Neutron Weapons and the Credibility of NATO Defense

Report Defense

Neutron Weapons and the Credibility of NATO Defense

May 4, 1978 23 min read Download Report
John G.
Senior Fellow and Director of Government Finance Programs

(Archived document, may contain errors)

58 NEUTRON WEAPONS AND THE CREDIBILITY OF NA TO D EFENSE A INTRODUCTION Few military policy issues have engendered more sustained controversy than the United States' development of an enhanced radiation/reduced blast weapon, commonly referred to as the neu tron bomb. As in:*any debate of the possible bat t lefield uses of nuclear arms, the discussion of the neutron weapon's strategic value has often been marked by an emotionalism which overshadows the political and military factors The neutron weapon is a miniaturized, low-yield hydrogen de vice, the produc t of fusion technology and an advanced guidance system. It derives its destructive power not from the heat and concussive force associated with conventional thermonuclear weap ons but from intense, though limited and short-lived, bursts of lethal radiation . Fitted to the short-range missiles and tactical nuclear artillery pieces currently deployed in Central Europe the Lance missile for example) the neutron weapon would be especially effective against a blitzkrieg-type frontal attack by the Warsaw Pact on N A TO defensive .positions in West Germany. Such an assault would presumably be spearheaded by massed columns of Soviet tanks and armored vehicles, where the Pact enjoys comparative numerical advantages NATO's operational inventory would bolster the credibil i ty of the Alliance's tactical deterrent posture, since collateral damage to non-combatants and urban structures adjacent to the immediate battlefield area would be minimal. Critics contend that the very controllability" of the weapon invites its early use against con ventional attack, thus lowering the nuclear threshold and heighten ing the specter of retaliation and devastating escalation Proponents argue that introduction of the neutron "bomb" into President Carter's indefinite deferral of a procTuction d ecision has been made conditional upon both an explicit commitment by the 2 NATO European nations to deploy the weapon on their territories and to some unspecified reciprocal restraint by the Soviet Union in its own military programs affecting European se c urity. Because of the apparently erratic, almost improvisational manner in which the decision to withhold production was made, significant questions have arisen about the cohesion and reliability of NATO's political consultative machinery and the efficacy of the President's own decision-making apparatus. The resultant effect on the long-term viability of Atlantic defense strategy is uncertain.

In dealing with the complex of assumptions involved, this re port will analyze the neutron bomb controversy with r eference to 1. the nature of the weapon system and its tactical efficiency relative to existing theater capabilities 2. its implications for the Atlantic strategic doctrine of graduated deterrence, and 3. the concepts of political linkage and arms control THE NATURE OF THE ENHANCED RADIATION SYSTEM The concept of an enhanced radiation weapon is neither of re cent origin nor revolutionary in a strictly military sense. The several antecedents of the modern version of the system experienced progressive techno logical refinement and expanded deployment po tentialities. Indeed, the. principles of neutron radiation for mili tary purposes were applied to the testing and development of the Sprint anti-ballistic missile system.

Despite presumptions about the logic of the escalatory sequence the immediate and indiscriminate destruction inflicted by present generation theater nuclear capabilities may largely obviate the possibility of rational thought competing with ba'ttlefield e x i gencies. As such, and given NATO's historical inability to define a persuasive operational mission for tactical nuclear forces, Penta gon strategists have long desired deployment of a weapon which could effectively deter or, if necessary, blunt a Pact a rmored thrust with out causing incalculable damage to the area ostensibly being pro tected.

The properties which characterize the enhanced radiation device result from variations in applied quantum physics. Most.conventiona1 thermonuclear.weapons are based on the fission process, in which isotopes of uranium or plutonium are compressed into a "critical mass or fissile core) and then split by heavy, sub-atomic parti cles called neutrons. The energized neutrons reproduce themselves in anexplosive chain react i on. Each fission neutron reaction re leases an average of three neutrons, yet these account for only a 1.. 3 minimal proportion of the weapon's total energy output. By far the largest share is transmitted through the thermal heat and blast of recoiling fr a gments of radioactive uranium and plutonium atoms, which comprise most of the weapon's fall-0ut.l The fusion process, by contrast, requires the combination of isotopes of the lightest element, hydrogen (composed of deuterium and tritium into slightly heav i er atoms of helium, a reaction that must nonetheless be "triggered" by the tremendous tempera tures and pressures generated by a fission explosion. According to Air Vice-Marshal Steward Menaul of the Roy91 United Services Institute Fission weapons, at the instant of detonation release about 5% of their energy in the form of prompt radiation. The rest is dispersed in the'thermal pulse and blast effects. The new-type, low-yield weapons based on fusion release up to 80% of their energy in prompt radiation (hi g h-energy neutrons and gamma rays while blast effects are kept to a very low level. This characteristic is known as enhanced radiation, and the effect of a weapon of this kind would be approximately the same as from a fission weapon of ten times the yield 2 It is essentially the suppression of the blast/heat effects relative to similar or higher-yield fission weapons which magnifies the intensity of the neutron radiation emitted, a form of radiation extremely lethal to living tissue. Extensive radiobiologic a l re search has documented the damage to the mammalian central nervous system caused by variable exposure to neutron bombardment. The dosages of absorbed radiation (measured in rads) diminish in le thality as the distance from ground zero, where the confl u ence of destructive forces is maximized, increases. Those within a re stricted "kill radius" of approximately one squa,re mile (blast induced structural damage would be confined to several hundred yards) would suffer either instantaneous death or phased d e grees of 'fatal illness and functional incapacitation. The United States Army has .established battlefield casualty criteria of absorbed neutron radiation levels ranging from 8,000 rads (high) to 650 rads (low) which correlate with graduated human respons es. Con trary to some speculation, it seems unlikely that enemy troops so afflicted, even at the lower end of the "rad-band" spectrum could effectively discharge-combat operations.

Beyond the circumscribed radius, however and .assuming the adoption of even moderate insulation measures) the radiation dis tribution is said to be negligible. Among other factors, the ex tent of radioactive contamination depends upon the detonation al titude of the weapon, with appropriate air bursts decreasing fall out, since the atomic fireball would probably not touch the ground.

Unlike thermonuclear fission weapons, moreover, the residual neu tron radiation of fusion devices dissipates within hours, further reducing unintended damage and permitting friendly forces to 1. See The Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1977, p. 10 2. Cited in Current News, August 15, 1977, p. 11-F (Toronto Globe and Mail August 8, 1977, p. 7 4 rapidly secure the affected battlefield. In an area like West Germany, with an average population density exceedi ng 650 persons per square mile, this fact is of no small consequence.

While it is beyond the scope of this study to detail the antici pated physical effects of different radiation absorption levels, the following table of comparative measurements is instru ctive. It in dicates the radii attending the prompt radiation and blast effects of a neutron weapon and two fission nuclear devices as they corre spond. to recognized dosage levels and blast intensity levels (mea sured in overpressures. of pounds/square i nch, or psi The manner in which these effects vary with weapon detonation altitudes is also noted I RADII OF EFFECTS (FEET 1. Burst Height 500 feet Weapon 8000 rads 1 KTER 2500 1 KTfission 1300 10 KT fission 2500 2.

Burst Height 1,500 feet Weapon 8000 rads 1 KTER 2500 1 KTfission 0 10 KT fission 2500 3.

Burst Height 3,000 feet Weapon 8000 rads 1 KTER 1000 1 KTfission 0 10 KT fission 1000 I 3000 rads 3000 1600 3000 3000 rads 3000 1000 3000 3000 rads 2000 0 2000 650 rads 4000 2500 4000 650 rads 4000 1900 400 0 8 psi 1400 1700 3000 6 psi 0 700 4000 650rads 6 psi 3500 0 0 0 3500 1700 4 psi 1800 2000 4000 4 psi 800 1500 5000 4 psi 0 0 3500 3 psi 2500 3000 5000 3 psi 1500 2000 7000 3 psi 0 o 5000 Source: S. T. Cohen Enhanced Radiation Warheads: Setting the Record Straight Strategic Review, Winter 1978 p. 12 Among the most vehement objections raised in connection with the neutron weapon is that its deployment would represent a moral regression in tactical nuclear warfare weapon is "inhuman" because it kills people b ut leaves inanimate objects, such as buildings, intact. The same could obviously be attributed to the effects of certain conventional armaments, such as rifle bullets. It is furthermore contended that if the United States proceeds with development of enha n ced radiation weapons such action would eviscerate President Carter's declared intention to seek arms reductions and eventually, the abolition of nuclear weapons Opponents assert, that the 5 The crescendo of opposition has transcended partisan political b o undaries, however A worldwide propaganda campaign, orchestrated by Moscow, has sought to portray the United States as attempting to destabilize an emerging theater nuclear balance by the introduction of a weapon system which, beyond obscuring the delineat i on between conventional and nuclear conflict, would be novel in its lethality To this. end, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev dispatched a bristling letter to NATO European heads of government last January, in which he decried the neutron weapon as archtypica l ly capitalist, and vowed that its deployment would exacerbate East-West relations and leave the U.S.S.R. with little recourse but to adopt "appropriate counter measures The argument must be evaluated in its total perspective. The neutron weapon's precisio n for anti-tank missions and its limited kill radius contrast notably with the indiscriminate lethal effects of present tactical nuclear systems, where the distinction between military and civilian targets (and hence casualties) would be effec tively blurr e d. Furthermore, if one posits that the desired result of a viable military operation is the attainment of specified battle field objectives with minimum collateral loss, then a weapon which significantly decreases civilian casualties would seem to have so m e claim to "humaneness assuming that the notion retains some meaning in nuclear warfare It is interesting to recall in this context that, unlike their NATO counterparts, Warsaw Pact forces are trained in the use of chemical and biological weapons, whose l e thal effects on living cells require little elaboration. Also, despite reported improvements in accuracy and guidance techniques, the majority of Soviet tactical nuclear systems, as well as the approximately 700 medium and inter mediate-range ballistic mi ssiles targeted on Western Europe, are countervalue (i.e. population-oriented) in nature.

Regarding the propriety of the neutron weapon, the nuclear physicist S. T. Cohen, often referred to as the father of the en hanced radiation concept, offers this inte rpretation All military weapons, more correctly their employment are immoral The recipient of the effects in the main have have been ordinary human beings who have had the mis fortune to be on the other side. Regarding the choice of weapons. to .be used i n a possible war, the immoralities having to do with differences in kill mechanisms logically must be assessed in the context of a vastly different immorality the great obscenity of war itself Most Americans feel that the greatest obscenity would be nuclea r war. If fighting such a war would be humanly immoral to an extreme, then taking the means to deter its outbreak can only be, construed as a moral imperative. It I 6 3 is in this context that the development of any nuclear weapon must be judged. This incl u des the neutron bomb ENHANCED RADIATION WEAPONS AND WESTERN DEFENSE: THE POLITICAL BAC KG ROUND Funding authorization for the updated neutron weapon was con tained in a FY 1978 public works appropriations bill, specifically that portion comprising the Ene rgy Research and Development Adminis tration's $1.2 billion budgetary request for weapons programs.

Though the exact level of funding was classified, initial develop ment appropriations were reliably estimated at $650 million over several years Both the Se nate and House passed their respective versions of the bill after defeating attempts to delete production funding for the enhanced radiation system. However, in addition to requiring an executive arms control impact statement (pursuant to PL 94-141) prior to releasing funds, amendments to the Senate bill included a proviso which would necessitate a concurrent re solution of Congress to block a Presidential production decision within 45 days of receiving the impact ~tatement The neutron bomb is actually des i gned as a tactical nuclear warhead for emplacement on the 70-mile range Lance surface-to-surface missile and as an artillery projectile for 8-inch and 155 mm how itzers (with 10-13 mile ranges As the potentially most credible option in the United States' t heater nuclear modernization program the enhanced radiation weapon, with a one-kiloton yield, would re place a substantial fraction of the roughly 7,000 tactical nuclear devices now deployed in Central Europe, whose yields vary from ten to fifty kilotons. Projected on a ten-year basis, the estimated total cost of the replacement effort would be $2-4 billion. How ever, the continuing modernization of existing tactical systems will allow them to be fitted with either conventional nuclear, or neutron war head s I The lead-time factor affecting initial deployment of the neutron weapon is anticipated to range from 18 to 30 months. Thus, the safe guard presumably represented by a production decision must account for the incremental strengthening of Soviet theater capabilities during that period.

The operational deficiencies of present tactical systems are apparent. For example, the 8-inch nuclear shells, many of which were deployed in the late 1950's, have very limited range and lack an effective internal security mechanism. Their complexity makes them slow to load and fire, thus casting doubts about their per formance reliability under battle conditions request to upgrade tactical artillery systems were rebuffed by Congress in the early 1970's, however, pending i ntroduction of Appropriations 3. Quoted in Bernard Weinraub, What Role for the Neutron Bomb The New York Times, July 17, 1977, p. E-4 4. Congressional Quar.terly, October 8, 1977, pp. 2151-

52. I 7 a more innovative design concept to accommodate a changing European political and military environment As noted previously, modifications of theater weapons em bracing the enhanced radiation system have been theoretically possible, though not perhaps strategically feasible, for some time. In 1954, a crude neutro n device was planned as a suitable projectile for the Army's 280 mm howitzer. Several factors in tervened subsequently, however, and the program was cancelled.

Similarly, consideration was given to deployment of a neutron weapon during the latter years of the Eisenhower Administration as well as during the Kennedy Administration, though the ultimate decision affecting European theater capabilities in the aftermath of successive Berlin crises involved an expansion of conventional ground forces. A prototype o f the modern neutron weapon was test fired in Nevada in 1963, yet the program remained dormant despite the efforts of military specialists to devise cost-effective al ternatives to existing. tactical nuclear forces THE TACTICAL NUCLEAR DILEMMA Tactical nu c lear weapons have long provoked ambivalent feelings on both sides of the Atlantic, with European governments uncertain as to how they would be employed for limited strikes in repelling an invasion by Soviet forces, or what the consequences of their use mi g ht be. Moreover, the precise nature of their symbolic "linkage to strategic nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantor against a NATO defeat has never been satisfactorily explained The basic idea is that a strategic nuclear response to Soviet agg.ression w ould be intuitively more plausible if tactical nuclear wea ons had already been used and..had failed to halt the Soviet attack.

States offic.ials have emphasized (though often less than persuasively to amPous Europeans) that NATO's use of tactical nuclear weapons would provide an unambiguous signal to Moscow that the Alliance was prepared to cross the qualitative 'If irebreak" between conventional and nuclear warfare to prevent a Soviet conquest of Western Europe United.

But how could one resolve the dilemma or control the escala tory process .in a rational manner, let alone anticipate the magni tude of devastation to the NATO territories being defended? More over, would the respective damage levels inflicted by tactical a nd strategic nuclear weapons actually be distinguishable to the vic tims In 1955, when nuclear deterrence was based on the precept of massive retaliation. and conventional forces served a preeminently trip-wire" function, NATO commanders conducted a simul a ted war exercise entitled Carte Blanche. According to the scenarios 5. Congressional Quarterly, July 9, 1977, p. 1403. 8 developed it was assumed that 335 nuclear weapons would be used within the first 48 hours of a conflict, and that 268 of them would st r ike West German territory estimated at 1.5 million dead and 3.5 million wounded.6 Pentagon studies conducted in the 1960's reportedly estimated that casualties in Western Europe resulting from such an exchange would exceed 100 million Such appalling findi n gs, observed Henry Kissinger in Nuclear Weapons and .Foreig.n Policy in 1957 mediate German casualties were Other became a demonstration that the power of nuclear weapons inhibits their use unless there exists a doctrine which poses alternatives less star k than total devastation.

The impetus for increasing acceptance of the enhanced radiation weapon as a realistic tactical option was provided by then-Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger's enunciation of a new strategic tar geting doctrine in 1974 which e ntailed the notion of damage limita tion Schlesinger s thesis involved the development of a selective counterforce capability which would destroy military "point" targets while sparing urban population centers environment, precision was to be substituted for the threat of mass annihilation as the most credible response to levels of aggression short of strategic thermonuclear exc.hange.

This revised concept was predicated upon several interrelated Transposed upon the NATO elements 1. The momentum of the Sov iet Union's unprecedented military growth across the spectrum of capabilities to a position of essential strategic equivalence with the United States despite the supposed restraint induced by negotiated arms control measures 2. The especially formidable a r ray of Soviet conventional and theater nuclear forces opposing NATO, and the refer ences made in Soviet military literature to the predomi nance of rapid, coordinated offensive attacks (the combined arms concept as the key to securing battle field advanta g e. Based on an obviously reduced warning period, such attacks do not preclude, but rather envi sion, the introduction of nuclear weapons under appro pr ia te c ir cums ta nc e s 6. Ibid 7 Cited in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 1, 1977, p. 1. 9 c THE MILITARY BALANCE IN CENTRAL EUROPE NATO Warsaw Pact Manpower 670,000 955,000 Main Battle Tanks 7,000 20,500 Tactical Aircraft 2 000 2,800 Tactical Nuclear Missiles ,7 000 3 500 Artill ery Pieces 2,700 10,000 Source: Newsweek, April 17, 1978, p. 37 3 4 The m general stagnancy (or perhaps obsolescence) of the NATO defense posture, including the progressive emascu lation of the doctrine of graduated deterrence. Princi pally because of the gross disparity in counterpoised conventional forces, it was perceived th at the credi bility of the West's tactical military deterrent, as well as the political utility of theater nuclear weapons as symbolic of the American security commitment, had been seriously eroded.

The development of new technologies which have produced a modern generation of theater nuclear systems possessing capabilities for highly-accurate and low-yield deliveries.

Improvements in accuracy, coupled with reductions in warhead payload, have made available to the North Atlantic Alliance weapons of great p recision in target acquisition which simultaneously minimize blast-related collateral damage V. STRATEGIC RAMIFICATIONS OF DEPLOYMENT OF THE NEUTRON WEAPON In requesting production funding for the neutron weapon last year, President Carter stressed that T a ctical nuclear weapons, including those for battlefield use, have strongly contributed to de terrence of conflict in Europe. I believe that we must retain the option they provide and modernize it. 9 8. See Jacquelyn K. Davis and Robert L. Pfaltzgraff, Jr S oviet Theater Strategy: Implications for NATO Washington, D.C United States Strategic Institute; USSI Report 78-1 9. The Washington Star, July 13, 1977, p. 1 i 10 The deterrent credibility of a weapon is linked to the prob ability of its application as ci r cumstances warrant battlefield objectives demand less than total means, at least such that a reasonable degree of certitude exists that the means in ques tion will be exercised selectively. Whether neutron weapons augment deterrent credibility depends on t he advantages they possess for strengthening tactical war-fighting capabilities, since a potential adversary may be uncertain as to what constitutes permissible battle field actions short of eliciting a problematic nuclear response however limited Limited Since many tactical delivery systems are dual-capable, it is in NATO's strategic interest that conventional -forces be upgraded in order to assure the flexibility and measured responses which graduated deterrence requires Yet what appears to be Europe's t a cit reliance on theater nuclear capabilities as the primary de terrent may reflect a corresponding downgrading of (or simply in sufficient attention to) conventional forces for sustained combat during the initial stages of a conflict. The point is of more than academic interest relative to the potential deployment of the neutron weapon, since it affects the composition of military capabilities necessary for successful defense against incremental levels of aggression and .determines the emphasis accorded th e function of con ventional units beyond that of political symbolism. Moreover a tactical nuclear deterrent which promises indiscriminate damage be comes less credible if conventional ,defenses are perceived as only marginally relevant to the overall strat egic concept.

The heart of Soviet military strategy in Central Europe in volves multiple massed tank thrusts, supplemented by substantial firepower and with little advance warning, which would overrun NATO defenses before anything approaching ample Western mobiliza tion could take place. Furthermore, the Soviet Union has developed tactics designed to limit the employability of U.S. theater nuclear capabilities by rapidly closing the gap between forward-stationed Pact armored units and the troops and civili a n populations of NATO allies The likeliest Warsaw Pact invasion routes, against which the effective disposition or otherwise) of Allied forces must be evaluated are shown in the map See p. 11 In the event of a Pact breakthrough which could not be con A NA T O deci tained by conventional military means, the tactical responses could only be as flexible as disposable armaments permit sion to introduce current-generation tactical nuclear weapons would necessarily carry with it the risk of unacceptable damage to t he allied infrastructure, including civilians and property. Responses and escalation beyond the nuclear threshold are thus related as much to the manner in which weapons are used as to their size and technical characteristics (though the latter are of obv i ous impor tance in determining the feasibility of certain missions lo If 10. See John F. Scott Neutron Wwpons and NATO Strategy, Parameters November 1977, cited in Current News, Novmber 1, 1977, pp. 5F-8F. 11 GERMANY A Source: Assessing the NATO/Warsaw Pa c t Military Balance Congressional Budget ,Office, December 1977 p. xi aNORTHAG refers to Northern Army Group, an area of command including Belgian, British, Dutch and German forces, in addition to one newly-formed U.S. brigade cluding U.S German, and Canad i an. forces bCENTAG refers to Central Army Group, an area of command in the tactical nuclear response is -sufficiently "manageable" for executing selective military operations, then the aggressor is faced with the dilemma of whether to escalate the conflic t com mensurate with the values attached to his own military objectives or retreat before the specter of unwanted destruction. 12 It is in in particular the potential light of these considerations that NATO strategists the seven-nation Nuclear Planning Gro up, must weigh military and political utility of the neutron wea pon. Designed primarily to neutralize Soviet preponderance in armor, the neutron weapon would appear to have several distinct advantages over the larger less accurate tactical systems.

In the first place, Soviet front-1ine:tanks such as the latest-model T-72, have been hardened to withstand blast over pressures up to 65 psi. Tactical weapons which rely on a combina tion of blast and heat for their destructive impact would be less certain. of r egistering substantial "kills against massed tank formations, while high-energy neutrons would easily penetrate the tanks protective steel and .immobilize: the armored forae'by in capacitating the tank crews. Data presently available indicate that neutron radiation against troops in tanks is approximately 20-30 percent less than the effective lethal radius against troops in the open It has been reported that the U.S.S.R. is some years away from developing an effective armored resistance to neutron radiatio n.

Furthermore, variations in Soviet tactical planning to reduce the vulnerability of tank crews to neutron bombardment might occa sion dispersal of tank columns. The normal requirement to increase the defensive yield of nuclear forces to accommodate the c hange would be unnecessary, however, since the unintended effect of such a move would be to make the individual tank units easier targets for the conventional, precision-guided anti-tank weapons already stockpiled in NATO inventories. These include laser- d irected smart" bombs and wire-guided missiles such as the TOW Considering the priority attached to effective concealment of forces in a nuclear battlefield environment, target acquisition and engagement of forward Pact armored units constitutes the prin c i pal tactical defensive problem. As such, many situations are conceivable where NATO forces, lacking accurate target informa tion, would be unable to respond with low-yield, discriminate defensive f ire.l.1 The substitution of larger-yield weapons for atta c king suspected enemy concentrations would increase substan tially the collateral damaged produced by the attack, even if the engagement was waged at some distance from urban areas. Where the battle is proximate to a metropolitan center, enhanced radia tio n weapons assume an almost unique advantage earlier, by raising the detonation altitude to the appropriate level, it becomes possible (via bursts of radiation) to counter attack effectively those forces occupying an area while minimizing collateral damage and radioactive wastes. According to Dr. Cohen As mentioned To the extent that enhanced radiation weapons can divorce the military from the collateral damage effects 11 see S. T. Cohen Enhanced Radiation Warheads: Setting the Record Straight,"

Strategic Re view, Winter 1978, pp. 9-17 For an in-depth study of the battlefield applications of neutron weapons, 13 a new vista for tactical warfare emerges which would seem to have a substantially more desirable image than either nuclear fission or conventional exp l osives can provide 12 Beyond the limited battlefield missions for which neutron weapons would be .deployed; higher-yield fission tactical nuclear devices would be held in reserve, should an aggressor consider es calation a feasible option. The innate "con t rollability" of the neutron weapon represents a significant new variable in a potential adversary's strategic calculations. By so doing, and assessed in conjunction with existing tactical forces, the credibility of the tactical deterrent would appear to b e .enhanced The neutron I notes analyst Uwe Nehrlich of West.Germany's Foundation for Science and Politics made conventional defense more credible and nuclear battlefield support less suicidal I3 The argument over whether the neutron weapon's deployment wo u ld facilitate-premature recourse to "limited" nuclear responses with the attendant risks of uncontrolled escalation, must there fore be measured against plausible alternatives. It would appear that proponents of this argument consider the only "useful" nu c lear weapons to be those which are so indiscriminately destructive that the nation possessing them will be effectively deterred from intro ducing them in a conflict (except under circumstances of despera tion If an adversary shares the perception that, de s pite rhetoric to the contrary, the concept of self-deterrence is operative, then the leverage he can exercise in light of superior conventional forces becomes more pronounced while the penalties to be antici pated beyond a certain level of conflict (now s o mewhat more precisely defined) correspondingly diminish in credibility afforded by deployment of the neutron weapon (and its implications for tactical deterrent credibility one is led to wonder whether an American President, upon whose authorization the u s e of nuclear weapons rests, would the face of a possible conven tional defeat because of the greater fear of unleashing a devas tating counter-assault. Depending on the targets envisaged, and the extent to which military intentions could be e f fectively com municated, the residual knowledge that the Soviets could undertake equally destructive retaliatory strikes might further inhibit the use of larger-yield tactical nuclear devices for "limited" battle field missions Without the.intermediate wa r -fighting posture potentially 12. Ibid p. 13 13. Newsweek, April 17, 1978, p. 37 14 THE NEUTRON WEAPON DECISION: THE NOTION OF POLITICAL LINKAGE President Carter' s decision to defer production of the neutron weapon appears to have temporarily moderated t h e trans-Atlantic political discord which accompanied it. The controversy was partly attributable to Mr. Carter's personal misgivings about the "morality of the system, the thrust of Administration policy regarding nuclear proliferation, and the question a s to whether a production authori zation would have been appropriate just prior to the convening of the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament.

Though a consensus apparently existed among military advisors on both sides of the Atlantic concerning th e weapon's strategic necessity, the domestic political fall-out threatening some European leaders facing sizable constituencies hostile to deployment of the weapon on their national territories was perhaps insufficiently appreciated should precede an Alli e d deployment commitment, or vice versa, like wise contributed to the overall impression of vacillation, with an allegedly ambivalent compromise underscoring the absence of effec tive political communication on a critical issue The disagreement over whethe r a production decision Among the more intriguing aspects was the linkage established between the neutron weapon's ultimate disposition and the direction and pace of certain Soviet military programs, notably the continued deployment of the powerful SS-20 I R BM (whose target coverage in cludes all of Western Europe and the increase in tank and infan try strength in Central Europe The Soviet Union has made ex plicit, however, its opposition to the United States attempt to gain concessions in other unrelated ma t ters, I' indicating the non negotiability of "those measures (designed) to strengthen Soviet defense facilities."l4 -One by-product of the propaganda campaign waged against development of the neutron weapon has been Soviet insistence on the desirability o f a mutual renunciation of the sys tem Prudent linkage diplomacy demands that the objective sought be proportional in value to the bargaining risk undertaken. Though its potentialities as a system for offensive strike missions have perhaps not been fully e xplored, the neutron weapon is principally defensive in nature. The U.S.S.R. would presumably have no com pelling reason to produce the system for operational purposes.

The threat to do so is predicated upon an acutely-felt need to induce the United States to unilaterally suspend development of a technologically advanced system which could partially off set cer tain Soviet advantages in deployed theater military power.

The Administration, already criticized for having offered pre?emptive" concessions on pr omising military technologies in an effort to solicit reciprocal Soviet restraint, must consider the ramifications of what might be perceived as yet another gratuitous sacrifice, particularly if-no substantive response is 14. Soviet World Outlook Center f o r Advanced International studies University of Miami April 15, 1978, p. 2. 8 15 forthcoming. therefore relates both to possible Soviet arms control initiatives and the scope of current and past military deployments. Otherwise the linkage tactic is of dubi o us merit, and the prospects for meaningful negotiations involving a comparable quid pro quo are markedly reduced It is generally assumed that the,manner in which 'Grissue is resolved would at best "marginally" affect the atmosphere of superpower strategic arms control talks The bargaining value of a neutron production decision The current indecision, especially if seen as influenced unduly by Soviet blandishments, may occasion a further diminution of 'khe credibility of the American security guarantee, pos s ibly impelling individual Allied states to undertake separate military initiatives The reported French test-firing of a neutron device in the South Pacific bears some relevance when analyzed from this perspective.1 Deployment of the weapon would more read i ly substantiate President Carter's determination, as expressed in North Carolina on March 17, to adopt such measures as are necessary to effectively counter-balance the "ominous" Soviet military build-up A neutron weapon whose. deployment is problematic w o uld seem to retain little effective currency as a "bargaining chip If the Soviets are as fretful of the weapon as public propaganda and private consulta mnswoul$indicate a production authorization, allowing for a fixed t.he frame wherein a response would b e anticipated, would confront the U.S.S.R. with the opportunity to devise'a credible linkage offer of its own CONCLUSION In a system where issues of considerable technical complexity and emotional content are measured in terms of political impact as well as substantive value, the manner in which strategic ques tions are analyzed can influence the kinds of decisio.ns reached.

The case of the neutron weapon is illustrative of the duality underlying such decisions in an era when warfare has combined mass part ic ipa t ion with sophi st icated techno logy.

The Administration's handling of this sensitive political issue was not designed to inspire the mutual confidence and coop eration which a viable trans-Atlantic partnership must demonstrate.

Abetted in part by conflicting news interpretations of President Carter's intentions, Ehropean confusion over the decision is really little more than a reflection of American domestic doubts about the internal coordination of the Administration's decision - making ma chinery The political utility of the neutron weapon for potential bar gaining purposes in an arms control forum may be marginal. Indeed the credibility of the linkage was undermined by the Soviet Union's refusal to consider proposals for reducti ons in those offensive 16 force systems against which the neutron weapon would be deployed.

A vacuous pledge to refrain from producing the neutron system it self could hardly be construed as a comparable counter-concession As such, the ultimate production decision concerning the neu tron weapon should be based primarily on an assessment of the ob jective military realities which would justify its deployment.

Given the contemporary aggregate balance of forces in Central Europe, and taking account of qualita tive differentials, deployment of the neutron weapon would provide NATO with an incremental capacity for sustained combat beyond the conventional level of aggression.

Moreover, alternatives to deployment of the neutron weapon for purposes of maintaining a credible military balance in Europe are unclear. Presumably, alternatives would entail supporting an ex traordinarily expensive and controversial increase in American con ventional forces and equipment in Western. Europe to off set the Soviet effort. Wit h due consideration of the lead-time factor as well as the momentum of Soviet weapons deployments incorporating advanced technologies, this aspect must be soberly addressed by opponents of the neutron system who nonetheless question the adequacy of NATO's overall defense posture.

By vastly reducing the anticipated collateral damage in a nu clear battlefield environment, the neutron weapon is particularly useful for precision counterattacks against Soviet armored assaults in a way unmatched by current-genera tion tactical nuclear systems.

Coupled with high performance reliability, the low yields and re lated properties of enhanced radiation weapons would permit selec tive applications of military power and would strengthen the credi bility of theater nuclear capabilities. As such, the flexible response which ostensibly underwrites Atlantic defense strategy could more readily accommodate a specific operational role for nu clear systems designed for limited tactical missions.

John G. Behuncik Congress iona 1 Fel low National Security Affairs


John G.

Senior Fellow and Director of Government Finance Programs