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The Soviet neutron bomb at 30

Published time: March 07, 2010 22:48
Edited time: March 07, 2010 22:48

Thirty years ago the USSR informed the world it had successfully tested one of the deadliest weapons ever invented – a neutron bomb. The day has gone down in arms race history.

The concept of a neutron bomb was first developed in 1958 by Samuel Cohen of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the U.S.

Several countries had been developing it and the U.S. was first to test one in 1963 at a special underground facility in the state of Nevada. Fifteen years later, on November 17, 1978, the USSR became the second. France became the third and final member of this club on June 24, 1980, when it tested a neutron device at the Mururoa Atoll

A neutron bomb is an enhanced radiation weapon (ERW); the killing mechanism is an intense burst of high-energy neutrons.

Its peculiarity as a thermonuclear weapon is that the energy emission is much slower than that of the usual thermonuclear blast.

So, the amount of energy used to create the blast wave and heat flash is much less, but the steam of neurons which destroys people and animals is many times stronger. At the same time, buildings and equipment are not affected at all.

Originally, the neutron bomb was conceived as a weapon that could stop Soviet armoured divisions from overrunning Western Europe.

Designers hoped to preserve infrastructure while stopping the enemy. They also wanted a weapon that could penetrate the highly protective armoured vehicles used at that time. They were being developed taking into account the possible of use of nuclear weapons.

The issue of the neutron bomb gained immense popularity when, in 1981, the USSR launched a propaganda campaign, following Reagan's decision to produce the weapons on a massive scale. Within days, attempts were made to inform all parts of society of the new threat coming from the “American capitalist machine”. Even nursery school children knew that the neutron bomb could kill people without harming buildings or other infrastructure.

This time, the Soviet propaganda wasn't far away from the truth. What it didn't cover, however, was the fact that the new weapons didn't essentially pose a principally-new threat – both superpowers already had enough nuclear power to destroy the world several times over. Moreover, Soviet propaganda never demonstrated that the technology had been developed 20 years earlier or that it had already been tested in the USSR.

The Soviet Union couldn't get out of the arms race without sufferinig political loss. Washington was very much aware of the economic troubles that the USSR was going through in the early 1980s. Producing neutron weapons was financially unviable, but not producing them would be politically unthinkable, since the key concept of the arms' race was parity. Hence, the propaganda war was launched in order to dilute the feeling that nothing was being done to counter America's actions. 

The neutron arms race ended without ever having properly begun. The US managed to build just ten warheads, while the USSR had yet to finalise its project. On the 23rd of March 1983 the Reagan administration announced the beginning of an even more impressive and deadly programme – “Star Wars”. In scale, it far surpassed the production of neutron warheads. The issue of neutron weapons was quickly forgotten in both the US and the USSR, since the latter faced new problems, with collapse just around the corner.