”): a series of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s, all in the “third generation nerve agent” category. Some of these agents (Novichok-5, Novichok-7) are binary agents.
The final product of the weapon is of the same chemical structure as the original nerve agent. The term binary refers only to the storage and deployment method used, not to the chemical structure of the substance. This article discusses management of chemical nerve agents in general; the reader can also refer to CBRNE – Nerve Agents, G-series – Tabun, Sarin, Soman and CBRNE – Nerve Agents, V-series – Ve, Vg, Vm, Vx for more detailed information on each particular agent.
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