by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
American A-10 Warthogs have not and will not shoot any depleted uranium—or DU—ammunition when attacking militants in Iraq and Syria, according to the Pentagon. Humanitarians hope this could be a positive step in getting the military to stop using the toxic material for good.
Four months ago, the U.S. Air Force sent the low- and slow-flying planes to join the air campaign against Islamic State. In the past, the aircraft have gone into battle with a mixed load of DU and more traditional high-explosive rounds for the devastating 30-millimeter Gatling gun.
But “A-10 aircraft [in the region] are not equipped with PGU-14 armor piercing incendiary ammunition,” a public affairs officer for the Pentagon task force in the region confirmed in an email to War Is Boring, using the technical name for the cartridges.
The projectile in each milk-bottle shaped PGU-14 contains a DU dart encased inside a layer of aluminum. This penetrating dart can pierce through tanks and other heavy armored vehicles.
A byproduct of producing fuel for nuclear reactors, DU is cheaper than similarly dense metals like tungsten. Numerous countries have used the material to make both armor-penetrating aircraft and tank ammunition, as well as protective plates.
Despite using the rounds in Iraq in 1991 and 2003, the Air Force has decided not to issue the ammunition in this case. The reasoning is that the Sunni extremists don’t present the same kind of threat.
“The ammunition is developed to destroy tanks on a conventional battlefield,” the public affairs official explained. “Daesh does not possess large numbers of tanks,” the officer added, using a common Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
While the Sunni militants captured various armored vehicles when they routed the Iraqi army in the summer of 2014, the group still relies heavily on unarmored pickup trucks—or technicals—to get around. Along with various guided bombs and missiles, the Warthog’s non-DU exploding shells are more than enough to take care of these trucks.
“U.S. and Coalition aircraft have not been and will not be using depleted uranium munitions in Iraq or Syria during Operation Inherent Resolve,” a Pentagon public relations officer told Joe Dyke, a Beirut-based journalist with the IRIN news service.
Humanitarian groups were happy to hear that.
“PAX is pleased to hear that the Pentagon decided not to use the PGU-14 … in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, after having campaigned for years to put a moratorium on its use and documented the concerns of Iraqi civilians,” said Wim Zwijnenburg, who runs the DU project at the Netherlands-based peace organization.
PAX has become increasingly concerned about the United States using what’s essentially toxic waste as a weapon. Both Iraqi civilians and veterans of the first Gulf War have cited DU as the possible cause of various illnesses and an uptick in birth defects.
All told, experts estimate that American and British troops scattered hundreds of thousands of pounds of the heavy metal in Iraq during two wars.
Today, “the Iraqi government is dealing with the clean-up of contaminated scrap metal, DU shrapnel and contaminated soil,” Zwijnenburg said. “Identification, assessment, clean-up and monitoring … is [a] costly and complex operation, requiring a sufficient amount of expertise and capacity, which usually isn’t available in states affected by armed conflict.”
While DU is radioactive, the metal only generates alpha particles—clothing and the outer layers of human skin can block it. But what’s worrisome is that studies show DU is likely carcinogenic and otherwise toxic to humans, other animals and plants.
After a PGU-14 or similar shell hits its target, it can disperse a cloud of heavy metal particles. And DU is pyrophoric, meaning that it burns when exposed to normal air.
As with asbestos and other carcinogenic materials, people exposed to the resulting dust or fumes—by breathing it in, eating contaminated food or drinking polluted water—might be in danger of developing serious health problems.
Unfortunately, a lack of clear data on how Washington and its allies have used DU rounds in the past makes it difficult for researchers to conclusively determine the facts of the matter. In Iraq, chronic instability has kept scientists from effectively conducting long-term studies.
“There are no accurate statistics about the quantity of these [DU] remnants and they are dealt with by isolating in special locations such as quarries far from residential areas,” stated a section of a 2014 U.N. Environment Programme review on Iraq that PAX cited in its report Laid to Waste.
Until his ouster by America’s “coalition of the willing,” Saddam Hussein regularly used the issue as a propaganda tool to rail against Washington. As a result, the hard science can easily get lost in conspiracy theories, Zwijnenburg lamented.
However, after the U.N. released its review, authorities in Baghdad asked the international organization for help in cleaning up the material. The Non-Aligned Movement—of which Iraq is member—regularly sponsors non-binding resolutions in the U.N. General Assembly calling for an active cleanup plan and increased restrictions on DU-filled weapons.
The Pentagon’s decision not to use DU in the current war may reflect an increasing sensitivity to these issues. The U.S. military also rejected using DU in Libya.
“The Libya intervention 2011, was the ideal case for the A-10 to be used, as [former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi] had a substantial amount of tanks and armored vehicles,” Zwijnenburg noted.
“The A-10s were deployed for a week, but … they were pulled back, most likely also because of concerns raised by a number of states and global civil society that the use of DU was unacceptable.”
But in October 2014, an Air Force official suggested DU rounds could be used against Islamic State, if needed.
“When that order comes, U.S. crews may load PGU-14 depleted uranium rounds into [the] 30-millimeter Gatling cannons,” a member of the Air Force’s 122nd Fighter Wing identified only as “Master Sgt. Hubble” told Al Jazeera. “Should the need arise to explode something—for example a tank—they will be used.”
Regardless, “being a radioactive and toxic heavy metal, with plausible risk of civilian exposure if fired in large amounts in populated areas, we believe that this nuclear waste product doesn’t have a place in conventional weapons,” Zwijnenburg said.
Activists campaigning to get the substance out of war zones for good are still likely to be cautiously optimistic about this news. The Pentagon has no formal plans to eliminate DU ammunition or armor, and continually disagrees about whether the substance is directly responsible for cancers and other health risks.
But at least right now, American officials don’t expect the Warthogs to find themselves fighting off hordes of Islamic State tanks.
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