IT IS A RELIEF to learn that President Carter does not plan automatically to approve production of the controversial neutron warhead for the Army's Lance missile. The Lance, a short-range (56-mile) tactical weapon already equipped with a nuclear warhead, has been deployed by American forces attached to NATO. The neutron warhead, also known as the "enhanced radiation" warhead, would have this advantage, according to Gen. Alfred D. Starbird, an official at the Energy Research and Development Administration: "You reduce the blast effect and get the kill radius you want." That is, this so-called "anti-personnel" weapon tends to leave buildings and things intact, but to kill people - ideally, in the view of its proponents, only those people (enemy forces) who are within the proposed and limited "kill radius."

Military men have argued for the neutron warhead on the ground that it will tend to confine the carnage to the battlefield, as distinct from civilian centers, and that it is therefore more humane than ordinary tactical nuclear weapons. Further it is claimed that this weapon, being relatively precise as a killer and benigh as an explosive, is less likely than other nuclear weapons to start a nuclear war. And so it will also be more credible as a deterrent to war. The reasoning here is that a prospective enemy will show it more respect as a weapon we would have less hesitation about using than regular tactical nuclear explosives.

These arguments strike us as devilishly seductive - and dead wrong. Two aspects of the case for neutron weapons seem to deserve special attention. The first is that "enhanced radiation" weapons could be construed as another form of the chemical warfare that this country has joined others around the world in seeking to eliminate from practice or possibility. (Chemical and biological weapons, we note, have traditionally been argued for on grounds that they were, in some grisly respects, more practical and humane than the alternatives.) The other is that just about the last thing anyone should want for the American arsenal is a nuclear weapon regarded by the military as being sufficiently small, "safe" and controllable to be used without fear of staring a general nuclear war. The distinction is a false and dangerous one.

Evidently President Ford, in 1976, approved a request for production money for the new weapon, and the request is in the ERDA budget currently before Congress. But Jimmy Carter, according to a White House spokesman, will reach no judgement on whether to go ahead until two important pending studies of American military needs have been completed. We hope he will then say no to the neutron warhead.