MLITARY: Weapons: Learning To Live With The Neutron Bomb – By Lucian K. Truscott IV 

Neutron bomb – click to enlarge

New Times Magazine  – By Lucian K. Truscott IV

They haven’t been called that since the 70’s and 80’s when they first entered what is euphemistically called the nuclear arsenal, but that doesn’t make them any less real.  We’re talking about theater nuclear weapons, or tactical nuclear weapons, or battlefield nukes if you prefer, but they amount to the same thing:

Small nuclear weapons, usually mounted as warheads on short-range missiles, that can be used to destroy targets in the midst of a conventional war that is already under way.

Which targets, you might ask?  Well, they were designed, back in the day, to knock out concentrations of enemy troops and tanks without doing too much damage to surrounding buildings and infrastructure.           

Why was the weapon designed this way?  I can assure you it wasn’t out of the goodness of our nation’s warmongering heart.

THE NEUTRON BOMB, in other words, was meant to use its atomic fallout to disable the enemy, rather than blast, the terrible fireball usually associated with bombs like the ones used on Hiroshima, which killed 60 to 70 percent of the population and destroyed almost 5 square miles of the city and about 70 percent of its buildings.  More recently, TACTICAL NUKES HAVE BEEN DESIGNED SO THAT THEY CAN BE DIALED DOWN TO DELIVER AS LITTLE AS TWO PERCENT OF THE POWER OF THE HIROSHIMA BOMB.

Why have these modern small nukes been designed that way?

Well, to this question, there is actually an answer:

For strategic reasons, so they could be used to provide what war planners call a “proportionate” response to a similar nuclear attack by an enemy.  The idea seems to be, if the Russkis just pop-off a little one that kills, say, a few thousand people and takes out just a quarter of a city, then we could shoot back with one of our dialed-down missiles and destroy a similar number of people and an equivalent size town or portion of a larger city.

What would prevent such an exchange from happening in the first place?

Well, based on a comment in the New York Times by James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence under President Obama, that is precisely the point of having them.  “When do you stop?” Clapper asked, speaking of retaliation against a nuclear strike by Russia.  “You can’t just keep turning the other cheek.  At some point, we’d have to do something.”

Ah-ha!  There it is, the old “do something” argument that’s been around since the first Neanderthal kid threw a rock at another Neanderthal kid from the cave next door.

You can’t just sit there and take it, because the rules of the playground, whether contemporary or ancient, state that if you’re going to keep swinging on your swing, you’d better do something when somebody tries to take it away.  That the something you’re going to do is fire a nuclear warhead rather than throw a punch or throw a rock doesn’t really matter.  When it comes to playing on the Big Playground with the Big Boys, or whatever you want to call it, the principle is the same.  He hits you; you hit back, and in this modern age of maniacal narcissists and their hair-trigger hurt feelings and grievances, PROPORTIONALITY COUNTS.

I take it you notice this is not a discussion of MAD, or Mutual Assured Destruction, the good ole’ Cold War theory that the very existence of weapons that if used would destroy our civilization is what has kept them from being used.

THE WORD, OF COURSE, WAS DETERRENCE:  We had nukes to keep them from using their nukes because, God help us, there was an assumption that rational actors would not dare risk wiping out their own countries including themselves and their families and their fortunes and their mistresses and whatever else it has been that has motivated them along the way in their pursuit of power.

MAD sounds so 20th Century and somehow innocent, harkening back to the transistor radio and the moon shot and a color TV in every living room and a gas-guzzler in every garage.

Today it’s a modernized nuclear arsenal – dial-a-yield-mini-nukes that you can take right up to the front like the Russians did last month when they stationed their Iskander-M missiles in Belarus as they were positioning their forces to invade Ukraine.  The Iskander-M is a short-range missile mounted in pairs on trucks that can take either conventional or nuclear warheads.  As the Times noted on Tuesday, “There is no public data on whether Russia has armed any of the Iskanders with nuclear warheads,” which is exactly the point.

Vladimir Putin is happiest when he’s playing the guessing game – will he, or won’t he is the question of the day, as The Times front-page features stories on “smaller nuclear bombs” and whole teams of nuclear scientists are taken out of storage up at MIT and Stanford and dusted off and put in front of Zoom cameras to talk about the new and scary turn the very existence of these weapons presents in the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

The truly astounding thing about the neutron bomb is that it was developed back in the 60’s and 70’s as one of the steps the U.S. felt compelled to take to improve “readiness in the event of an attack against NATO.”

That quote comes from a story in the late lamented New Times magazine that appeared in the August 5, 1977 issue, the cover of which featured “Learning to Love the Neutron Bomb”, by my old friend Robert Sam Anson.  Lest you think that I am such a nuke-nerd that 45 years later I’ve got a neutron bomb story lying around my desk drawer, I have the excuse that I had a story in the same issue which I’ve saved for all these years because it’s one of the best magazine pieces I ever wrote – that’s my story.

Getting back to the neutron bomb, reading Anson’s story is like looking over the shoulder of the past into the future.  Former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger is one of the rock stars in the crowd of Great Thinkers who came up with the whole concept of the neutron bomb, and he is a featured player in the story.  Testifying before a Senate committee in 1974 to pitch the idea, Schlesinger praised the new-fangled nuke for its ability to “provide for selective, carefully controlled employment options” for use on the battlefield.

There was a whole galaxy of other characters surrounding the development of the neutron bomb, including, naturally, a Washington Post reporter, Walter Pincus, who discovered the program in three lines of a bulging defense budget that had somehow escaped the ministrations of the secret-keepers.

And then there was Major General George Keegan, the former chief of strategic intelligence for the Air Force, who resigned his commission so he could go public about the now-exposed neutron bomb program and lobby for it on Capitol Hill.  “The defense of NATO is hopeless unless something is done to restore the sense of balance.”

THE NEUTRON BOMB, Keegan said, was “a very prudent, attractive option to deter war.”  The neutron bomb, had it been developed in time, would have turned around the Vietnam war and solved all our problems in the Middle East.  And wouldn’t you know it, but the new mini-nuke had a potential use against the Soviet Union, too – Keegan posited: “Yes, I can see a strategic application, say, they were massing their reserve divisions.  Well, this would take care of them.”

It is almost as if ole’ General Keegan could see the future, isn’t it?  I mean, with Russia’s initial campaign to take Ukraine faltering, there are already stories about their reserves being called up and moved into position to reinforce the rather decimated Russian forces that have now been in combat for 30 consecutive days, and having a few mini-nukes on stand-by, well, the groundwork for just such a prospect was laid more than four decades ago.

THERE ARE NO ARMS CONTROL TREATIES THAT APPLY TO MINI-NUKES OF THE NEUTRON, OR ANY OTHER VARIETY, AND SO PROLIFERATION HAS BEEN THE RULE AS THE YEARS HAVE TICKED BY.  The Times says an expert at the Federation of American Scientists, which it describes darkly as “a private group in Washington,” claims that Russia has 2,000 of what they call “lesser warheads”, and the United States has “roughly 100” in Europe, a number that has been limited by “policy disputes and the complexities of basing them among NATO allies.”

With Germany re-arming at a rate not seen since the time of Adolph Hitler and European nations rushing to send not only defensive but offensive weapons to the front lines in Ukraine, I WOULD SAY THE DAYS OF SQUEAMISHNESS ABOUT MINI-NUKES AMONG NATO ALLIES ARE BEHIND US.

What is in front of us is what counts now.  Putin has overtly rattled his battlefield nuclear capability out loud, and Biden has been, if anything, even more effective by studiously refusing to answer questions when the word “nuclear” is in them.

Every expert seems to agree that Putin is determined not to be seen as losing his war against Ukraine.  Would he at some point get desperate enough to pull the trigger?  The question on everyone’s mind is, what would happen if he did it?

What you might call the futility of it all is what comes to mind in this issue of the use one weapon of mass destruction as opposed to the use of many weapons of regular old destruction.

A nuclear weapons expert was on MSNBC discussing tactical nuclear weapons, and my jaw dropped when he observed that the almost total destruction of Mariupol, which he said has taken four weeks, would have taken “only an afternoon” with the use of a tactical nuclear weapon.

In a very real sense, that is what it comes down to:  TIME.  Nuclear weapons are faster at destruction than high explosive weapons, but the destruction is pretty much the same.

I was reading a description of the ruins left in Hiroshima by the explosion of the atomic bomb in 1945.  Buildings with reinforced concrete structures were left standing, or their frames were still there after the dust settled.

THE SAME IS TRUE TODAY IN MARIUPOL:  All those apartment buildings you see with their faces blown off but still standing – they are reinforced concrete structures, too.

If a neutron bomb was used in Ukraine without warning, thousands of people would be killed in an instant.  Already thousands of civilians have been killed by Russian bombs and missiles and millions more have been displaced by the prospect of bombs and missiles destroying their cities and their homes.

The nature of war dictates these things.  Man, in the end, is just an instrument.


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  • Clyde Duncan  On 03/27/2022 at 12:38 am

    Now, I could breathe ….!!

    After Putin mentioned “nukes”, I was thinking in terms of “TSAR BOMBA”!!

    When the giant bomb finally detonated about 13,000 feet [4 kilometers] over its target, the blast was so powerful that it destroyed everything within a 22-mile [35-kilometer] radius, and generated a mushroom cloud that towered nearly 200,000 feet [60 kilometers above] – Commercial aircraft fly at an altitude of around 35,000 feet.

    HORRORS!! I’m thinking …. Don’t provoke this man!!

    So, Putin wants to use his mini-Nukes against NATO, eh!!?

    That could be more worrisome for Putin, I believe.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 03/27/2022 at 1:13 pm

    Reginald Chee-A-Tow wrote:

    A fearful prospect for mankind creating ever more sophisticated weaponry to destroy himself and others, utilizing resources that can benefit mankind on the whole.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 03/27/2022 at 1:17 pm

    Eddie wrote:

    In the empire of evil, rational reasoning takes a back seat and allow the crude impulsive passions of men to mastermind destruction.

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