WORLD

A deadly neutron shell game

Europe may not be the only theatre for the latest wrinkle in bombs

William Lowther August 24 1981
WORLD

A deadly neutron shell game

Europe may not be the only theatre for the latest wrinkle in bombs

William Lowther August 24 1981

A deadly neutron shell game

WORLD

Europe may not be the only theatre for the latest wrinkle in bombs

William Lowther

The international controversy generated by President Ronald Reagan's decision to produce and stockpile neutron weapons in the

United States may well be moving out of focus. It was centred on the presumption that the weapons were meant for Europe. But late last week it emerged that the European theatre is only one of three for which the weapons may be destined. The other two are the Far and Middle East—and the possibility of deployment there could generate a storm that would make European protests seem mild.

One hint that Europe was not the only theatre on the administration’s mind came from Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who casually slipped China into his remarks to media interviewers on two occasions after the Reagan announcement. A source close to the Pentagon later said that the possibility of deployment there could well be raised when Vice-Chief of Staff Liu Huaqing visits Washington in September to discuss arms sales; that there would be heavy pressure to make the weapons available to U.S. troops in South Korea; and that the Pentagon sees them as being potentially “invaluable” in protecting Middle East oil supplies, including the Iranian fields, from a Soviet take-over. Another Pentagon source said neutron weapons were sure

to be raised “one way or another” with Liu. He added that if the Reagan administration won a second term it was certain the weapons would go to South Korea and, should the U.S. establish a base in the Middle East—perhaps in Saudi Arabia—there too.

Support for the proposition that the weapons were destined for much wider use came also from a respected opponent of administration policy on nuclear weapons, Rear-Admiral Gene La Rocque (Retired), who runs the Washington-based Center for Defense Information. He pointed out that tank crews irradiated by neutron weapons might take a day or more to die, by which time

their mission in Western Europe might be accomplished. More important, NATO already possessed thousands of antitank weapons, so there was no real need to have the neutron weapons there. La Rocque also recalled that when U.S. forces landed in Lebanon during the Middle East crisis of 1958 they took nuclear weapons with them. Such weapons were an integral part of U.S. army and air fçrce equipment. “Once you begin equipping the organization with neutron weapons here in the States, your troops, your officers, your commanders will all integrate them into their plans, and they will take them everywhere,” he said. “I think we will keep the neutrons in our own hands, but I can see them ending up in the Middle East. It’s evident that we can’t stop any Soviet moves there conventionally. I’m also sure they will end up in South Korea.

We won’t have to ask anyone’s permis-§ sion. They will be perceived there as eight-inch [20-mm] shells and shortrange missiles ideal for use in the terrain.”

Reagan’s decision to reverse former president Jimmy Carter’s 1978 production ban led to an instant rerun of the tactical arguments for and against the weapon—with Weinberger dismissing critics’ fears that deployment would lower the nuclear threshold. It also produced yet another tactical defeat for Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who had argued against an early announcement on the grounds that it would arouse the European antinuclear lobby

to a fury which would prevent acceptance by wavering NATO countries of the equally controversial cruise and Pershing missiles system.

The official version was that Haig lost out because Reagan preferred Weinberger’s view that European sentiment should not be permitted to interfere with a “purely American decision.” But, in fact, Reagan had little choice about the timing. The U.S. has embarked on the greatest nuclear weapons building program in its history: a new Trident 1 submarine-launched missile; a new warhead for the land-based Minuteman III; new strategic and tactical bombs; a new air-launched cruise missile; and the planned MX missile. In all 17,000 new nuclear warheads will be needed in the next 10 years to equip delivery systems. This has created a huge demand for components and nuclear material, and the energy department had told Reagan that he had to decide at once about the neutron weapons if available supplies were not to be assigned to other programs.

In any case Haig’s fears seem to have been exaggerated—for the moment. But future sources of heavy fallout will certainly lie in any decision

to import neutron weapons, in U.S. hands or not, into the volatile Middle East—and in some careful phraseology employed by Weinberger in outlining the conditions under which the weapons might be used. The defense secretary stressed that they would be stockpiled in the U.S. and only sent to Europe after “consultation.” This, said La Rocque, was “disingenuous in the extreme.” Weinberger had not said he would wait for the allies’ approval. The weapons could be sent to Europe “at the very time—a period of crisis—when they could increase the threat of a war.”