Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Neutron Bomb

A nuclear device, also called an enhanced radiation weapon (ERW), designed to minimize the usual catastrophic blast effects of a conventional nuclear detonation while releasing large and concentrated amounts of deadly radiation. Invented by the American scientist Sam Cohen at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, neutron bombs are thought to have been first added to the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the mid-1970s. The bomb is a nuclear device similar in construction to other small thermonuclear devices. However, the neutron bomb differs in that its explosive yield is purposefully capped. Thus, damage to structures is limited in scope.

The bomb's true effectiveness as a weapon comes in the amount of radiation that is unleashed in a fairly concentrated area. Indeed, the radioactive yield of a neutron bomb can be many times more potent than that of other nuclear warheads. Upon detonation, a neutron bomb unleashes massive amounts of ionizing radiation (neutrons, hence its name), which in turn delivers an immobilizing electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and a lethal dose of radiation.

Because of its unique characteristics, the neutron bomb had several tactical uses. First, it could be deployed around U.S. nuclear missile silos and detonated during a Soviet missile attack. The damaging EMP would disrupt the electronics of incoming missiles and render them inoperable. Second, the neutron bomb was built to be deployed as a tactical (or battlefield) nuclear bomb. In this case, it would be used to kill soldiers protected by armor and to stop advancing armored vehicles such as tanks, which tended to be somewhat more impervious to the effects of nuclear-induced blast and heat. The lethal doses of radiation would kill humans almost instantly, while the EMP would render mechanized vehicles useless. Finally, the bomb could be used as a tactical weapon in densely populated areas (such as Central and Western Europe) without causing wholesale destruction to surrounding towns or cities. Of course, many of the alleged benefits of the neutron bomb were theoretical and oversold. Damage to surrounding structures, not to mention to people, would have been astronomical anywhere near ground zero. Cohen also made the argument that the bomb could be a highly effective antiship weapon if detonated high above enemy vessels.

In the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter's administration announced its intention to deploy tactical neutron bombs in Europe, ostensibly to stop a Soviet armored attack against the West. The decision brought immediate consternation in Western Europe as well as in the United States. Mass protests quickly ensued across Western Europe, and Belgium, Holland, and Norway publicly refused to allow neutron bomb deployments on their soil. Carter had intended to deploy neutron warheads on Lance missiles and as artillery shells in Europe. In the spring of 1978, he announced that he was delaying production of the bomb but was reserving the right to go forward with it at a later date for the purposes of negotiating future arms control deals.

During the 1980 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Ronald Reagan pledged to reverse the Carter administration's neutron bomb moratorium. When Reagan became president in 1981, he gave the green light to resume neutron bomb production. It is believed that approximately 1,000 neutron bombs were built during the early and mid-1980s, but strong antinuclear campaigns in Western Europe prevented the deployment of the weapons. At the same time, the Soviets, French, Chinese, and Israelis all embarked on neutron bomb programs or built their own stockpile of ERWs.

Paul G. Pierpaoli Jr.


Further Reading
Cohen, Sam. The Truth about the Neutron Bomb: The Inventor of the Bomb Speaks Out. New York: William Morrow, 1983.
 

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