President-elect Ronald Reagan will give "early consideration" to the production and deployment of neutron warheads and artillery shells, a top Reagan security affairs adviser said yesterday, but "there is no commitment to go ahead" with the controversial new generation of tactical nuclear weapons.
President Carter deferred production of the neutron weapons in April 1978, after several West European NATO allies refused to permit the weapons on their soil. Instead, in October 1978, the president ordered the building of new nuclear artillery shells and Lance missile warheads that later could be converted into neutron weapons.
Reagan and his supporters criticized Carter throughout the campaign for his failure to build neutron weapons. On "numerous occasions," according to Reagan's aide, the Republican candidate told his audiences that he supported the neutron shells and warheads because they would cause less collateral damage off the battlefield than the weapons now deployed in Europe.
Whereas traditional nuclear weapons produce blast, heat and radiation, neutron devices primarily produce radiation. Thus they have been billed as causing less attendant damage because the heat and blast produced by the explosion does not travel as far as the radiation.
A quick Reagan decision could be important. Army officials told a closed-door congressional hearing earlier this year -- in testimony recently released -- that if neutron production is approved before mid-1981 the Army could "crank it into the production lines" and produce the weapons on the same schedule that existed before Carter intervened.
But Reagan aides say that campaign rhetoric on neutron production now must be weighed against the realities of being in office.
On Tuesday, Sen. John G. Tower (R-Tex.), as incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, declared his support for neutron weapon production, and predicted that Reagan will approve the option. But, Tower cautioned, there was no way he could be certain.
The factor that was left out of the campaign rhetoric but must now be taken into consideration is the position of the NATO allies. It is on their soil that the weapons not only would be stationed, but also on which they inevitably would land. The neutron artillery shells would fire about 20 miles; the Lance missile about 56 miles.
The Republican platform took the allies' position into consideration, saying that "in consultation with them, we will proceed with deployments in Europe of . . . [neutron] warheads."
One view within the Reagan camp is that recent publicity over the French government's decision to develop neutron weapons "makes it easier" for the president-elect to go ahead with production of similar weapons for the United States.
But another view has it that the difficulties encountered last December in getting NATO counties to approve the stationing of new medium-range cruise missiles and Pershing II ballistic missiles in Europe would make it impossible to go back to those same countries for agreement on even more unpopular neutron weapons.
A Carter White House aide said yesterday that "about the last thing the allies need now is having to face a neutron deployment decision."
In its presentation before the House Armed Services Committee last spring, the Army said that if the production of neutron weapons is not approved next year, there still would be an opportunity to convert the new nuclear artillery shells and warheads into neutron devices before the end of the production in 1984. To do that, however, requires a decision before mid-1983, according to Army officials.
If the decision has not been made by then, the Army testified, it may take up to three years to produce the necessary components, and an additional two to four months to make the conversion in the field.
Meanwhile, the Army is unhappy with the new, low-yield, nuclear artillery shells and warheads without neutron inserts that it is getting.