Neutron Bomb Developments
Response to French Neutron Bomb Test
When the United States and its partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) first discussed production of the neutron bomb several years ago, the issue proved too hot to handle. No head of state on either side of the Atlantic wanted to take responsibility for introducing the controversial weapon, which is designed to kill enemy troops within a restricted radius while causing little physical damage. After months of negotiations in 1977–78 to get the Europeans to accept deployment of the weapons, President Carter abruptly reversed himself and decided to defer neutron bomb production.
The debate in NATO over the neutron bomb is likely to be revived in the wake of a recent revelation that France has developed and tested a neutron warhead. French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who disclosed the test at a June 26 press conference, said France would decide within two or three years whether to go ahead and start producing the weapons. Although France is not a member of the formal NATO defense structure, its decision could lead other European leaders to more readily accept the weapon.
Giscard's announcement received a mixed response in Washington. The Carter administration reaffirmed its official opposition to deploying neutron bombs in Europe, but was careful to leave open its option to develop an American version of the weapon. Privately, many Pentagon officials applauded Giscard's announcement, saying it would make U.S. production of the neutron bomb politically easier. Some U.S. military officials pointed to the announcement as evidence that France is moving closer to the nuclear strategy of the NATO allies — which emphasizes “flexible response” and tactical nuclear weapons — and away from the doctrine of massive retaliation espoused by former President Charles de Gaulle. It was partly because of disagreements over nuclear strategy that de Gaulle withdrew French forces from the NATO command in the mid-1960s.