November 15, 1981

Four years ago, the United States triggered a controversy in Europe over its plans to build neutron bombs. In April 1978, Ronald Reagan, then a Presidential hopeful, stepped into the fray. He declared that the new bomb was ”the first weapon that’s come along in a long time that could easily and economically alter the balance of power. It could be the ideal deterrent.” President Carter eventually set the plan aside, but last summer the Reagan Administration decided to go ahead with it. This move raises yet again the problem –and with it the heated, emotional controversy and debate — of how to defend Europe in the atomic age without destroying it.

The crux of the neutron bomb issue is whether the production and deployment of this weapon will somehow push us closer to the threshold between war posturing and war fighting, or pull us back to a position of greater strength and increased deterrence. Resolving the issue requires answering difficult questions: What do neutron weapons add to the West’s existing arsenal? How do military commanders foresee using them? How do the weapons fit into the politics that link Americans with Europeans?

Today, the most common rationale for building neutron bombs is to counter the Warsaw Pact nations’ huge tank armada in Europe. Behind the East German frontier, which would look a lot like Wisconsin if the watchtowers and barbed wire were removed, sit 19,700 Soviet tanks in various states of readiness. Ready for what? Some could conceivably be intended for possible internal use within Eastern Europe; some might be for psychological effect. In an area of the world where military confrontation is largely symbolic, it is hard to know what these tanks really mean, what danger they really pose. But North Atlantic Treaty Organization generals feel obliged to translate numbers into offensive tactics. They feel obliged to see blitzkrieg.

Recent interviews with Pentagon officials cast important new light not only on the neutron bomb itself, a weapon that has been clouded by misinformation for 20 years, but also on a policy that is shaking the NATO alliance as never before. Perhaps the most important fact that these officers reveal is that the neutron bomb (”enhanced radiation weapon” is the Pentagon’s preferred term) is not, as publicly perceived, a ”clean” device that would be surgically used against a small number of key enemy troops without damaging buildings or risking widespread radiation exposure. Like any other nuclear weapon, it is clearly an instrument of mass destruction. ”I think one of the great problems we have,” says Gen. Niles J. Fulwyler, chief of the Army’s tactical nuclear and chemical policy-making unit, ”is that some people perceive enhanced radiation weapons to be something drastically new — some new invention that is far different from any other weapon. That is unfortunate. Enhanced radiation is nothing more than part of a continual process of modernization” of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

Though the public image of the neutron bomb began to form in the late 1950’s, its technical features had already been known in military scientific circles for much of that decade. During their research on the hydrogen bomb after World War II, scientists saw the possibility of building a small nuclear device that could release more energy as radiation than as blast. By 1951, the United States was testing warheads of less than one kiloton yield.

The early 1950’s were marked by several influences that sound familiar today. First was the frustrating experience of American troops unable to win a clear-cut victory in Korea. Second was the inability of our European allies to meet military-force goals against what was believed to be an enormously superior Soviet conventional army. And third were the Truman and Eisenhower budgetary constraints. These factors led to two momentous decisions that have affected world affairs ever since. In 1954, Dwight D. Eisenhower adopted the famous ”massive retaliation” plan for countering Soviet expansionism at the strategic — or intercontinental — level, and concurrently authorized the placement on European soil of ”tactical” nuclear weapons – that is, battlefield artillery and short-range missiles of relatively low yield — to deter conventional attack. Because the Soviet Union possessed neither a credible strategic deterrent nor tactical nuclear weapons, this solution seemed to American and European leaders like a perfectly effective one. It more or less stayed that way until the mid-1960’s, when the Soviets began to catch up.

By then, our European friends were expressing concern about the implications of a two-sided tactical nuclear war — a battle to be fought by the superpowers on European soil. The NATO stockpile of nuclear weapons leveled off at about 7,000, most of which were about the same yield as the Hiroshima bomb (and some very much higher), even though they had been made smaller and lighter. War games predicted civilian casualties from a ”limited” nuclear military operation in West Germany alone at five million people. The effect on public opinion was hardly surprising. Helmut Schmidt commented in 1962, more than a decade before he was to become Chancellor, that the use of tactical nuclear weapons ”will not defend Europe, but destroy it.”

At the same time, massive retaliation began to look merely blusterous and less effective as military policy as the Soviets modernized their own deterrent. Still, a linkage, or ”tripwire,” theory formed the basis of confidence among NATO governments. Linkage to the Europeans meant that any Soviet attack on their territory must be regarded by the Americans as an attack on the United States, triggering an all-out strategic response. It still does. But today we operate under an evolved version of John F. Kennedy’s ”flexible response,” meaning that the Western reply to Soviet attack would not necessarily be massive. It could be limited to tactical nuclear weaponry, or even conventional arms if they were sufficient. It is the ambiguity of this position — exactly where does the nuclear tripwire lie? — that has made many Europeans suspect that what we really want is to fight our radioactive war with the Soviets on European soil. As a result, NATO now seems in danger of crumbling.  When something like the neutron bomb emerges from more than 20 years of behind-the-scenes development, the cracks in the alliance open wide enough to see the Kremlin through.

The long years of engineering grew out of a notion originated by Samuel T. Cohen, a Defense Department consultant, in the mid-1950’s.  Around 1957, at the instigation of Edward Teller at the Lawrence Livermore weapons laboratory, work began that led to the development of a device which, according to Defense Secretary Caspar W.  Weinberger, ”enables infantry to fight closely behind it, as with conventional artillery.” Army experts interviewed at the Pentagon admit that the Secretary is exaggerating. But they do believe that the neutron bomb could be used in a way that would cause less collateral damage and radioactive contamination than standard fission weapons.  General Fulwyler says, ”The enhanced radiation weapons offer even greater possibilities for use than the weapons of the past.”

The neutron bomb is actually a small hydrogen bomb, in which a nuclear-fission reaction triggers a nuclear-fusion reaction. (Fission splits an atom’s nucleus into fragments; fusion forces two nuclei together.) In fission reactions of the type used at Hiroshima, blast and heat account for 85 percent of the energy released, with prompt, destructive radiation (such as that from neutrons, for example) accounting for only 5 percent of the total. In a hypothetical pure fusion weapon, by contrast, prompt radiation from the joining of a variety of hydrogen nuclei goes up to 80 percent, while blast and heat go down to 20 percent. A typical neutron bomb is a fission-fusion hybrid that releases 6 to 10 times as much neutron radiation as a pure fission weapon of the same yield. In other words, a relatively small, one-kiloton neutron bomb, which might not stop tanks by blast alone but is designed to irradiate their crew members lethally, would be about as effective as a 10-kiloton fission weapon (the Hiroshima bomb was 12.5 kilotons). It will produce as much radiation, but less blast and heat. This comparative difference is the source of the neutron bomb’s reputation as ”clean.”

One of the most unfortunate pieces of misinformation surrounding these devices is that they do not destroy property. The 1982 Arms Control Impact Statement submitted to Congress by the State Department says that the description of a neutron bomb as ”a weapon that ‘kills people while leaving buildings undamaged’ is an inaccurate interpretation by some portions of the press that has served to catch public attention all over the world.” Many people seem to have the impression that the deadly neutrons spray out almost like a poisonous gas, with little or no explosion. Nikita S.  Khrushchev once commented that neutron-bomb advocates were ”acting on the principle of robbers wanting to kill a man in such a way that his suit will not be stained with blood, in order to appropriate the suit.” But it is crucial to note that the major portion of the neutron weapon’s energy is still released as blast and heat – typically about 65 percent. ”If you stood there looking at it from a distance,” General Fulwyler emphasizes in describing a hypothetical neutron-bomb explosion, ”you could not tell the difference from a standard fission weapon. You still get tremendous blast, flash and thermal. I would not want people to think of an enhanced radiation weapon as a close support weapon.” Any nuclear weapon is incredibly destructive. What is involved here is a matter of degree.

By calculating how much radiation is produced at such-and-such distance from where a neutron bomb explodes, tacticians get a rough idea of how many tank crews, say, would be knocked out. A one-kiloton neutron bomb theoretically causes enough radiation exposure a half-mile away from where it explodes to make these crews soon unable to perform physically demanding tasks. Most of the crew members would eventually die, though it might take several days. At closer ranges, death comes faster. The Russians know these facts as well as anyone, needless to say, and would presumably space their tanks so as to minimize their vulnerability. It must be kept in mind that very little information is available for judging the toxicity of neutrons to human beings.

To give an approximation of how the countryside would be affected, a 1978 article by Arthur H. Westing, a professor of ecology at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., cites some figures in a 1978 article in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences journal Ambio: A one-kiloton neutron weapon detonated at an altitude of 650 feet would kill virtually every unshielded living thing on the 25 acres immediately below it — in an area about a quarter-mile across.  Microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and algae would be wiped out on about 100 acres; insects, on 250 acres, and trees, on 500 acres.  The area of radiation intense enough to insure the eventual death of half the animal population would be more than 1,200 acres, or about a mile and a half across.

If the explosion occurred at a lower altitude, these figures would multiply. Pentagon fact sheets suggest 100 feet as optimal, despite the fact that Samuel Cohen, the originator of the neutron-bomb concept, insists that about 3,000 feet is the proper height to minimize blast effects on the ground while still creating radiation hazards. At l00 feet, and even at 650 feet, most buildings in the vicinity would certainly be significantly damaged.

For soldiers and civilians alike, the crucial question now becomes: How many neutron bombs would be used?  The disturbing answer is that nobody knows.  “I have to agree,” says General Fulwyler, “that there are a lot of people who wonder how any nuclear weapon will be used on the battlefield.  We’re all dealing in rather uncertain terms.”  Army field manuals speak in terms of “packages” of warheads.  If the Army goes through with its program, it could fire neutron devices in Western Europe with approximately 90 Lance launchers, which now have a supply of about 1,000 missiles.  The Army also has about 200 eight-inch howitzers in Europe slated to receive 800 to 1,000 neutron bombshells.  This for the moment establishes a ceiling of several thousand potential neutron detonations.

            If all of these were to be used, as some analysts fear, the devastation would be colossal.  J. Carson Mark, who from 1947 to 1973 headed the Los Alamos nuclear weapons design team, says, “If you could get three enemy tanks at once, you’d be happy.”  The Lance, in particular, is best suited for strikes against fixed targets, not rapidly advancing ones.  An Army major general in the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Atomic Energy recently estimated that “hundreds” of neutron warheads would probably be employed.  General Fulwyler puts it this way: “I may have associates who agree with me and some who do not.  I base this on having spent two years with General [Alexander] Haig at SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe).  I simply do not believe that either Russia or the West really visualize slugging it out with tactical nuclear weapons—barrages back and forth—because the destructive power of even the smallest nuclear weapon is so great that we would make it impossible to do anything.  We’d reach a stalemate very quickly.”  Asked to estimate the number of neutron bombs that might be used, he answered: “How many will it take?  There are those who say that one or two will stop an armored division.  That simply isn’t true.  But I don’t see putting 100 on an area, either.  I think we’re talking about well under 100.”   


It is the possibility of multiple detonations that has been bringing the citizens of Berlin, London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam and other European capitals into the streets for demonstrations this fall. For them the arcane analyses of force levels and tactics are beside the point. General Fulwyler is confident about the Army’s ability to use neutron bombs effectively on the battlefield if it has to, but he insists that Europeans have no more to worry about with them than with the high-yield nuclear-fission warheads that have been in the field for more than 20 years. In fact, he points out, the new weapons are safer and more secure. ”For those who say the neutron bomb will lower the nuclear threshold– I do not see that. Regardless of type, as long as it is a nuclear weapon, the decision for initial release is not going to be easy for any President — whether it’s enhanced radiation or not. That terrible moment will not be easier.” Neutron weapons, in any case, will not completely replace the older nuclear weapons, but complement them.

The current controversy was sparked by the Reagan Administration’s failure to confer with NATO members before deciding to go ahead with production. Virtually all European leaders have expressed uneasiness over the move. Even Joseph M.A.H. Luns of the Netherlands, the NATO Secretary General, complained that ”the recent enhanced-radiation warhead production decision was not an example of tact.” In the back of everybody’s mind was probably a State Department cable from Secretary Alexander Haig — dated Feb. 5, 1981– that assured NATO members that the Reagan Administration would make no decision on production without full consultations.

Of all NATO governments, none was put in a more awkward position than Helmut Schmidt’s. In 1978, the West German Chancellor, under heavy pressure from the Carter Administration, had sought his Cabinet’s support to allow neutron deployment. The Chancellor privately won his Cabinet’s approval but Mr. Carter, lacking any open backing from Bonn, deferred the matter, deeply embarrassing Chancellor Schmidt. Then, in December 1979, NATO agreed to accept 572 new Pershing-2 and cruise missiles to offset a new generation of Soviet SS-20 missiles. It was assumed that this action indefinitely postponed any revival of the neutron bomb. ”I feel our American friends should be given the advice to watch closely the effect of their political statements on the Europeans,” Chancellor Schmidt said recently. Americans must not foment a situation ”where one day the Italians and the Dutch, the Scandinavians and the Germans believe the Soviet Union to be more ready to negotiate about arms control and cut down on armaments than their own ally.”

In the United States, political opposition to the neutron bomb is being led by Representative Theodore S. Weiss, a New York City Democrat, who sees the device as part of a military drift toward weapons that make a nuclear battlefield more practicable. ”In a sense,” he says, ”we’re on a variation of Nixon’s Vietnam tactic of behaving as if you’re so crazy that almost anything can be expected — and so therefore the enemy comes to the negotiating table. This assumes that the enemy is much more rational than you are. But today we’re saying just the opposite about the Russians.” Representative Weiss introduced a Congressional amendment last June to delete appropriations for production of the bomb. The proposal was defeated 293 to 88.  Weiss is not optimistic about ever removing neutron weapons from the United States arsenal. But he has recently circulated a letter to colleagues to register further opposition to President Reagan’s policy, and feels the public must be made aware of the extent to which the American and Soviet Governments are now talking past each other.

The chief Congressional proponent of the neutron-bomb plan is Samuel S. Stratton, a Democratic Representative from upstate New York. ”The tactical nuclear weapons that we have at present,” he says, ”are 10 kilotons. You need 10 kilotons to destroy a tank. A neutron weapon is one kiloton, and you can explode it without touching the ground. As a result, there is no fallout whatsoever. All you have to do is be in a basement away from the immediate blast and you’re safe.” While Representative Stratton’s technical brief would appear to be at odds with Pentagon statements about how the bomb would be used and scientific analyses of its effects, his political logic has proved powerful in Congressional debates. ”The neutron weapon is essentially defensive, simply because it kills tank operators without destroying the German countryside you’re trying to defend,” he says. ”A weapon that is primarily limited to just killing soldiers and goes out of its way to preserve the invaded territory is offensively useless. The Russians are opposed to it because they cannot profit from it even if they could build it.” In arguing against the Weiss amendment,  Stratton said that it would be ”criminally negligent” not to manufacture the various neutron-bomb parts so that they were at least available in an emergency. His basic reasoning — which carried most of the House membership — was that ”the best way not to use nuclear weapons is to be prepared to use them.”

”Essentially, what we’re trying to do is deter,” Stratton says. ”Anybody who has dealt with the Russians realizes that they’re not crazy. They will not attack unless they figure that they can really romp through the enemy’s defenses.”

NATO decided long ago that it does not need to match the Warsaw Pact tank force one-to-one, so it currently relies on about 11,000 tanks, 6,000 standard tactical nuclear weapons, plus hundreds of thousands of nonnuclear antitank weapons. The 1973 Arab-Israeli war showed that tanks are vulnerable to a variety of precision-guided munitions (P.G.M.’s), commonly called ”smart bombs.” These are nonnuclear missiles that are guided to their targets by lasers, wires, television cameras or other means. Perhaps this is one reason why the Russians feel compelled to build so many armored vehicles.  Still, General Fulwyler cautions that ”when we visualize that battlefield, there’s no way in heck that, if the enemy does what we think he’s going to do with the doctrine and tactics he trains with, we can have enough P.G.M.’s to effectively meet the threat without escalation.”

Given the rapid advances in smart-bomb technology, however, a broad range of analysts are on record as differing with the general.  Nonetheless, defense planners continue to worry that Warsaw Pact tanks might be able to launch a blitzkrieg attack. The military analyst must gauge the strength of his own forces (nowadays with the aid of computer models) under the worst possible conditions and try to determine how they would fare against the enemy. Pentagon analysts believe that NATO’s conventional defenses could be broken through, particularly if Moscow took maximum advantage of its shorter lines of supply during a mobilization period. Computerized war games conducted at Livermore suggest that 10 to 40 fission warheads would be needed to defeat a Soviet armored division, with the number about halved for neutron weapons. There is endless debate about this scenario, of course — computer models only reflect the assumptions of their programmers — but when President Reagan’s advisers brief him on the issue of tactical nuclear arms in Europe, what he hears about is a Warsaw Pact breakthrough. Add to this the traditional factors of service-branch competition, Congressional pressure and campaign rhetoric and what results is the neutron bomb.

Important elements of illogic in the neutron-bomb theory set in the context of the history of arms development and escalation, together with the disturbing ambiguities and unanswered questions about how and when the bombs would be used, compel one to a certain skepticism. If the point of the neutron bomb is that it enables the military to use nuclear weapons that would cause less damage to smaller regions, then the enemy’s inevitable efforts to spread out or shield its targets would merely increase the number of such bombs that would have to be used. Thus, the area destroyed would be expanded.  Although the dispersal of Warsaw Pact tank divisions might work to NATO’s temporary advantage, one would assume that standard tactical nuclear weapons already accomplish this. Nothing really will have been gained other than the introduction of new nuclear weapons into the arms race. There is also the possibility that the Russians would be tempted to preclude the use of the neutron weapons through a first strike.

For the foreseeable future, neutron bombs will remain in the continental United States and its territories. Secretary Weinberger claims that some could be transported to Europe within hours if necessary. He has also mentioned that deployment need not be limited to Europe, that they could be sent to ”any theater where the necessity of repelling overwhelming force may be required.” South Korea and the Middle East (Israel possesses the Lance missile) are often mentioned as potential recipients.

United States policy makers have said for decades that the nuclear threshold is not related to the kinds of weapons available — that the decision to initiate nuclear combat will be political, not technical. And it is the political liabilities of the neutron bomb that now seem to bear hardest on the issue. Indeed, there are some within the Reagan Administration itself who believe it may unravel the NATO military structure. Western citizens are being asked to believe that superpower leaders will always behave cautiously and rationally in the heat of battle. But history shows that other instincts often prevail in war. The event seldom corresponds to expectations.

Twenty years ago, the physicist Freeman J. Dyson wrote in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that, like the hydrogen bomb, the neutron bomb is technically a symptom of modernization and politically a symbol of power. Rather than making our images of war and deterrence more concrete, the neutron bomb continues to emphasize the volume of Pandora’s Box.


Postscript: President Reagan’s secret August 6, 1981, National Security Decision Directive (NSDD7) titled “Enhanced Radiation Weapons” stated that “the production and stockpiling of enhanced radiation weapons is authorized with stockpiling being restricted to the United States [deleted].”  The document was partially declassified in 2008. Two neutron bomb weapons started production in August/September 1981: the W70 (a Lance missile warhead) and the W79 (an artillery shell). Both were retired by 1992.