There will be "no change" in President Carter's 1978 decision to defer production of neutron warheads and artillery shells, a top White House aide said yesterday, despite France's announcement Thursday that it had developed its own neutron bomb.
The United States by mid-1977 had developed, tested and was prepared to produce neutron warheads and shells for its 56-mile-range Lance missiles and 20-mile-range, 8-inch howitzers.
But public opposition to this new generation of short-range nuclear weapons, particularly in West European NATO countries where they were to be based and used, led Carter to shelve their production.
Instead, the president approved building new low-yield nuclear warheads and shells that could later be converted to neutron devices by inserting a special component.
Production of the first of those weapons, 300 Lance missile warheads, is about to begin. The components that would be inserted to make them neutron, however, are not being built.
The White House aide noted yesterday that French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, in making his announcement, said he was postponing a decision on whether France would go ahead with production and deployment of neutron weapons.
"That was the decision we expected him to make," the aide said.
Unlike traditional nuclear weapons, which kill primarily through blast and heat, the neutron device produces primarily radiation.
Its proponents have argued that this radiation would allow it to destroy massed Soviet tank attacks without destroying European towns adjacent to the battle area.
Carter's decision to delay neutron weapons production created a major political uproar among the NATO government leaders who had believed the president was going to go ahead despite the public opposition.
In the United States, conservative politicans, including GOP presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, have frequently criticized the Carter deferral of the neutron option as a major capitulation to the Soviet Union, which had orchestrated a worldwide protest against the weapons.