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Ah, the neutron bomb; that miracle of modern science and engineering. Supposedly, a detonated neutron bomb has negligible if any explosive force but instead emits a pulse of deadly, somewhat non-specific radiation, that leaves things like buildings alone but kills everyone dead. That way, one can rid an area of some inconvenient group while still maintaining high property values. No issues with radioactive contamination/cleanup, either.
The truth is very different. The Neutron Bomb is unique, and controversial, in that while other nuclear weapons indirectly generated radioactive fallout that could cause negative health effects, the Neutron Bomb was the first weapon to be specifically designed to use radiation to kill people. Although it differed from the inventor's original conception (a Samuel Cohen) the neutron bomb, as designed and built, was just a fancy tactical thermonuclear warhead. That's right; thermonuclear. It was a very small fusion bomb. However, while more conventional thermonuclear bombs have radiation casings which reflect neutrons back into the secondary and increase the explosive yield, a neutron bomb lacks this radiation casing; the neutrons are just allowed to escape. They don't contribute to increasing the explosive yield, so that's relatively small; a neutron bomb will have an explosive yield of a few kilotons at most, although that still exceeds most conventional bombs by several orders of magnitude and is quite devastating. However, it means a particularly intense and deadly pulse of highly-penetrating immediate neutron radiation. Why would someone be interested in such a thing? It turns out that main battle tanks are surprisingly resistant to the blast and heat effects from a nuclear explosion, especially from a small tactical device. Both sides would probably limit themselves to relatively small devices for tactical use, mainly because they'd want to avoid collateral damage to their own forces, who'd be present in close proximity. However, with the neutron radiation increased (the technical term for a neutron bomb is "enhanced-radiation warhead") they can penetrate MBT armor and kill the crews inside.
The Cold War applications are obvious: nuking population centers is not such a great land-grab method, but deploying tanks is, and Russia had plenty of tanks.
Now, Cohen's original vision was for a similar device; presumably it would be somewhat larger and emit more neutron radiation. The burst parameters (yield, height of burst, etc.) would be carefully managed to minimize damage on the surface; however, the neutron bomb would emit enough of a pulse of radiation that it would kill everything on the ground in a substantial radius from the hypocenter. Cohen intended this to be a humanitarian weapon; civilians could retreat into underground shelters and be protected and when they emerged, although they'd find a lot of dead plants and animals, they wouldn't have to cope with as much in the way of devastation. The soldiers, though, wouldn't have that option, and would be killed; so, this was supposed to be a discriminate, humanitarian weapon. There are some doubts about its effectiveness, though; it would have to be detonated at high altitude to minimize explosive damage effects, but at such a high altitude the atmosphere might absorb most of the neutrons before they could reach the surface and do their work. Cohen made some claims to the contrary, but he's a little, well...credibility-wise, he could use some work in some respects. In addition, Soviet tanks were up-armoured to counter the potential threat of such a weapon before any neutron bomb was ever tested, let alone fielded. Then again, much of the armor for tanks is depleted uranium, which is worse than useless at stopping fusion neutrons. It'll absorb the neutrons, all right, but in doing so, the U-238 nuclei will fast fission, which will actually increase the dose received by the crew.
- Well, American armor. Soviet tank designers didn't use depleted uranium in their armor, instead going for tungsten, which is similarly hard and dense, but much less toxic and basically shrugs neutrons off. It doesn't offer much protection from them, true, but it doesn't get activated by them as well. Neutrons are effectively absorbed (without much activation) by hydrogen atoms, so plastics make a good neutron shields, so Soviet tanks had thick polythene covers under their armor, that also doubled as an anti-spalling layer. As their efficiency in that department left much to be desired, and neutron bombs fell out of favor, these were replaced by the more conventional kevlar ones.
- The reasoning behind putting fuel tanks in the sides and doors of certain Soviet APC and AFV designs was supposedly neutron protection. Armor is bad at stopping neutrons, but hydrogen-heavy diesel fuel excels at it.
There was also the concern that given the nature of radiation poisoning there would have been a significant amount of 'walking ghost' cases who would remain functional for few days but whose eventual death was certain. Studies showed such troops would most likely react by attacking ferociously, attempting to do as much damage to the enemy as possible before they succumbed to their fate.
The Soviet Union described the Neutron Bomb as "a capitalist weapon" because it was designed to destroy people while preserving their property. (And because they didn't have one of their own.)
- In the Trigun anime, Knives' weapon is apparently one (or at least its fictional version), making the whole population of a town disappear without trace but everything else is intact. Vash's one is the opposite, destroying everything when activated but living things - but Vash himself doesn't know it (not like people usually survive much there after the town is hit with it anyway).
- A Treehouse of Horror short on The Simpsons had Homer the apparent sole survivor of a French neutron bomb detonation ("Le Bomb Neutron"), and enjoying his hedonistic isolation until the requisite nuclear mutant cannibals showed up. The reason for the Bomb? Mayor Quimby made one too many frog jokes.
- There is a noticeable bang and cloud, which adds a little to the realism factor.
- The film Repo Man revolves around a car with one of these in the trunk. Or maybe shrimp-aliens who vaporize people. Or David Bowman. Or some combination of the three.
- The French movie Banlieue 13 had one stolen by criminals and kept in the slums of future Paris. The bomb has a fail-deadly feature of detonating after 24 hours unless the heroes storm the castle and disarm it. Some politicians let the bomb get stolen so that when it blew up, it would take out the slums and most of the criminals in Paris. The disarm code given to the heroes actually arms it. They figure it out in time.
- In David Graham's Down To A Sunless Sea, in addition to several countries throwing nuclear weapons at each other, a major military base on an island is apparently the target of a neutron bomb. Some people show up and supposedly all the buildings, equipment and structures are intact, it's just that everything living is dead. Apparently nothing is alive above ground, not even worms, because the pulse killed everything, to a distance of ten feet below ground. The only survivor was a man who was in the vault of the military base, 60 feet underground, at the instant of the blast.
- In Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl, the incredibly technologically-advanced fairies have a neutron bomb known as a "blue rinse". It can destroy all life in an area and leave every non-biological thing intact. It's also remarkable in that it can be tuned to a blast range of centimeters, if not millimeters.
- This is partially due to the fictional element solinium not to mention the fairies' time-stop capabilities. Essentially, because the blue-rinse detonated in an isolated area of time-space, everything outside it remained unharmed while everything inside died horribly.
- In The Survivalist series by Jerry Ahern, the Soviets use a neutron bomb on Chicago so that they'll have an intact city from which they can direct the occupation of America.
- In the Red Dwarf novel Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, the radiation leak that kills the crew is described as being equivalent to a neutron bomb.
The ship remained structurally undamaged, but in 0.08 seconds, everyone on the engineering levels was dead.
- The Kurt Vonnegut novel Deadeye Dick revisits "Midland City", the terminally dull town from Breakfast of Champions, and destroys it with a neutron bomb. (Vonnegut admits in his introduction that the way he wrote it isn't the way that a neutron bomb would actually work, but is based instead on pipe-dreams of Cold War strategists.)
- In the Dale Brown novel Chains Of Command, Russia's campaign to reconquer the Ukraine begins with a bombardment of neutron bombs against the main Ukrainian Air Force bases, killing three-quarters of the pilots, thousands of civilians, and destroying the bulk of the aircraft. In this case, the weapon was selected to take out an air base with one shot (impossible with conventional weapons) while leaving the cities a couple of miles away mostly unscathed (impossible with a full-scale nuclear bomb). The bases themselves were leveled.
- In the foreword of a later edition of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley mentioned that he had thought about such a weapon that'd kill all the people but leave the great artworks of mankind intact.
- Used rather inaccurately in an episode of Alias, where one only killed people in its immediate area, but left everything else unharmed.
- A similar device is used in the Doctor Who story "Timelash".
- In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Chain of Command," Captain Picard is sent to investigate suspicions that the Cardassians are developing a metagenic weapon, which is a virus capable of destroying all life on a planet within days, dissipates in less than a month leaving all the planet's technology intact.
- A similar device is mentioned in Firefly, where a antique-loving warlord used them to kill people and leave their property.
- Implicitly used in Battlestar Galactica, as part of the Cylon plan to preserve cities such as Delphi for re-settlement. That said, the level of damage varies. Over the course of the series, we see cities that are completely destroyed, cities that are damaged and cities where not even the windows are cracked.
- Used in "Kill The Poor" by Dead Kennedys, where the rich get together and do just as suggested by the song title.
- Another punk band, the Weirdos, did a song called "We Got the Neutron Bomb".
- Command and Conquer: Generals gives you the option to use neutron warheads which kill the crew of enemy vehicles while leaving the vehicles themselves undamaged or nearly undamaged, so that you can take them over for your own side. There are also neutron land mines.
- The plot of Metal Gear Acid 2 revolves around a terrorist who wants to detonate a neutron bomb, so as to wipe out civilians, but leave the infrastructure of the world's technology (such as the Internet) intact.
- Perfect Dark has the N-Bomb, a grenade designed to explode in a sphere of darkness rather than fire so that it kills anyone in the blast zone and leaves their supplies behind.
- The Prothean VI in the From Ashes DLC authorizes a Neutron Bombardment against Reaper forces to cover his creators' retreat into stasis pods inside a bunker. This makes questionable amount of sense - while the EMP from such a weapon could very well kill the Reapers, anything that could kill a robot spaceship cthulhu in that way would be equally effective against things like power systems in bunkers, as the inhabitants discovered. Or didn't, since the VI managing power decided that the only hope for any survival was to try and keep one of them alive.