Bomb inventor says U.S. defenses suffer because of politics
By Christopher Ruddy
FOR THE TRIBUNE-REVIEW
LOS ANGELES - For most of Sam Cohen's life, he has struggled against politicians who, in his opinion, have sacrificed good sense when it comes to the nation's defenses. Cohen is the physicist who invented the neutron bomb, the one that kills people but leaves things like tanks and buildings intact. Plans to deploy his creations in Europe during the '70s and '80s awakened the "peace movement" across that continent, stopping its deployment.
With that and other battles lost, the 76-year-old Cohen finds solace in his Brentwood home, nestled high on a hill overlooking Los Angeles. There the world is far more peaceful, or so it seems. Just down the road is the Rockingham estate of one O.J. Simpson. Cohen would pass there often during his morning walks, and occasionally see the former football star. "He was always pleasant," Cohen recounted.
Cohen would probably be unfazed if confronted by a knife-wielding mugger - a threat insignificant in the scheme of things. What worries him are weapons of mass destruction - nuclear ones that destroy whole cities.
The politicians tell us that our security has never been better. Cohen describes the present situation as "scary, more scary than ever before." He's concerned that the Clinton administration has decided it is politically incorrect to even think about the design and development of nuclear weapons. The head of the division of the Livermore National Laboratories in charge of such weapon development has threatened to resign if he is ordered to develop new weapons, Cohen noted in a recent interview.
The government doesn't want people to even think about nuclear weapons, which is like telling Sam Cohen he is no longer permitted to breathe.
As a kid from Brooklyn who graduated with a physics degree from UCLA, he enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor. In 1944 Cohen was assigned to the top-secret Manhattan Project to develop atomic weapons at Los Alamos, N.M. Cohen had the mundane job of calculating how neutrons behaved in "Fat Man" - the nickname of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. (The bomb dropped on Hiroshima three days earlier was nicknamed "Little Boy.")
The boring work was all worthwhile because Cohen eventually stood in the Nevada desert and witnessed something on par with the Transfiguration: an atomic explosion. Cohen saw firsthand the awesome power of the unleashed atom as human history entered a new age. "Awesome spectacle" is how Cohen still describes the event. Puffing on a cigar as he relaxed in his easy chair wearing a T-shirt and jogging pants, Sam remembered that day vividly.
World War II flying hero Jimmy Doolittle stood next to him when the bomb went off. "The little guy was blown down," Cohen recalled.
After the war ended, Cohen joined the Rand Corp. where he was paid to continue thinking about nuclear weapons. He was obsessed with the idea of a neutron bomb, one that would make use of the lethal particles he had observed so studiously at Los Alamos.
The earliest bombs had used nuclear fission, splitting heavy atoms to release energy. Later bombs used nuclear fusion, which fused hydrogen atoms to release energy. Both designs produced tremendous blasts that could level whole cities, and left them uninhabitable for long periods because of lingering radiation.
Cohen's neutron bomb would use nuclear fusion, but in a different way. The detonation of a neutron bomb would still produce an explosion, but one much smaller than a standard nuclear weapon's. The main effect of a neutron bomb would be the release of high-energy neutrons that would take lives far beyond the blast area. The result: fewer buildings, cars, tanks, roads, highways and other structures destroyed.
And unlike standard nuclear bombs that leave long-term contamination of the soil and infrastructure, the neutron radiation quickly dissipates after the explosion.
For Cohen, the neutron bomb is the ultimate sane weapon. It kills humans, or as he puts it "the bad guys," but doesn't produce tremendous collateral damage on civilian populations and the infrastructure a civilian population needs to survive.
This meant, in Cohen's mind, that a conventional war could escalate without immediately leading to an all-out nuclear holocaust. If regular nuclear weapons were used across Europe, the radioactive fallout could turn the continent into a wasteland for decades. That wouldn't be the case if neutron bombs were used.
Between 1958 and 1961 the neutron bomb idea was tested successfully, but the politicians in Washington nixed development and deployment of the weapon. Cohen persisted. As the Vietnam War began and festered in the 1960s, Cohen became an advocate of using neutron bombs there. To Cohen, his weapon was "a perfect fit" for dealing with the Viet Cong hidden in the jungles and rice paddies.
Again, the politicians had other ideas. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ruled that no nuclear weapons of any type would be used in the war. The use of the small neutron bombs would have brought the war to a quick end, Cohen still argues, and saved the loss of more than 50,000 American lives.
In 1969, Cohen was fired from the Rand Corp. for continuing to advocate the use of tactical neutron bombs to end the conflict. "I lost all my battles," Cohen says today.
In 1979, he was in Paris helping the French build their own arsenal of neutron bombs when presidential candidate Ronald Reagan came through on a European tour. Cohen met with Reagan to brief him on the neutron bomb. Reagan grasped the idea of neutron weaponry immediately, and made a pledge to Cohen, and later a public pledge, that he would reverse Carter administration policy by building and deploying a large number of neutron bombs.
As president, Reagan fulfilled that pledge and approximately a thousand weapons were constructed. But criticism from European allies kept the weapons from being deployed across Europe.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism as we knew it, the Bush administration moved to dismantle all of our tactical nuclear weapons, including the Reagan stockpile of neutron bombs. In Cohen's mind, America was brought back to Square One. Without tactical weapons like the neutron bomb, America would be left with two choices if an enemy was winning a conventional war: surrender, or unleash the holocaust of strategic nuclear weapons.
Other nation's haven't been afflicted by the U.S. blindness regarding neutron bombs. According to Cohen:
Evidence exists that China has neutron bombs stockpiled, and that the United States gave the Chinese the technology to build them.
Russia has a large quantity of such weapons, as well as the world's largest arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Israel has hundreds of neutron weapons. The neutron bombs would allow Israel to stop advancing Arab armies and tank columns - even one on Israeli soil - without permanently contaminating the land.
South Africa, which constructed a cache of neutron weapons before the end of white rule, claimed it dismantled those weapons before handing over power to the Nelson Mandela government. Cohen, however, claims to have it on good authority that white military leaders still control the secret stockpile as "an insurance policy."
Most frightening for Cohen is the relative ease by which neutron bombs can be created with a substance called red mercury. Red mercury is a compound containing mercury that has undergone massive irradiation. When exploded, it creates tremendous heat and pressure - the same type needed to trigger a fusion device such as a mini-neutron bomb.
Before, an obstacle to creating a nuclear bomb was the need for plutonium, which when exploded could create a fusion reaction in hydrogen atoms. But red mercury has changed that. The cheap substance has been produced in Russia, Cohen said, and shipped on the black market throughout the world.
Cohen said that when U.N. inspectors went to Iraq to examine the Iraqis' nuclear weapons capabilities, the U.N. team found documents showing that they had purchased quantities of red mercury. The material means a neutron bomb can be built "the size of baseball" but able to kill everyone within several square blocks.
The public isn't being warned about this development because the politicians have little desire to combat the menace or to confront nations like Iraq, Iran and Libya that likely would use such weapons, Cohen said.
Cohen has little faith in the politicians anyway. "Every president since Truman, with the possible exception of Eisenhower, would have sold the country out if it came down to a nuclear confrontation," he said.
Cohen on nation security issues
In a recent interview, Sam Cohen, the father of the neutron bomb, offered his views on several national security issues:
RUSSIA: Though the Cold War is over and Russia appears in disarray, Cohen suggested that the situation remains dangerous because Russia has "far and away substantially more nuclear weapons than we do." While U.S. policy makers have been busy dismantling our nuclear arsenal, Russia continues to modernize.
The United States has been paying billions of dollars for the leftover plutonium from Russia's dismantled weapons, but evidence indicates that the Russians have not been turning over weapons-grade plutonium. Instead, the United States has been paying for, and not objecting to, material from their nuclear power plants - a strong sign the Russians are not dismantling their weapons.
MISSILE DEFENSES: Calling a ballistic missile defense system "absolutely necessary," Cohen said American space-based plans so far have been a "debacle" that have cost taxpayers more than $50 billion.
Cohen argued that the "Star Wars" plan envisioned by President Ronald Reagan was inherently flawed. Politicians, once again fearing the "n" word, promised that nuclear weapons would not be used in any missile defense system. Cohen contends Reagan received misleading advice that technology was advanced enough to create a non-nuclear missile defense system.
Almost 15 years have passed since Reagan's call for a missile defense system, and still no weapons have been deployed. Cohen said that, had nuclear weapons been used, a fairly inexpensive system could already have been deployed. In such a system, nuclear weapons are exploded high in the atmosphere to either destroy or knock off trajectory incoming missiles. While the radioactive fallout from such explosions would pose some threat to civilian populations, it would be infinitely less harmful than having enemy missiles hit their targets.
Already, Cohen reported, the Russians have a sophisticated nuclear-based missile defense system around Moscow and possibly elsewhere. According to published intelligence reports, in the late 1980s the Russians began developing a "plasma weapon" for missile defenses. The plasma weapon uses nuclear energy to ionize the atmosphere, destroying or rendering inoperable any missiles passing through the plasma field.
SEAPOWER: Cohen said navies have become "obsolete" in terms of global warfare using nuclear weapons, and he described floating ships as "sitting ducks" for nuclear weapons. The U.S. Navy depends on AEGIS missile defense systems to protect its fleets, but Cohen said AEGIS has failed all of its tests, and there is no proof that it could fend off a multi-missile strike against a fleet, let alone a country.
Cohen said the U.S. Navy should put more resources into nuclear-powered submarines because of the difficulty any enemy might have in destroying them in a first strike.
For years, the nuclear submarines were the most important part of our deterrent against surprise nuclear attack, primarily because the submarine captain and crew did not need special codes, known as permissive action links or PALs, to fire their weapons. Thus, if a surprise attack disabled our military communications, the submarine could still counterattack.
In recent years, Cohen said, the Clinton administration has instituted the use of PALs on nuclear missile submarines, limiting their deterrence value.
CHINA: Cohen thinks China will soon be in position to blackmail the United States into reneging on promises to defend Taiwan. Already China has made overt threats about hitting the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons. "China has said, `OK, if you defend Taiwan, we'll drop a nuclear weapon on Los Angeles,'" Cohen said.
In a trip to Taiwan, Cohen spoke before the military leadership there and strongly advised them to begin their own nuclear weapons program. The United States will not defend you because the politicians don't care about you, he told them.
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