The United States is about to begin production of its first nuclear battlefield weapon specifically designed to kill people through the release of neutrons rather than to destroy military installations through heat and blast.
Funds to start building an "enhanced radiation" warhead for the 56-mile-range Lance missile are buried in the Energy Research and Development Administration portion of the $10.2 billion public works appropriations bill now before Congress.
The new warhead is the first practical use of the so-called neutron bomb theory which government scientists have been working on for many years.
According to one nuclear weapons expert, the new warhead "cuts down on blast and heat and thus total destruction, leaving buildings and tanks standing. But the great quantities of neutrons it release kill people."
A heavy dose of neutrons attacks the central nervous system, according to "The Effects of Nuclear Weapons," published by the old Atomic Energy Commission. There is "almost immediate incapacitation," with convulsions, intermittent stupor and a lack of muscle coordination. "Death is certain in a few hours to several days," according to the book.
In testimony March 17 before a House Appropriations subcommittee, Alfred D. Starbird, assistant ERDA administrator for national security, said that with the new Lance warhead. "You reduce the blast effect and get the kill radius you want through enhanced radiation."
The Lance warhead is the first in a new generation of tactical mini-nukes that have been sought by Army field leading advocates: the series of American generals who have commanded the North Atlantic Treaty organization theater.
They have argued that the 7,000 unclear warheads now in Europe are old, have too large a nuclear yield and thus would not be used in a war.
With lower yields and therefore less possible collateral damage to civilian populated areas, these commanders have argued, the new mini-nukes are more credible as deterrents because they just might be used on the battlefield without leading to automatic nuclear escalation.
Under the nuclear warhead production system, a President must personally give the production order. President Ford, according to informed sources, signed the order for the enhanced-radiation Lance warhead.
The Lance already has regular nuclear warheads and it deployed with NATO forces in Europe.
The new Lance warhead is one of a half-dozen nuclear devices on which production is scheduled to start next year.
ERDA as successor to the Atomic Energy Commission, finances and supervises research and production of nuclear warheads; the Defense Department pays for the delivery systems.
Thus funds or nuclear warheads are in the public works-ERDA money bill that is to be taken up by the Souse Rules Committee today. SInce the ERDA authorization has yet to pass Congress, a special rule is needed to permit voting first on its appropriation, which is due to come up on the House floor June 13.
Of $6 billion approved by the House Appropriations Committee for ERDA in fiscal 1978, $1.1 billion is for nuclear weapons activities.
The administration had sought and the committee approved increases of about 20 per cent in both production and research of new warheads next year. One reason for the increase was a 10 per cent drop in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, due primarily to retirement of outdated nuclear anti-aircraft systems.
In addition to the Lance warhead, other new production starts include:
An 8-inch artillery-fired nuclear warhead to replace those now in Europe. This shell had been blocked for almost eight years by Sen. Stuart Symington (D-Mo.), who had argued that it was not needed. Symington retired last year.
The Pentagon and ERDA say the new nuclear 8-inch warhead would be safer from stealing by terrorists. Starbird testified. It will be "a command disable system" to melt its inner workings if necessary.
A "FUll-fuzing option bomb" (FUFO) designed primarily to be carried by the B-1 bomber.
As described by Starbird, the nuclear bomb is to be delivered "at something under 200 feet . . . and at speeds up to mach 1" (about 650-miles per hour) in order to penetrate Soviet radar and air defenses. Thus the bomb cannot go off until the low-flying delivery plane is away from the blast effect area.
"That bomb," Starbird testified, "with all its intricacies has to be made so it can be delivered; it can run into a conrete building, and it has to sit there long enough to let that crew get away."
A new nuclear warhead for use on cruise missiles.
A newarhead for the Trident submarine missile and one for the Minuteman III land-based missile.
The committee also approved $350 million for research and development of additional nuclear warheads.
New devices are propsed for the Navy's ship-to-ship Harpoon missile, the Army's new 400-mile Pershing II missile; and the new Air Force M-X warhead, which is to be the follow-on to the Minuteman missile systems.
In longer-term research, the bill contains money to finance an enhanced-radiational bomb to the dropped from aircraft.
The only weapons deletion by the House Appropriations surcommittee was nomey for further development of a nuclear artillery shell or the 155-millimeter gun. Members reportedly believed an understanding had been reached that if the new 8-inch nuclear shell was produced, the Army would not come back for replacements on the 155-mm nuclear now deployed in Europe.