France seems to be moving inexorably toward production of the high-radiation battlefield weapon, known as the neutron bomb, that President Carter shelved two years ago after much hesitation.
The French military has clamored for the weapon, and President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's own party strongly endorsed that view last week in a white paper on defense policy.
A high likelihood that France will produce the weapon seemingly abandoned by the United States is a principal element emerging from what is known here as a new "great debate on French defense."
The proposed neutron "bomb" actually is a low-yield fusion artillery shell that kills people and spares cities and equipment by delivering heavy doses of radiation at the scene while minimizing the heat and blast effects of other battlefield nuclear weapons that destroy the surroundings.
The last political obstacle to production of the weapon here was removed earlier this week when the opposition Gaullist party issued a defense study of its own indicating that, while it is not enthusiastic about the idea, it would not attempt to block it. The Gaullists have the image of being the most ardent protagonists of a strong defense.
All that remains is for Giscard to give the go-ahead. This is generally viewed as a matter of timing the announcement for its maximum political effect during the current pre-election year. That moment might not come for months -- after Giscard has cleared the way by first announcing the reinforcement and modernization of French stategic nuclear forces. That announcement could come after a meeting expected next week of the government's Defense Council.
Giscard was heavily criticized last month as being soft on the Soviets when he became the first top-level Westerner to meet with President Leonid Brezhnev since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Production of the neutron weapon with its awesome reputation could permit the French president to say that he is not soft on the Soviets at all.
In 1978, President Carter, offering what was then billed as a conciliatory gesture toward the Soviets, announced an 18-month suspension of U.S. development of the enhanced radiation weapon. There still seems to be little inclination in Washington to reopen the question. The unilateral American decision to suspend development had followed an extensive effort to enlist West German support of it. That reversal marked the start of Cancellor Helmut Schmidt's desenchantment with Carter.
The neutron shell was originally billed as a device to equalize Western defenses against the Warsaw Pact forces' vast tank superiority in Europe. Its deployment by France could put the French in a position to tell Schmidt that Paris is a far more reliable ally then Washington.
Despite French insistence that production of the neutron weapon would prove their toughness against the East, Soviet diplomats in Paris appear to be unworried about the prospect, an attitude perhaps explained indirectly by a leading French theoretician.
Gen. Pierre Gallois, the father of French nuclear doctrine under president Charles de Gaulle, pointed out in an interview that Soviet military doctrine does not involve the massing of tanks for breakthroughs as in the German blitzkrieg tank tactics of World War II.
Soviet doctrine, Gallois recalled, involves the use of tanks to control already conquered terrain after the surrender or the collapse of the adversary following a strategic nuclear strike or the threat of one.
"It is a typical idea of generals who want to fight the 1940 war over again in 1980. But why should the Soviets give up the effect of surprise they would get from a strike with their SS20 missiles against Western Europe? If they massed 100 tank division, that would give NATO time to react. Besides, nobody stops to think that since the second World War, West Europeans have unconsciously built a real Maginot Line 400 miles long and more than 50 miles wide -- the continnuous urban strip that stretches from Holland to Switzerland. Can you imagine the Soviets engaging their tanks in trying to conquer that non-stop city in house-to-house warfare?
"If we build the neutron bomb, it would be just another case of copying what the Americans do -- or, in this case, don't do."
Instead, Gallois, a dedicated Baullist, wants to concentrate on building 12 to 20 missile-launching nuclear submarines. France now has five, with only one more actually planned.
Some influential Gaullists agree with the Giscardist stress on neutron weapons. One prominent Gaullist defense authority, parliamentary deputy Henri Tourrain, favors building 300.But most Gaullists tend to agree with party leader Jacques Chirac's view that the weapon constitutes a dangerous step toward French acceptance of the official U.S. and NATO doctrines of a step-by-step flexible response -- graduated moves from tactical nuclear weapons on the European battlefield to the Armageddon of a superpower exchange of strategic weapons.
That, the Gaullists argue, is a luxury for superpowers prepared to try to settle their differences in a battle that would mean the destruction of West European civilization. French official doctrine, as originally set by De Gaulle, is that any Soviet attack would be met by massive retaliation.
This has since been refined by Giscard's amendment of a forward defense in West Germany. Advancing enemy forces would receive only one warning from the French forces in Germany, in the form of a double tactical nuclear blast -- one to the front and one to the rear. If that show of determination did not stop the advance, French doctrine holds that the president would let fly with a major attack on all the major cities of European Russia. w
Since the purpose of neutron weapons would be simply to replace the present dirty and inaccurate classical atomic warheads intended for the one-time warning shot, French possession of more than a few neutron bombs, Gaullist defense thinkers say, would hurt the credibility of France's determination to destroy Soviet cities.
Chirac came out against the neutron weapon at first. But he has watered down his opposition, apparently in response to interest in the weapon inside his own party. It declared that it does not object to continued research and development of the neutron bomb, provided absolute priority is given to more submarines, to hardening existing missile silos and to developing a deep-penetration airplane to replace the nuclear strike force's present Mirage IVS.