The new furor over America's neutron bomb dramatizes the necessity of improving conventional means of deterring aggression so that this weapon is never used. The production of the "enhanced radiation warhead, to use its more descriptive name, should at least be part of a clearly defined overall defense doctrine. Even such an advocate of the weapon as Reagan transition adviser William Van Cleave has said that it is worthless without such a doctrine.
Perhaps the United States has developed a doctrine to a greater extent than is evident. But neither the White House nor the State Department explained the neutron bomb's role in a larger scheme of things as the reports of President Reagan's decision to produce it came out over the weekend.
Rather there appeared to be disagreement within the administration on the decision to go ahead at this time. The reported situation behind the scenes echoed the unusual public moment in February when Defense Secretary Weinberger gave his personal opinion in favor of going ahead -- and Secretary of State Haig was sufficiently concerned to cable NATO members that this did not represent official US policy.
Europeans have been understandably wary about the neutron weapon not only because of President Carter's on-and-off position but because of growing popular disapproval of the planned deployment of new theater nuclear weapons on European soil. The enhanced radiation warhead would add the exploitable image of a battlefield nuclear weapon that could be exploded as close to the ground as 500 feet with insignificant blast damage to property but with neutron radiation fatal up to half a mile. European are concerned, too, about the radiation sickness predicted for civilians around the edges of the battlefield.
Critics note that the killing or incapacitation of troops would ordinarily not be swift, so that they could fight effectively for a half hour or more before succumbing perhaps weeks later. Besides this disadvantage as a weapon, there is the question of whether the warhead's low-yield characteristics make it more likely to be used than other nuclear arms and thus a more credible deterrent. If the idea is to make the use of nuclear arms more thinkable, this is a kind of credibility the world can do without.
Moscow reportedly has not done much with low-yield battlefield weapons and still sticks to the concept of massive reaction should the West start using nuclear arms of any degree. Indeed, according to an Arms Control and Disarmament Agency report submitted by the last administration, the deployment of neutron warheads in Europe might increase Soviet propensities to use regular nuclear weapons in a war. The report said that fitting the warheads on missiles and artillery shells, as the present administration has now decided to do, would have "only slight impact" on "the course of ongoing arms control negotiations, efforts to stem nuclear proliferation, deterrence and stability in Europe, or the destructiveness of war should it occur."
In the light of all this, why would the US want to start stockpiling such weapon? For one thing, they would then become available for deployment to serve the intended purpose of stopping any attack by Soviet tanks in Central Europe, where Soviet armor is reported to have a three-to-one superiority over the allied forces. Among immediate reasons cited is Mr. Reagan's agreement with Mr. Weinberger that the Europeans should not be allowed a kind of veto over US arms decisions, nor should such decisions be left hostage to allied backing for the new theater nuclear weapons. The US has already agreed to theater arms control talks in connection with those weapons. This administration evidently wants to get back to the more independent US nuclear decisionmaking familiar before Mr. Carter agonized back and forth on European attitudes toward the neutron bomb.
To be sure, the allies should not have a veto over the US. On the other hand , to consult with them and recognize their apprehensions is not to grant such a veto. The US wisely says it has no intention of reaching a decision on deploying the warheads without full consultation.
It is hypocritical in the extreme for Moscow to try to make propaganda hay out of calling on the US to forgo this escalation in the arms race. The Soviets have been pushing that race to the point of missiles threatening Europe and other moves that mean both the Europeans and the Americans must look to their defenses. The case for the necessity of the enhanced radiation warhead in this equation has not yet been proven. It behooves America and its allies to bolster their other defenses w hile the controversy clears.