The Soviet Union is claiming -- inacurately, say U.S. officials -- the proposed new U.S. medium-range nuclear missiles designed to hit targets in Russia from bases in Western Europe will eventually carry neutron warheads.
The charge has become part of the massive, Moscow-directed propaganda campaign designed to stop NATO countries from approving production and deployment of the Pershing II missile and the ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM).
Neutron weapons -- which kill primarily through radiation rather than blast and heat as do other nuclear devices -- have become a rallying point for peace and disarmament groups around the world and particularly in Europe.
U.S. scientists have testified before congressional committees about "special effects" warheads being developed for the Pershing II and GLCM. "But these warheads, the officials have said, would produce less radiation after the explode that would a normal nuclear weapon.
Neutron weapons have the opposite effectg, producing more radiation.
At the Pentagon yesterday, Thomas B. Ross, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, said it was "sheer nonsense" to claim that the new missles would carry neutron warheads.
"We plan for the Pershing II and [GLCM] the same type of warheads as we now have on our strategic forces," he said.
By saying the new missles will carry neutron devices, the Soviets apparently hope to recreate the enormous public outcry against them, government sources said. That opposition developed prior to President Carter's 1978 decision to defer producing neutron artillery shells and short-range Lance missile warheads.
In an unusually detailed discussion program Oct. 20 on Soviet television, a top Soviet general charged that through the new missiles "Americans . . . are clearing the way for themselves to solve the problem of providing Europe with neutron weapons, a fact as yet being concealed from public opinion, especially in Europe."
A transcript of the remarks by Lt. Gen. Nikolai Chervov of the Soviet general staff is being distributed worldwide by the Soviet-controlled Novosti Press Agency.
Along with a normal warhead for the Pershing II, the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M., has under development an "earth penetrator" warhead. This device is designed to dig into the ground about six feet or more before exploding. It is supposed to act like an atomic demolition mine, closing off a narrow mountain pass, for example, by piling up an enormous amount of earth.
To be successful, however, the "earth penetrator" turns most of its explosive energy into blast and reduces radiation as a product of detonation, U.S. scientists have testified.
The nation's nuclear lab at Livermore, Calif., has what it calls a "reduced residual radiation" device for possible use as a GLCM warhead. It, too, is being developed to be primarily a blast nuclear warhead to destroy buildings and other heavily reinforced structures.
That is the reverse of the neutron, a weapon once described by its designers as being able to kill people while leaving buildings standing.
U.S. specialists in Soviet affairs have said, after reading the translated transcript of the Oct. 20 Soviet program, that it was unusual for the amount of detail on nuclear weapons it presented to a Russian television audience.
In making the Soviet case against the proposed new U.S. missiles, however, Chervov made other misstatements about the new U.S. nuclear weapons.
At one point he said "it is perfectly clear" that the two new systems "will carry not one nuclear charge, but apparently several such charges." In fact, the SALT II protocol prohibits even testing a GLCM with more than one warhead; and the Pershing II ballistic missile is being designed to carry only one warhead.