A Navy proposal to spend more than $1 billion to produce nuclear warheads for its Standard air defense missile has run into trouble with a congressional committee that says exploding the warheads could black out the radar of American forces in the area.
The Standard, a surface-to-air missile with a range of 65 miles, is designed to knock down longrange Soviet Backfire bombers and cruise missiles.
The Navy wants nuclear, in addition to conventional, warheads for what it calls the Standard Missile-2 (SM2) because it says only a nuclear explosion will cover a wide enough area to be certain of destroying any Soviet-launched cruise missile, which may be nuclear armed.
Such a use of nuclear warheads on air defense systems has been controversial over the years for technical and political reasons.
Scientists have long argued over whether the release of energy from the explosion of a nuclear warhead in the atmosphere would black out radar for enormous areas. Within the Pentagon this is known as the "bloody-nose effect."
That is one reason the Army is retiring its 20-year-old nuclear Nike Hercules, a ground-to-air weapon, and replacing it with the conventionally armed Patriot system.
The political problem surrounds the need for presidential release of nuclear anti-air weapons, as required by law for all nuclear weapons. Because a Navy commander who has detected enemy planes or missiles headed for him could not expect to get presidential authority in time to respond, the nuclear SM2 would either have to be used only after general nuclear war had been authorized, or specific pre-release authority would have to be granted for it.
Asked how the presidential release problem would be solved for the SM2, a veteran nuclear expert with experience both in the military and on Capitol Hill responded, "That is a very good question. It's been around since Eisenhower's time, when the first air-to-air nuclear weapon, the Genie, was developed. And I've never heard the answer."
The House Armed Services Committee, in acting on the SM2, dealt only with the technical issue. It said that the nuclear warhead design for the SM2 the Navy wants is too powerful. If the warhead were exploded, the committee said, it would black out not only the redars of the targeted enemy plane or missile, but also those of any American ships and planes in the area.
The committee knocked out $6 million of the $7 million in funds the administration wanted to begin procuring production facilities for the SM2.
The $1 million left in the bill is to be used to restudy the missile warhead design, according to the committee report.
The transcript of a closed hearing on the subject in March was released recently in edited form. In it, the committee's staff nuclear expert, Seymour Schwiller, bluntly told the Navy: "I see no sense in spending these billions of dollars to build a system you would be afraid to use because of the damage you inflict on yourself."
Schwiller recommended that the Navy look into using an enhanced radiation warhead, similar to that used in the Spartan and Sprint missiles that were to be part of the Safeguard antiballistic missile system.
Those weapons, similar to the neutron artillery shells and Lance warheads now being built, produce more radiation than blast and heat, and thus their use would lower the possibility of a widespread radar blackout.
Officials from the Navy and the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, where the SM2 warhead was designed, say the nuclear explosion for the SM2 will not cause the blackout effect under the battle plan now envisioned for it.
They also argue that it would take another three years to design an enhanced radiation device for the SM2. Vice Adm. Robert Monroe, the Navy's director of research and development, told the March hearing, "delay would significantly affect our fleet capability... the first point is the urgency of need."
For 20 years, the Navy has armed some its ships with the nuclear-warhead Terrier missile. The Terrier has a shorter range than the SM2 and all the same problems, both technical and political. The urgency the Navy cites stems from the fact that the Terrier system is due to be replaced by the Standard missiles, both conventional and, if the Navy gets its way, nuclear.
This is not the first time that the nuclear SM2 has run into trouble. In 1977, after five years of development work, the Defense Department under Harold Brown halted a Navy plan to put the SM2 into engineering development, the basic step leading to full-scale production. Instead, for the remaining four years of the Carter administration, the SM2 program was kept in suspension.
During this period the design of the weapon was shifted to enhanced radiation, but later was switched back.
When the Reagan administration came into office the SM2 nuclear warhhead was one of several nuclear systems given the go-ahead.