Policy Analysis No. 15

Precision-Guided Munitions and the Neutron Bomb

By Robert C. Aldridge
August 26, 1982

Executive Summary

“The weapon adds very substantially to the capability of the United States and its allies to deter an attack based upon a tremendous preponderance of armor…that would be one of the characteristics of a Soviet attack on the central front [in Europe],” claimed Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger to justify the neutron bomb. He continued: “We think [it] enormously increases our deterrent, our ability to demonstrate to the Soviets…that we have the capability to respond, and to inflict a cost which we hope they would regard as unacceptably high.”[1]

That statement epitomizes the deception being used to rally support for the neutron bomb. Such claims have resulted in the “informed” U.S. population being about evenly divided in opinion as to whether this country should deploy that weapon.[2] But in Europe it is another matter — paticularly since Ronald Reagan’s inadvertent statement that a limited nuclear war could be confined to that continent. The people there have become even more skeptical about all U.S. nuclear weapons including the neutron bomb.

The neutron bomb, or “enhanced radiation warhead” as it is called in scientific circles, is basically a hydrogen bomb without the uranium-238 jacket which would absorb neutrons to increase the blast. By eliminating that jacket the full fusion emission of neutrons is released. A one-kiloton neutron bomb will spread a lethal dose of neutron radiation to exposed people over a one-mile radius. It would take a 13-kiloton fission (atom) bomb to produce a combined lethal dose of neutron and gamma radiation over that same distance.[3] Although the lethal radius for people inside tanks would be somewhat less because of the protection, pure neutron radiation is more penetrating than a mixture of neutron and gamma, and the lethal radius would be greater for a one-kiloton neutron bomb than for a 13-kiloton fission warhead. But the radius of destruction from blast and heat would be considerably less for the former. Neutron warheads are now in production for the Lance missile and the eight-inch artillery shell. Soon they will be available as projectiles for the more numerous 155-millimeter cannons.

So far it looks as if the claim that neutron bombs reduce “collateral damage” is true — collateral damage being a euphemism for associated civilian casualties. The neutron bomb does seem to provide a greater penetrating dose of lethal radiation in a prescribed area without the wider-spread heat and blast effects typical of other designs. If we had only to choose among nuclear warheads, the enhanced radiation variety does seem to be the most desirable.

But this discussion of prompt effects is too confined and does not address subsequent fallout and lingering radiation from any nuclear weapon. Neither does it address the motivation behind the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The Soviets have promised to build neutron bombs if the United States deploys them, and that would be a gross escalation of the arms race. Egon Bahr, a leading West German disarmament expert, has concluded that the Soviets have already tested a neutron bomb.[4] Other nations are also certain to pursue development of enhanced radiation weapons. Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, James P. Wade, Jr., told Congress that France is firmly committed to deploying such a device.[5]

Even worse, if the neutron bomb should ever be used in the surgical manner advertised by U.S. strategists, it could very easily and most likely trigger total nuclear war. Former Defense Secretary Harold Brown persistently warned that it is not at all clear “that an initial use of nuclear weapons — however selectively they might be targeted — could be kept from escalating to a full-scale thermonuclear exchange …The odds are high, whether the weapons were used against tactical or strategic targets, that control would be lost on both sides and the exchange would become unconstrained.” [6]

In light of these consequences it is a serious misrepresentation to imply that our only choice is among types of nuclear weapons and that there is no alternative to nuclear weapons for the defense of Western Europe. It is this notion that I wish to challenge in this paper. There are viable alternatives to the deployment of nuclear weapons to deter a massive armored attack, and the technologies for those conventional alternatives are being vigorously pursued. The Pentagon story changes abruptly when its spokesmen are trying to persuade Congress to finance non-nuclear, antitank weapons. Let us take a closer look.

The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that there “are 19,500 tanks in the Soviet-controlled forces of the Warsaw Pact aimed at Western Europe. Of these, 12,500 are Soviet tanks in Soviet units. NATO has 7,000 tanks on its side facing the 19,500.”[7] The article went on to point out that this “massing of Soviet tanks facing Western Europe is one of the important elements in the power politics of Europe. For years it has meant a Soviet capability of mounting a massive armored offensive into Western Europe.”[8]

During a speech in El Paso, Texas, former Defense Secretary Brown pointed out the pitfall of this type of comparison. He said that there is “a tendency to compare NATO and [Warsaw] Pact forces in terms of static measures, like numbers of tanks.” He went on to explain that “this kind of shorthand obscures other important differences between them. To name only two, NATO designs its forces to repel, not to launch, a tank invasion. And its ground forces are designed and deployed to take advantage of the classic principle that the attack needs at least a substantial numerical edge to overcome the natural advantages of prepared but mobile defense.”[9]

Brown elaborated on that statement in his fiscal year 1982 posture statement: “Let me illustrate this general point with the case of ground forces. The Soviets have a substantial advantage in numbers of troops and armored assault vehicles. Therefore, we need to deploy greatly improved anti-armor weapons for our ground forces and to maintain air superiority in order to deny the Soviets air cover for an armored attack.”[10] He then went on to describe three generations of conventional antitank weapons which the United States has deployed or has in production or development. These will be discussed in detail later.

During hearings in 1978 before a House Appropriations subcommittee the former Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Dr. William J. Perry, presented his evaluation of the superior Eastern Bloc forces:

…the reason they push so hard in things they can do well, like building lots of tanks and building lots of airplanes, is an attempt to compensate for what they perceive as our technical superiority…. The difficulty with their approach is that they never have a chance to use those great quantities of weapons. If they don’t have a chance to use them in the next few years they have made the wrong decision because they have, today, 20,000 tanks deployed in Europe. In the meantime we are developing something called precision-guided weapons which will allow 155-millimeter artillery shells to destroy tanks. By the time that becomes operational they have the wrong force deployed. Twenty thousand tanks of the design they have will be the wrong thing in the early ’80s….[11]

Those precision weapons Perry was referring to are operational, and they are not nuclear. It was also in 1978 that the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C., announced that the United States and NATO forces have 49 separate types of antitank weapons in their inventory or under development, which range from hand-carried devices (evolutions of the World War II bazooka) to air-launched, precision-guided munitions from airplanes and helicopters. It concluded that “all of these antitank weapons…have increased the superiority of defense over offense.”[12]

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Robert C. Aldridge is an aerospace engineer who helped design five generations of strategic missiles. He is now engaged in private research on military programs.