Nation Topics - Nuclear Arms and Proliferation
News and Features
Nike-Zeus, Nike-X, Sentinel, Safeguard, Star Wars, X-ray lasers, spaced-based neutron particle beams, Brilliant Pebbles, Ground-Based Midcourse National Missile Defense, Midcourse Defense Segment of Missile Defense. Over the past fifty years America has poured approximately $100 billion into these various programs or efforts to shield the country against long-range ballistic missiles. Yet not one has worked. Not one. Nevertheless, except for the constraints imposed by his own "voodoo economics," President George W. Bush appears poised to pursue the development and deployment of a layered missile defense--as a hedge against more failures--that would force taxpayers to cough up as much as another $100 billion. In December Bush formally notified Russia that the United States was withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in order to "develop ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue state missile attacks."
Russian President Vladimir Putin labeled Bush's decision a "mistake," a mild reaction that should not disguise the fact that much of Russia's political elite is seething at the withdrawal. Already smarting from America's broken promise not to expand NATO and the US-led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 (which violated the 1997 "Founding Act" between Russia and NATO), the coincidence of America's success in Afghanistan (obviating the need for further Russian assistance) and withdrawal from the ABM treaty is viewed as yet further evidence of American duplicity.
President Clinton diplomatically explained the Republicans' obsession with missile defense when he observed: "One of the problems they've got is, for so many of their supporters, this is a matter of theology, not evidence. Because President Reagan was once for it, they think it must be right, and they've got to do it, and I think it makes it harder for them to see some of the downsides." That's a nice way of saying that the conservative wing of the Republican Party abounds with missile-defense wackos. I've participated personally in two missile-defense conferences and was astounded by their right-wing, faith-based atmospherics.
Which is why Bradley Graham's engaging narrative of politics and technology during the Clinton years, Hit to Kill: The New Battle Over Shielding America From Missile Attack, seems destined for popular success, notwithstanding its serious conceptual limitations. Graham ably recounts the excessive exuberance of Republicans as they schemed to realize their missile-defense dreams. But he is equally critical of the Clinton Administration's attempt to actually build a missile defense: its "three-plus-three" ground-based midcourse program.
Offered in the spring of 1996, in part to undercut the Republicans, "three-plus-three" provided for three (or four) years of development, after which, if then technologically feasible and warranted by a threat, there would be deployment within another three years. In early 1998, however, a sixteen-member panel, led by retired Air Force chief of staff Larry Welch, condemned the plan as a "rush to failure."
But two overdramatized events later that year demanded even greater urgency. In July, the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, led by Donald Rumsfeld, asserted that America's intelligence agencies had woefully underestimated the capability of "rogue" regimes, such as those leading North Korea and Iran, to attack US territory with ballistic missiles within five years. It concluded: "The threat to the United States posed by these emerging capabilities is broader, more mature, and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the intelligence community."
When North Korea subsequently launched a three-stage Taepodong 1 missile past Japan in August 1998, many Americans put aside not only their qualms about the role Representatives Curt Weldon and Newt Gingrich had played in creating the commission, but also their suspicions about the blatantly pro-missile defense bias of most of its members. Although Graham generally portrays the commission's deliberations as unbiased, he does provide evidence that some of its briefers were not.
For example, one intelligence official betrayed visible irritation during his briefing of commission members, prompting General Welch to ask, "You're not happy to be here, are you?" The official replied, "No, I'm not. I'm ticked off that I have to come down and brief a bunch of wacko missile-defense advocates." His outburst infuriated Rumsfeld, who "stalked" out of the room.
Nevertheless, Rumsfeld's report and the launch of North Korea's missile frightened Americans and galvanized Republicans. Graham's investigative reporting gets inside the subsequent political war waged against a Clinton Administration that, itself, was slowly awakening to the possibility of a more imminent ballistic missile threat.
Graham brings an open mind to the hotly disputed technological merits of missile defense. Nevertheless, he cannot avoid the conclusion that George W. Bush's decision to expand missile defense beyond Clinton's ground-based midcourse program constitutes an acknowledgment that, after fifty years, "military contractors had yet to figure out how best to mount a national missile defense."
In theory, a ballistic missile can be intercepted during its comparatively slow, if brief, "boost phase," before its "payload"--warheads, decoys and debris--is released. Speed is of the essence during the boost phase. So is proximity to the target. According to Philip Coyle, former director of the Pentagon's Office of Operational Test and Evaluation, "The process of detection and classification of enemy missiles must begin within seconds, and intercept must occur within only a few minutes. In some scenarios, the reaction time to intercept can be less than 120 seconds."
Compounding concerns about boost-phase intercepts are questions about the ability of an interceptor to distinguish quickly between a missile's flame and the missile itself. Finally, boost-phase missile-defense platforms would invite pre-emptive attacks against those platforms by any state bold (and foolish) enough to launch ballistic missiles.
The "terminal phase" of ballistic missile flight is the final minute or two when the payload re-enters the atmosphere. Detection of the warhead is comparatively simple, but designing a missile fast enough to catch it and hit it--given the problems associated with sensor degradation in intense heat--is extremely difficult. Countermeasures, such as maneuvering capability or precursor explosions, would further complicate defensive efforts. Finally a terminal-phase missile defense can, by definition, protect only a limited area, perhaps one city. Thus, many such systems would be required.
The "midcourse phase" of ballistic missile flight is the period during which the payload is dispersed in space. It remains there more than 80 percent of the missile's total flight time. The Clinton Administration's ground-based midcourse program (continued by the Bush Administration) is designed to strike the warhead in space with a high-speed, maneuverable kill vehicle--thus Graham's title: Hit to Kill.
Easily the most developed of all programs, as recently as December 3, 2001, the midcourse program demonstrated the awesome technological feat of destroying a warhead hurtling through space--hitting a bullet with a bullet. Yet such a feat constitutes but the commencement of an arduous technological journey, not its endpoint.
As a "Working Paper" issued recently under the auspices of the Union of Concerned Scientists noted, America's ground-based midcourse program has not been subjected to real-world tests. Five hit-to-kill tests have resulted in three hits. But each test: (1) used identical test geometrics (the location of launches, trajectories of target and interceptor missiles); (2) released the same objects (payload bus, warhead and decoy); (3) occurred at the same time of day; (4) made the lone decoy obviously and consistently different from the warhead; (5) told the defense system what to look for in advance; (6) attempted intercept at an unrealistically low closing speed; (7) kept the target cluster sufficiently compact to aid the kill vehicle's field of view; and (8) provided the kill vehicle with unduly accurate artificial tracking data.
Any ground-based midcourse missile defense system has to contend with virtually insurmountable countermeasures, especially the decoys that, in space, are quite indistinguishable from the warheads. Yet the three successful hits did not have to contend with even the countermeasures that a missile from a "rogue" regime would probably employ.
A National Intelligence Estimate in 1999 determined that "countermeasures would be available to emerging missile states." In April 2000 a "Countermeasures" study group from the Union of Concerned Scientists and the MIT Security Studies Program concluded: "Even the full [National Missile Defense] system would not be effective against an attacker using countermeasures, and an attacker could deploy such countermeasures before even the first phase of the NMD system was operational." Consequently, "it makes no sense to begin deployment."
Craig Eisendrath, Melvin Goodman and Gerald Marsh (Eisendrath and Goodman are senior fellows with the Center for International Policy in Washington; Marsh is a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory) state the problem even more starkly in their recent book The Phantom Defense: America's Pursuit of the Star Wars Illusion: "This is the bottom line: the problem isn't technology, it's physics. Decoys and warheads can always be made to emit almost identical signals in the visible, infrared, and radar bands; their signatures can be made virtually the same."
If such information troubles Defense Department officials responsible for missile defense, they seldom admit it publicly. However, they're not nearly as irresponsible as the political and "scholarly" cheerleaders who remain unmoved by a half-century of failure and the physics of countermeasures. I encountered one of them last June at a missile defense conference in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.
Representative Weldon delivered the conference's keynote address to more than 220 participants from the Defense Department, the military industry, think tanks, various universities and the press. Weldon is the author of HR 4, legislation that made it "the policy of the United States to deploy a national missile defense." (Senator Carl Levin was able to add amendments to the Senate bill on missile defense that made the program dependent upon the annual budget process and tied it to retention of the ABM treaty; Weldon referred to the amendments as cowardice. Nevertheless, they remained in the Missile Defense Act that President Clinton signed on July 22, 1999.)
Weldon told the audience that the United States requires a missile-defense system to protect its citizens from an intentional missile attack by a "rogue" regime presumably undeterred by the prospect of an overwhelming American nuclear retaliation. He even displayed an accelerometer and a gyroscope, Russian missile components allegedly bound for a "rogue." He then displayed an enlarged, poster-size photograph of Russia's SS-25 ICBM. Russia possesses more than 400 such missiles, he asserted, and any one of them might be launched accidentally against the United States, given Russia's deteriorating command and control capabilities.
It was a "no-brainer." Both threats demanded that America build a national missile defense system, capable of intercepting such missiles, as soon as possible.
However, when I asked Congressman Weldon to shift from the SS-25 and contemplate whether his modest missile-defense system could prevent the penetration of an accidentally launched TOPOL-M ICBM from Russia, he responded, "I don't know. That's a question you should ask General Kadish during tomorrow's session." Extending the reasoning, I asked Weldon whether his modest missile-defense system could shield America against a missile, launched by a rogue regime, that was capable of TOPOL-M countermeasures. Weldon again answered that he did not know. But rather than let such doubts linger at a conference designed to celebrate missile defense, Kurt Strauss, director of naval and missile defense systems at Raytheon, rose to deny that Russia possessed such countermeasures.
Presumably, Strauss was unaware of the work of Nikolai Sokov, a former Soviet arms control adviser and author of Russian Strategic Modernization: Past and Future. Sokov claims that the TOPOL-M features a booster intended to reduce the duration and altitude of the boost phase, numerous decoys and penetration aids, a hardened warhead and a "side anti-missile maneuver."
Strauss's uninformed denial hints at a much bigger problem, however: the prevalence of advertising over objectivity in a society where the commercialization of war and the cult of technology have reached historic proportions. In The Pursuit of Power historian William McNeill traces the commercialization of war back to mercenary armies in fourteenth-century Italy, pointing out the "remarkable merger of market and military behavior." And Victor Davis Hanson, in Carnage and Culture, sees much the same reason behind the decimation of the Turkish fleet, some two centuries later, by the Christian fleet at Lepanto--"there was nothing in Asia like the European marketplace of ideas devoted to the pursuit of ever more deadly weapons." McNeill concludes that "the arms race that continues to strain world balances...descends directly from the intense interaction in matters military that European states and private entrepreneurs inaugurated during the fourteenth century."
Post-cold war America, virtually alone, luxuriates in this dubious tradition. Yet it was no less than Dwight Eisenhower who warned America in his farewell address: "This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence--economic, political, even spiritual--is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the federal government."
Who could have been surprised, then, when Matthew Evangelista conclusively demonstrated, in Innovation and the Arms Race (1988), that commercial opportunities within America's military-industrial complex, much more than any Soviet threat, propelled innovation--and, thus, most of the arms race with the Soviet Union. A year later, the highly respected defense analyst Jacques Gansler identified the uniquely American "technological imperative" of commercialized warfare: "Because we can have it, we must have it." Such impulses caused the United States to run profligate arms races with itself both during and after the cold war. They also explain America's post-cold war adherence to cold war levels of military expenditures and, in part, our missile-defense obsession today.
This technological imperative had its origins in America's "exceptional" historical experience, which it continues to serve. Indeed, so the argument goes, Why should a country on a mission from God sully itself with arms control agreements and other compromises with lesser nations, when its technological prowess will provide its people with the invulnerability necessary for the unimpeded, unilateral fulfillment of their historic destiny?
Such technological utopianism, however, has its costs. In their book The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050, MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray demonstrate the very secondary role that technology has played in past military revolutions. They conclude: "The past thus suggests that pure technological developments without the direction provided by a clear strategic context can easily lead in dangerous directions: either toward ignoring potential enemy responses, or--even more dangerously--into the dead end, graphically illustrated by the floundering of U.S. forces in Vietnam, of a technological sophistication irrelevant to the war actually being fought." (In Hit to Kill, Graham has little to say about military strategy or the commercialization of warfare.)
In hawking a missile defense shield, Representative Weldon traveled in the first dangerous direction when he assured the defense conferees that although Congress was not ignoring the threat posed by terrorists with truck bombs, "when Saddam Hussein chose to destroy American lives, he did not pick a truck bomb. He did not pick a chemical agent. He picked a SCUD missile.... The weapon of choice is the missile."
Unfortunately, on September 11, America learned that it is not.
Potentially worse, however, is the Reaganesque theology propelling the Bush Administration's decision to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. Putting aside the question of whether withdrawal requires formal Congressional approval and other questions of international relations, one must ask why any administration would destroy the cornerstone of strategic stability. The ban on national missile defenses not only prevents a defensive arms race but also obviates the need to build more offensive missiles to overload the enemy's. Why would a country withdraw from the ABM treaty without knowing whether its own missile-defense system will even work, and before conducting all the tests permitted by the treaty that would provide greater confidence in the system's ultimate success?
Readers of Keith Payne's recent book The Fallacies of Cold War Deterrence and a New Direction, might guess the probable answer. Payne, chosen by the Bush Administration to help shape the Defense Department's recently completed but still classified Nuclear Posture Review, writes about a new, post-cold war "effective deterrence," to which even an imperfect missile-defense system might contribute: "In the Cold War, the West held out the threat of nuclear escalation if the Soviet Union projected force into NATO Europe; in the post-Cold War period it will be regional aggressors threatening Washington with nuclear escalation in the event the United States needs to project force into their regional neighborhoods.... In short, Washington will want effective deterrence in regional crises where the challenger is able to threaten WMD [weapons of mass destruction] escalation and it is more willing to accept risk and cost."
The real concern, then, is less about protecting America from sneak attacks by rogue states ruled by madmen, and more about preserving our unilateral options to intervene throughout much of the world. Thus, President Bush's speech at The Citadel in December was disingenuous. His rhetorical question asking what if the terrorists had been able to strike with a ballistic missile was primarily an attempt to steamroller frightened Americans into supporting missile defense. The speech simply seized upon the wartime danger to compel a military transformation that has been debated for almost a decade and resisted by the services and the military industry since the beginning of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's tenure.
Lest we forget, China hasn't disappeared either. Its muted criticism of America's withdrawal from the ABM treaty was accompanied by a call for talks to achieve "a solution that safeguards the global strategic balance and doesn't harm international efforts at arms control and disarmament." Failing such talks, China may feel compelled to increase its offensive arsenal to insure penetration of an American missile defense, which could provoke India, and consequently Pakistan--perhaps rekindling tensions that have already brought them to the brink of war.
Russia, for its part, believes it has little to fear from America's current missile-defense programs but is awaiting the inevitable: the moment when the technological utopians push America to expand its modest system into a full-blown shield. How will Russia respond then?
To court such reactions by withdrawing from the ABM treaty before even testing against decoys is pure strategic illiteracy--which only a Reaganesque theology (founded on exceptionalism, commercialized militarism, technological utopianism and righteous unilateralism) shrouded by the "fog of war" might explain.
The Bush administration's abandonment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was a win for Rumsfeld's Defense Department—but it could be an obstacle for the State Department.
The Price Anderson Act has discouraged the development of safer, less costly sources of energy than nuclear power. Join your voice to those calling for Congress to not renew its status by signing this online petition.
Focusing on Osama bin Laden obscures the true nature of our position in a dangerous world.
It fails to bring the country to a safer and saner position on nuclear power.
The "war on terror" is causing an escalation of retaliatory thinking.
"Nuclear Safety" by Matt Bivens.
Annihilation and the Ways of Peace
It is about two feet long, cylindrical and far denser than steel. When fired from a U.S. Army M1 Abrams tank, it is capable of drilling a hole through the strongest of tank armors. The makers of this tank-killing ammunition say it is the best in the world. But there is one problem with the Pentagon's super bullet: It is made of radioactive waste.
The first time the Army used this "depleted uranium" (D.U.) ammunition on a battlefield was during the Gulf War, in 1991. Yet despite Pentagon assurances that only a small number of U.S. troops were exposed to dangerous levels of D.U., a two-month investigation by The Nation has discovered that hundreds and perhaps thousands of U.S. veterans were unknowingly exposed to potentially hazardous levels of depleted uranium, or uranium-238, in the Persian Gulf. Some soldiers inhaled it when they pulled wounded comrades from tanks hit by D.U. "friendly fire" or when they clambered into destroyed Iraqi vehicles. Others picked up expended rounds as war trophies. Thousands of other Americans were near accidental explosions of D.U. munitions.
The Army never told combat engineer Dwayne Mowrer or his fellow soldiers in the First Infantry Division much about D.U. But the G.I.s learned how effective the radioactive rounds were as the "Big Red One" made its way up the carnage-ridden four-lane Kuwaiti road known as the "highway of death." Mowrer and his company saw the unique signature of a D.U. hit on nearly half the disabled Iraqi vehicles encountered. "It leaves a nice round hole, almost like someone had welded it out," Mowrer recalled.
What Mowrer and others didn't know was that D.U. is highly toxic and, according to the Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety, can cause lung cancer, bone cancer and kidney disease. All they heard were rumors.
"Once in a while you'd hear some guy say 'Hey, I heard those things were radioactive,'" Mowrer said. "Of course, everybody else says, 'Yeah, right!' We really thought we were in the new enlightened Army. We thought all that Agent Orange stuff and human radiation experiments were a thing of the past."
So Mowrer and his comrades didn't worry when a forty-ton HEMTT transport vehicle packed with D.U. rounds accidentally exploded near their camp. "We heard this tremendous boom and saw this black cloud blowing our way," he said. "The cloud went right over us, blew right over our camp."
Before they left the gulf, Mowrer and other soldiers in the 651st Combat Support Attachment began experiencing strange flulike symptoms. He figured the symptoms would fade once he was back in the United States. They didn't. Mowrer's personal doctor and physicians at the local Veterans Administration could find nothing wrong with him. Meanwhile, his health worsened: fatigue, memory loss, bloody noses and diarrhea. Then the single parent of two began experiencing problems with motor skills, bloody stools, bleeding gums, rashes and strange bumps on his eyelids, nose and tongue. Mowrer thinks his problems can be traced to his exposure to D.U.
The Pentagon says problems like Mowrer's could not have been caused by D.U., a weapon that many Americans have heard mentioned, if at all, only in the movie Courage Under Fire, which was based on a real-life D.U. friendly-fire incident. The Defense Department insists that D.U. radiation is relatively harmless--only about 60 percent as radioactive as regular uranium. When properly encased, D.U. gives off so little radiation, the Pentagon says, that a soldier would have to sit surrounded by it for twenty hours to get the equivalent radiation of one chest X-ray. (According to scientists, a D.U. antitank round outside its metal casing can emit as much radiation in one hour as fifty chest X-rays.) Plus, the military brass argues that D.U. rounds so effectively destroyed Iraqi tanks that the weapons saved many more U.S. lives than radiation from them could possibly endanger.
But the Pentagon has a credibility gap. For years, it has denied that U.S. soldiers in the Persian Gulf were exposed to chemical weapons. In September Pentagon officials admitted that troops were exposed when they destroyed Iraqi stores of chemical weapons, as Congress held hearings on "Gulf War Syndrome." The Pentagon also argued, in its own defense, that exposure to chemical weapons could not fully explain the diverse range of illnesses that have plagued thousands of soldiers who served in the Persian Gulf. Exposure to D.U.--our own weaponry, in other words--could well be among the missing links.
Scientists point out that D.U. becomes much more dangerous when it burns. When fired, it combusts on impact. As much as 70 percent of the material is released as a radioactive and highly toxic dust that can be inhaled or ingested and then trapped in the lungs or kidneys. "This is when it becomes most dangerous," says Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. "It becomes a powder in the air that can irradiate you." Some scientists speculate that veterans' health problems stem from exposure to chemical agents combined with D.U., burning oil-field vapors and a new nerve-gas vaccine given to U.S. troops. "We know that depleted uranium is toxic and can cause diseases," said Dr. Howard Urnovitz, a microbiologist who has testified before the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses. "We also know these soldiers were exposed to large amounts of nerve-gas agents. What we don't know is how the combination of these toxic and radioactive materials affect the immune system."
Exactly how many U.S. soldiers were exposed to dangerous levels of D.U. during the Gulf War remains in dispute. Friendly-fire incidents left at least twenty-two veterans with D.U. shrapnel embedded in their bodies. The Veterans Administration is also monitoring the health of eleven more soldiers who were in tanks hit by D.U. but who were not hit by shrapnel, and twenty-five soldiers who helped prepare D.U.-contaminated tanks for shipment back to the United States without being told of the risk. The tanks were later buried in a radioactive waste disposal site run by the Energy Department.
The Nation investigation has also discovered that the average infantry soldier is still receiving no training on how to protect against exposure to D.U., although such training was called for by an Army report on depleted uranium completed in June 1995. On the training lapses, the Pentagon does acknowledge past mistakes. Today the Army is providing new training in D.U. safety procedures for more soldiers, particularly members of armor, ordnance or medical teams that handle D.U. on a routine basis. "I feel confident that if an individual soldier has a need to know, they will be provided that training from the basic level on," Army Col. H.E. Wolfe told The Nation. But Wolfe confirmed that even now, not all infantry will get D.U. training.
Although the full hazards of these weapons are still not known, the law allows the President to waive restrictions on the sale of D.U. to foreign armies. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Pentagon has already sold the radioactive ammunition to Thailand, Taiwan, Bahrain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Korea, Turkey, Kuwait and other countries which the Pentagon will not disclose for national security reasons. The proliferation of D.U. ammunition around the world boosts the chances that U.S. soldiers will eventually be on the receiving end of the devastating weapon.
A broad coalition of veterans organizations, environmental groups and scientists hope that won't happen. On September 12, they met in NewYork to kick off a campaign calling for an international ban on D.U. weapons. Even the conservative-minded Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion recently passed resolutions calling on the Defense Department to reconsider its use of the controversial weapon.
"Clearly the Department of Defense hasn't thought through the use of D.U. on the battlefield and what kind of exposures they are subjecting our troops to," charged Matt Puglisi, the assistant director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation for the American Legion. "It is a very effective weapon, which is why the D.O.D. really doesn't want to see it re-examined. We only spent a couple of days [in winning the Gulf War]. But what if we had a fight that took years and years? We could have tens of thousands of vets with D.U. shrapnel in them."
The Gulf War Test
The U.S. Army began introducing D.U. ammo into its stockpiles in 1978, when the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in intense competition over which side would develop the most effective tank. Washington feared that the Soviets with their T-72 had jumped ahead in the development of armor that was nearly impenetrable by traditional weapons. It was thought that D.U. rounds could counter the improved Soviet armor. But not until Iraq's Soviet-supplied army invaded oil-rich Kuwait and President Bush sent an expeditionary force of 500,000 to dislodge it was there a chance to battle-test the D.U. rounds.
American M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers fired D.U. rounds; the A-10 Warthog aircraft, which provided close support for combat troops, fired twin 30-millimeter guns with small-caliber D.U. bullets. All told, in the 100 hours of the February ground war, U.S. tanks fired at least 14,000 large-caliber D.U. rounds, and U.S. planes some 940,000 smaller-caliber rounds. D.U. rounds left about 1,400 Iraqi tanks smoldering in the desert. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf recalled one commander saying his unit "went through a whole field of burning Iraqi tanks."
The D.U. weapons succeeded beyond the Pentagon's wildest dreams. But they received little public attention compared with the fanfare over other high-tech weapons: smart bombs, stealth fighters and Patriot missiles (which looked good, even if they didn't, as it turned out, work). D.U., perhaps the most effective new weapon of them all, was mentioned only in passing. "People have a fear of radioactivity and radioactive materials," explained Dan Fahey, a former Navy officer who served in the gulf. "The Army seems to think that if they are going to keep using D.U., the less they tell people about it the better."
As the U.S.-led coalition forces swept to victory, many celebrating G.I.s scrambled onto--or into--disabled Iraqi vehicles. "When you get a lot of soldiers out on a battlefield, they are going to be curious," observed Chris Kornkven, a staff sergeant with the 304th Combat Support Company. "The Gulf War was the first time we saw Soviet tanks. Many of us started climbing around these destroyed vehicles." Indeed, a study by the Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm Association found that out of 10,051 Gulf War veterans who have reported mysterious illnesses, 82 percent had entered captured enemy vehicles.
Other soldiers might have been exposed to harmful levels of D.U. as they rescued comrades from vehicles hit by friendly fire. A Gulf War photo book, Triumph in the Desert, contains one dramatic picture of soldiers pulling wounded Americans from the burning hull of an Abrams tank that had been hit by a D.U. round. Black smoke from the depleted-uranium explosion billows around the rescuers. Still other G.I.s picked up fragments of large-caliber D.U. rounds or unexploded small rounds and wore them as jewelry, hung around the soldiers' necks. "We didn't know any better," said Kornkven. "We didn't find out until long after we were home that there even was such a thing as D.U."
But the Americans facing perhaps the greatest risk from D.U. were those who had been hit by D.U. shrapnel, especially those still carrying radioactive fragments in their bodies. Robert Sanders, who drove a tank, was one apparent casualty. On the third day of the ground war, his tank was hit by a D.U. round fired from another U.S. tank. "I had stinging pain in my shoulder and a stinging pain in my face from shrapnel," Sanders said.
Military doctors removed the shrapnel. Several years later, however, Sanders heard that D.U. was radioactive and toxic, so he obtained his medical records. He found an interdepartmental fax saying doctors had removed bits of an "unknown metal" from his shoulder and that it was "probably D.U." Four years after he was wounded, Sanders took a urine test for depleted uranium, which revealed high levels of it in his system. The Pentagon had never made an effort to tell him of his likely exposure.
Even the end of the ground war on February 28, 1991, did not end the threat of exposure to U.S. soldiers. Government documents reveal that in one accident alone, at a camp at Doha, about twelve miles from Kuwait City, as many as 660 rounds weighing 7,062 pounds burned, releasing dark clouds of D.U. particles. Many of the 3,000 U.S. troops stationed at the base participated in cleanup operations without protective gear and without knowledge of the potential dangers.
At war's end, U.S. forces left behind about 300 tons of expended D.U. ammunition in Kuwait and Iraq, a veritable radioactive waste dump that could haunt inhabitants of the region for years. In August 1995, Iraq presented a study to the United Nations demonstrating sharp increases in leukemia and other cancers as well as other unexplained diseases around the Basra region in the country's south. Iraqi scientists attributed some of the cancers to depleted uranium.
Some U.S. officials and scientists have questioned the Iraqi claims. But former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who has made two recent trips to Iraq, observes that "the health ministry and doctors particularly in Basra and the south are terribly concerned about a range of problems that were not experienced before: fetuses with tumors, high rates of leukemia." And a secret British Atomic Energy Authority report leaked to the London Independent in November 1991 warned that there was enough depleted uranium left behind in the Persian Gulf to account for "500,000 potential deaths" through increased cancer rates, although it noted that such a figure was an unlikely, worst-case scenario. That figure was based on an estimate that only forty tons of D.U. was left behind.
Another study, by Siegwart Gunther, president of the Austrian chapter of Yellow Cross International, reported that D.U. projectiles "were gathered by children and used as toys." The study noted that a little girl who collected twelve of the projectiles died of leukemia. Gunther collected some D.U. rounds in southern Iraq and took them to Germany for analysis. However, when Gunther entered Germany, the D.U. rounds were seized. The authorities claimed that just one projectile emitted more radiation in five hours than is allowed per year under German regulations.
Cleaning up the radioactive mess in the Persian Gulf would cost "billions," even if it were feasible, said Leonard Dietz, an atomic scientist who wrote a report on depleted uranium for the Energy Department. But the Pentagon maintained in a report that "no international law, treaty, regulation, or custom requires the U.S. to remediate Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm battlefields."
Those who suggest otherwise have found that they must fight the military industry as well as the Pentagon. In January 1993 Eric Hoskins, a public health specialist who surveyed Iraq as a member of a Harvard team, wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times warning that D.U. may be causing health problems in Iraqi children. A few weeks later a harsh letter to the editor accused Hoskins of "making readers of limited scientific literacy the lawful prey of his hyperbole," which reaches the "bizarre conclusion that the environmental aftermath of the Persian Gulf war is not Iraq's fault, but ours!" The author, Russell Seitz, was identified as an associate with the "Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University."
Though the letter appeared to be the work of a neutral scientist, the Olin Institute at Harvard was established by the John M. Olin Foundation, which grew out of the manufacturing fortune created by the Olin Corporation, currently the nation's only maker of D.U. antitank rounds. Seitz did not answer a request from The Nation seeking comment.
Despite the Pentagon's love affair with D.U., there is an alternative--tank ammunition made from tungsten. Matt Kagan, a former munitions analyst for Jane's Defence Weekly, said the latest developments in tungsten technology have made it "almost as effective as D.U." That assessment is shared by Bill Arkin, a columnist for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists who has consulted on D.U. for Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch. "It comes down to this," Arkin said. "Is there a logical alternative that provides the same military capability and doesn't leave us with this legacy? The answer is yes, tungsten."
But tungsten is more expensive and must be imported, while the United States has more than 500,000 tons of depleted uranium, waste left behind by the production of nuclear weapons and by nuclear generators. Scientists have long looked for a way to re-use what otherwise must be stored at great expense in remote sites.
"It's just a cost issue," argued Arkin. "But nobody ever thought through what would happen when we shoot a lot of this stuff around the battlefield. It's not a question of whether a thousand soldiers were exposed or fifty soldiers were exposed. We were probably lucky in the Gulf War. What happens when we're fighting a war that makes the Gulf War look like small potatoes?"
Facebook Like Box