Weapons Choice and Lesser Evils


Many advocates of liberty are concerned about nuclear weapons because they are instruments of mass destruction. They point out—correctly—that it seems impossible to use such weapons, even in defense, without killing thousands or millions of innocent bystanders. Such inherently evil weapons, they believe, should be banished from the face of the earth. In this sentiment they are joined by many liberals, leftists, and pacifists.

Alas for their wishes, nuclear weapons aren't about to be abolished. The best that such people can hope for is to influence future weapons choices in a direction that reduces their mass-murder consequences. Indeed, from a libertarian standpoint, the ideal weapon would be one which is inherently defensive (i.e. designed to protect one's own soil from attack) and is highly selective in its application, capable of inflicting maximum damage on an invader with minimal (hopefully no) effects on one's own population and troops. Replacement of existing nuclear weapons with this type of device would substantially reduce the extent of unjust killing in any future war.

Something close to this prescription has been developed over the past decade and was recently ordered into production by Congress. The weapon in question is the "enhanced radiation warhead," popularly known as the "neutron bomb." Ironically, instead of being welcomed by nuclear-weapons foes as a major advance toward their ideal, the neutron weapon is being denounced as "dehumanizing" because it "kills people without destroying property." To understand these objections, we must look more closely at what neutron weapons are, and how they are intended to be used.

The neutron weapon is actually a very small hydrogen bomb. It is designed as a replacement for the atomic bombs now used in such tactical nuclear weapons as artillery shells and the short-range Lance missile. Whereas these tactical nukes range in size from 10 to 50 kilotons, the replacement neutron weapons are only one kiloton in size. The gross size difference and the different explosive characteristics of hydrogen weapons produce the neutron weapon's unique effects.

On detonation, the neutron warhead produces intense blast and radiation only within a small (140-yard) radius; out to 900 yards, it produces a deadly spray of neutrons but virtually no heat or blast; up to a mile away, the neutrons would cause some radiation sickness and death, but beyond 1¼ miles there would be no effects at all. Radiation within the 1¼ miles would dissipate rapidly to normal background levels. By contrast, the present 10-kiloton tactical nuke would produce absolute destruction within the 1¼ mile radius, leaving the area a radioactive crater for decades. And radiation effects would extend well beyond the 1¼ miles.

These differences become crucial when it is remembered where and how neutron weapons are intended to be used. They are defensive weapons, aimed at stopping an armored Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe. They would therefore be used within the territory of places such as West Germany. Present NATO plans call for reacting to such an invasion with 10 to 50-kiloton nuclear artillery shells and Lance warheads. This would result in massive destruction of densely settled West Germany and the loss of millions of civilians. Neutron weapons could be focused much more precisely on the invading tanks and troops, sparing the bulk of the population and their homes and factories from destruction. Further, the effects of neutron radiation work to the advantage of the defenders. Though readily passing through the steel walls of tanks and armored personnel carriers, neutrons can be shielded against by several feet of earth in the defending troops' bunkers.

Thus, the widespread substitution of neutron warheads and shells for existing tactical nuclear weapons would make the defense of Western Europe substantially more effective and less destructive to the defended territory. And there can be little doubt that such a defense is still needed. Warsaw Pact forces have been increased by five divisions in the past decade, and are now equipped with newer tanks, antitank weapons, artillery, and armored vehicles than possessed by NATO forces. And NATO forces have not increased at all.

In light of these facts, let's review the objections to neutron weapons. The emotional objection—that they are inhumane because they kill people but spare property—is absurd on its face. Restating it more accurately—neutron weapons kill attacking troops but spare the defenders' homes and factories—is all the refutation needed.

The more serious objection is that neutron weapons may be "destabilizing." Critics such as Herbert Scoville, Jr. argue that since these weapons are less fearsome than tactical nukes, they are more likely to be used, thereby making escalation to full-scale nuclear war more likely. But this argument, too, is dangerously misleading.

Precisely because existing tactical nuclear weapons are so mindlessly destructive, because they would lead to "destroying the village in order to save it," the likelihood of their being used to stop an invasion is not really that high. One can hardly blame those Germans who would rather take their chances with Soviet troops than see their homeland totally obliterated. The strategic advantage of neutron weapons is that they are more likely to be used if the Soviets invade. Neutron weapons are, in other words, a credible deterrent, where existing tactical nukes are not. Seen in this light, deployment of neutron weapons in Western Europe is a stabilizing factor—insofar as stabilization refers to ensuring the maintenance of the status quo in Europe.

Those who oppose neutron weapon deployment are condemning countries like West Germany to one of two fates, in the event of a Warsaw Pact invasion. Either NATO would defend it with tactical nuclear weapons, thereby destroying huge areas and killing millions of civilians, or NATO would make a half-hearted, token resistance and be overwhelmed—leading to Soviet occupation. And without even mounting an attack, Soviet threats could lead to the Finlandization of West Germany—in the absence of a credible deterrent to invasion.

Ideally, of course, US taxpayers should not be paying the bill for 42 percent of Europe's defense. And weapons of mass destruction should be done away with. But neither of these points is relevant to the specific question of whether or not to replace 10 and 50-kiloton nukes with one-kiloton neutron weapons. Advocates of liberty and justice should have no trouble agreeing on the desirability of this step. It is consistent with liberty because it makes possible improved defense against invasion. It is consistent with justice because it greatly reduces the harm to bystanders and their property. In light of these points, opposition to neutron weapons by some friends of freedom is difficult to fathom.