Last Sunday, the CBS News program 60 Minutes broadcast a segment that must be a commander's worst nightmare on the eve of war:

Citing complaints from service personnel in Kuwait and official reports, it alleged that serious deficiencies exist in the equipment, training and readiness of U.S. armed forces -- including those poised for combat with Iraq -- to conduct military operations if attacked by nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

As is 60 Minutes' wont, it invidiously juxtaposed comments from various experts and official publications about the magnitude of these shortfalls with quotes from a senior Pentagon official denying that such deficiencies exist today. Unfortunately, for reasons discussed below, it is entirely possible that the critics have grounds for their concerns. Even if that is not the case, the airing of this report makes it all the more likely that Saddam Hussein will try to inflict maximum damage on U.S. and allied forces by employing chemical and/or biological weapons against them.

In that event, blame for the associated loss of life will fall first and foremost on civilian and military leaders in office during the run-up to Desert Storm II. They will be taken to task for failing to address the problem of the armed services' unpreparedness to fight in a nuclear-biological-or- chemically-contaminated environment, despite numerous warnings on this score from Army audits, General Accounting Office reports, congressional investigations, etc.

I suspect that a closer examination of the record will show that the current crop of leaders are less culpable than their immediate predecessors. After all, their minds must have been concentrated by the prospect of imminent Iraqi use of weapons of mass destruction. This would square with the statements made repeatedly by the Defense Department spokeswoman interviewed by 60 Minutes, to the effect that priority attention and resources had been applied in recent months to reducing our troops' vulnerability to NBC attacks.

Donald Rumsfeld, General Richard Myers and their colleagues have, however, had to contend with the combined effects of three longstanding phenomena:

First, for most of the 1990s, the Pentagon was denied the funds it needed to modernize its forces. This procurement holiday made the upgrading of needed capabilities problematic in virtually every area. As a result, the Defense Department had to engage in the budget equivalent of triage.

All too often, investments in nuclear-biological-chemical defensive equipment, training and the facilities were sacrificed in favor of other items that enjoyed higher priority.

Devaluing investments in nuclear, biological and chemical protective gear, sensors and decontamination equipment -- and rigorous training in their use -- was a natural response to the second phenomenon: The U.S. military, quite understandably, has no interest in fighting with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. With far-and-away the most competent conventional forces in the world, it can be reasonably assured of decisively defeating any enemy without resorting to weapons of mass destruction.

Of course, exactly the opposite is true of the U.S. military's prospective foes. They appreciate that NBC weapons can afford them "asymmetric" capabilities, offsetting and perhaps even neutralizing American high-tech conventional weapons by forcing their users to operate in cumbersome, debilitating protective suits.

Finally, the adverse, asymmetric nature of this situation has been greatly exacerbated by decisions taken by the United States over the past three decades to foreswear the use of biological or chemical weapons -- even in retaliation for attacks upon us. Thanks to our faithful adherence to the unverifiable and widely violated 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and its no-less- effective sister treaty, the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention, we are forbidden to have, let alone to use, such weapons.

As a result, adversaries who do not observe these constraints may be able to compel our troops to perform exacting and stressful tasks in combat while wearing NBC protection, without having to "suit-up" themselves.

It is very much to be hoped that Saddam Hussein will be kept from employing weapons of mass destruction in the coming war by some combination of U.S. conventional and special forces, the rising-up of the people of Iraq and widespread defections from the Iraqi military that serves to prevent any weapon-release orders from being executed. In the event these measures fail, though, the losses inflicted on our troops could be considerable, albeit a small fraction of what Saddam might seek to unleash on even-less-well-defended civilian populations if left to his own devices.

Either way, the United States can no longer safely forego the investment needed to protect our forces and people against the threat posed by proliferating weapons of mass destruction. In the process, we may need to reconsider treaties that have the effect of denying this country -- but not its adversaries -- what might just be in the future an essential adjunct to our defensive efforts: the possession of credible U.S. chemical, and perhaps even biological, weapon stockpiles for deterrent purposes.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. held senior positions in the Reagan Defense Department. He is currently president of the Center for Security Policy.