This Week in 1981:

Grace Christiansen

This article was published in the Feb. 20, 1981 issue of The Lawrentian by David Arnosti.Secretary of State Alexander Haig Jr. asked European allies to disregard statements about enhanced radiation weapons (the “neutron bomb”) made at a press conference earlier this month by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. The defense secretary had criticized the Carter Administration for deferring production and deployment of the neutron bomb in 1978, and suggested that Reagan “very probably” wanted the warhead added to the NATO arsenal. European members of NATO had expressed shock and outrage over Weinberger’s comments, which forced General Haig to make it clear that this “did not represent an official position” of the Reagan administration.
After winning a tough struggle with his own government for approval of production and deployment of the neutron bomb in West Europe, West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was embarrassed when Carter reversed his stand on the weapon in 197 and deferred its production indefinitely. A year later, NATO countries agreed to deploy 572 U.S.-built tactical nuclear missiles by the mid-1980’s to counter a buildup of Soviet missiles. Domestic opposition to this decision has been a major headache to the Western European governments involved, and the spector of a rejuvenated neutron bomb raised by Secretary Weinberger’s insensitive remarks has only added fuel to the political fires.
The neutron bomb is a nuclear warhead which is designed to minimize blast damage, and instead releases much off its energy in the form of lethal neutron radiation. The weapon is small enough to be fired from artillery pieces as a shell, and produces an explosion of one to two kilotons (equivalent to 1000 to 2000 tongs of TNT). For comparison, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a yield of approximately 15 kilotons. Proponents of the weapon argue that neutron bombs would be able to stop a massive Soviet tank attack across Western Europe, while minimizing collateral damage to the surrounding countryside. It is estimated that a one-kiloton neutron bomb would kill twice as many tankmen as a 10-kiloton conventional tactical warhead and affect by blast an area only one-fifth as large. Everyone within 200 yards of the explosion would be killed by a lethal dose of radiation; varying degrees of incapacitation would extend to over 1000 yards.
The Soviet bloc has about 20,000 tanks with which to attack Western Europe. If spread along a front, hundreds or even thousands of neutron bombs would be required to disable them. The radiation from even these small-yield weapons would pose a serious threat to civilian populations. More seriously, the Soviet Union has no similar low-yield, accurate tactical warhead, the military literature suggests that the Red Army makes no find distinctions between types of tactical nuclear warfare. Their tactical nuclear weapons are relatively powerful and inaccurate, and would cause massive civilian casualties if employed in response to the use of neutron bombs by NATO.
The cost of enhanced radiation weapons is quite high; one eight-inch ERW artillery shell costs almost $1,000,000 as much as 50 advanced anti-tank missiles or 5,500 conventional shells. The deployment of the neutron bomb would lower the threshold of nuclear war, even while it deceived people into believing that nuclear exchanges could be safely controlled. An equal expenditure of resources in bolstering NATO’s conventional capabilities would give a more credible, safer defense.