The Reagan administration is prepared to ride out an expected storm of protest from Western Europe over its decision to go ahead with the full production of neutron warheads.
Administration officials say that there was no ideal time to make the decision on the controversial neutron weapon.
In their view, what opposition there is in Europe is based on emotion rather than careful analysis. Such opposition, officials say, would not disappear no matter when the decision on the neutron warhead was made.
In going ahead with production of the neutron warhead, President Reagan wants to demonstrate that Europe cannot have "veto" power over american decisions to build nuclear weapons. Whether the neutron warhead would actually be deployed in Western Europe is another question. That would require close consultation with the European allies. US officials say.
In the meantime, officials say that while some West European governments may not be happy with the Reagan approach on the neutron warhead -- and may even complain about it -- they would vastly prefer Reagan's predictable hard line to the previous zigzags of President Carter.
The neutron warhead was developed as a tank-stopping weapon for Europe. The War saw Pact armies have a 3-to-1 advantage in tanks over the NATO forces facing them. With its reduced blast and fallout, the neutron warhead would be capable of destroying in pinpoint fashion Soviet tank units moving through crowded European cities, without causing extensive civilian casualties or material damage.
The neutron warhead caused controversy when it first came up for funding in 1977, because its high radiation appeared to make it more of a "horror weapon" than other nuclear weapons. Once it became clear, however, that the warhead might actually cause more limited damage than some other tactical nuclear weapons, opponents focused on a fear that its very limitations would make it more "usable" in combat than existing nuclear weapons, thus making an escalation from conventional to nuclear weapons more likely once a war broke out. Defenders of the warhead argue, however, that it would help deter any Soviet attack by making Western defenses more credible.
President Carter at first favored full production of the neutron warhead and got European allies to agree to this. Then to the consternation of the allies, Carter leaned against production. He finally decided to go ahead with production of the components of the warhead, making full production contingent on Soviet reactions. A final decision, President Carter said, would be influenced by the degree to which the Soviet Union showed restraint in its military buildup in Europe. In supporting President Reagan's decision, administration officials say that the Soviet Union has shown no such restraint.
What President Reagan has decided is to follow up the Carter decision by putting together the components of the neutron warhead which until now were being developed separately.
According to State Department officials there was considerable disagreement within the administration over the timing of this decision. Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. was reported to have argued that it would be coming at a delicate juncture in US-European relations and might help jeopardize the major allied decision to deploy new medium- range nuclear missiles in Western Europe. The neutron warhead is a short-range weapon which can be carried either by a Lance missile or by an eight-inch artillery shell.
The view of Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who argued in favor of a decision on the neutron warhead at this time, prevailed. Officials said that a decision was taken last week at a high-level national security planning group meeting, and the key allies were informed.
At the State Department, however, there was still some concern that the decision would result in increased opposition to the West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's defense policies from the left wing of Mr. Schmidt's Social Democratic Party. Some State Department officials also feared that the Soviet Union would have a propaganda field day as a result of the neutron warhead decision. Officials said that it would be a relatively easy matter for the Soviets to build a neutron warhead of their own.
In Moscow on Aug. 9, the official Soviet news agency Tass denounced President Reagan's decision to go ahead with full production of the neutron warhead. It said that the decision was an "extremely dangerous step toward . . . enhancing the threat of nuclear war" to which the Soviet Union would have to respond.