Another important characteristic of DU ammo is that it dramatically increases the lethal range of conventional weaponry. For lower caliber weapons (such as heavy machine guns fired from the BAV or aircraft), DU rounds can be lethal from up to 8km.10 On larger caliber heavy weapons (such as tanks), DU rounds can easily destroy an enemy tank from 3-5km.1 However, a cautious note, circumstantial evidence suggests that DU exhibits harmful radiological, chemical, and biological effects (which will be discussed later on in this paper). But for now, keep in mind that DU is extremely toxic and still contains much of the radiation that natural uranium has. For example, US Army field manuals indicate that those who handle DU contaminated vehicles or DU injured individuals must wear gas masks and protective radiological suits.14f There are at least 15-17 countries that currently possess DU ammunition (e.g. US, Britain, France, Israel, Egypt, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, etc.)14c,13 Large military manufacturers, such as the US, China or Russia, could easily become a major DU ammunition distributors to other major militaries in the near future.
Classification of the two most common 120 mm DU tank rounds, a kinetic-energy projectile and a high-explosive projectile. Image Source: P6
In order to analyze the effects of DU ammunition, recent conflicts involving DU ammo need to be considered. The two most recent cases involve Iraq during the Gulf War in the early 1990s, and Kosovo/Bosnia during the Balkan conflicts of the mid and late 1990s. A harmful reaction by Allied veterans to chemical, biological, and radiological effects from the Gulf War culminated into what is known as Gulf War Syndrome (part of the cause is potentially due to DU weaponry). A very recent similar series of events occurred with post-DU use in the Balkans, which lead to “Balkan War Syndrome”.
The Gulf War is an older case but was the first time that the US military employed DU weaponry on a large military scale against an enemy. DU ammunition has been accredited during and after the Gulf War as one of the main reasons why the Allied military had such a swift victory over Iraqi military forces.1,9 DU allowed our tanks to penetrate enemy armor easily and at far greater distances. Allied tanks could directly engage enemy tanks while in the enemy’s line-of-sight with little worry from retaliatory fire. This means that Allied tanks could hit their Iraqi tanks while Iraqi tanks couldn’t hit Allied tanks. Also due to DU armor, not a single US tank was penetrated from enemy fire. US tanks took many close direct hits from Iraqi Soviet-made T-72 tanks (as close as 400m!), but enemy rounds were simply not able to penetrate the DU armor! 14f DU ammunition was such a successful and popular weapon that US tank crews have dubbed DU ammo as the “Silver Bullet.”9 (Partially because DU rounds have a silver-like luster due to the aluminum coating.) An important thing to consider was how much DU was actually dumped onto Iraqi territory. Around 9,640 tanks shells and 850,000 aircraft 30mm rounds were used. 14f This translates to nearly 650,000 pounds of actual DU deposited on Iraqi soil!14f That’s a lot of nuclear waste!
There are also serious long-term effects of DU that still exist today in Iraq. In regions heavily hit by DU, studies have shown that numerous civilians have extensive problems with their immune systems, malignant cancers (such as ludicrously high leukemia rates), heart problems, and bizarre abnormal birth defects (such as children born without eyes, ears, tongue, etc.).2 In some regions, Leukemia has become one of the main forms of cancer-related death. There has been a 4x increase in cancer among children (+130,000 in 1997).14i Contaminated agriculture and water supplies help spread the DU dust which continues to hurt people in different regions where DU ammo was not used. However, one should note that even before the Gulf War, much of Iraqi soil was already highly contaminated from previous conflicts (e.g. chemical and biological warfare against Iran, Iraqi Kurds).
Just two of NUMEROUS cases of totally bizarre stillborn infants in Iraq due to DU contamination. Stillborn infants here are born with some of the most confusing abnormalities. The image on the left is of an infant born with one eye in center of the head. The image on the left is of an infant born normal but without any eyes at all. Image source: P8
A more recent case of DU ammunition use was during the conflicts in Kosovo and Bosnia. An interesting thing to note is that no major chemical or biological weaponry was used or numerous NBC sites bombed during both conflicts. Even though Yugoslavia has done extensive research into chemical weaponry, no significant amount was used in both conflicts. Hence, the only potentially hazardous device used was DU ammunition. At first, NATO claimed that DU ammunition was not being used at all. No mention was made until a small group of NATO soldiers started dying from blood/renal/rectal related cancers in a very short period of time and the term “Balkan War Syndrome” came into full force.14f New Tomahawk cruise missiles armed with a 3kg DU warhead core were first used in Bosnia and later in Kosovo.14f Over 31,000 A-10 30mm rounds were fired and over 1,500 cruise missiles (armed with DU) were used. Some regions in Bosnia and especially Kosovo (a region that NATO HEAVILY bombed for 3 months) are so contaminated with DU that the soil there is permanently destroyed. NATO soldiers are constantly told not to eat local foods or drink from local water supplies (since ingestion of DU dust is very common by eating foods or drinking water contaminated with DU dust).17 Soldiers were also told to stay away from military sites hit by DU and not to pick up any possible DU fragments.17 This concludes the basic facts of DU ammunition and the specific conflicts in which DU ammo was used.
A-10 Thunderbolt II Aircraft is a tank-busting/anti-personnel attack jet fully loaded with numerous 30mm DU rounds. Image source: P9
Photo showing personnel loading the A-10 with numerous 30 mm DU rounds. Image source: P10
Closeup of the gatling gun that spews out armor-piercing 30 mm DU rounds. Image source: P10
Cruise missile used in the Kosovo Conflict contained 3 kg of DU in their warhead. Image source: P11.
Around 1500 cruise missiles were used during the Kosovo Conflict. Image source: P11
V. ETHICAL ANALYSIS:
PRO’S AND CON’S OF DU AMMUNITION:
When first analyzing the ethical dilemmas of DU ammo, a statement of the most relevant facts, such as the pros and cons, are necessary. For example, there are crucial benefits of DU ammo. It is a highly effective armor-piercing device. The purpose of ammunition is to take out enemy targets efficiently by inflicting as much damage as you can to the enemy. DU is very effective and is a very lethal and efficient killing device. It doesn’t just damage an enemy tank, it pulverizes it and easily annihilates the crew as well! There are alternative forms of advanced ammo but DU fares the best of them all! Alternative forms of ammunition are around 20% less effective than DU and generally more expensive (such as using Tungsten kinetic penetrators). 1,10 Alternative tank rounds do not always penetrate armor as effectively as DU. Most non-DU rounds tend to “mushroom” (which is how the round looks after contact with enemy armor) as they hit their targets. However, as DU contacts enemy armor, it get extremely hot and “self-sharpens” as it enters the armor, just like a hot knife through butter.10,11 The bottom line is that DU is simply too good for any military not to use in the battlefield! Another crucial benefit of DU is that it increases the effectiveness of military weapons at even greater distances, oftentimes putting your enemy at a huge disadvantage. Another benefit DU proved during the Gulf War was using DU as tank armor. 645 out of 2058 US tanks used in the Gulf were fitted with DU armor.14f Iraqi tank rounds directly struck US tanks but there was no puncture of the DU armor! Hence DU used as ammunition and armor are important ways of protecting our soldiers in combat. Unfortunately, another significant characteristic of DU was also discovered during the Gulf War, that DU ammo can easily puncture DU armor (as was found out by US tanks hit by friendly fire)! 14f A final benefit of DU ammunition is that by using DU rounds in huge military campaigns, one can get rid of tons of nuclear waste. A lot of waste dumped all over Kosovo and Iraq. This is basically dumping nuclear waste through the use of deadly weapons.11
DU kinetic energy penetrator up close. The narrow contact area allows for huge transfer of energy on a small surface. Image source: P6
What are the consequences of DU ammunition? Even though there are very few government reports that suggest that DU contains harmful side effects, there is overwhelming circumstantial evidence that clearly points out that DU and DU ammo causes extensive radiological, environmental, chemical, and biological effects. DU ammo can easily be shown to cause severe environmental damage. For example, numerous anti-tank rounds were fired in Ethan Allen Firing Range (a US based testing site for DU weapons). The soil surrounding the site was so contaminated wih radiation and toxin from DU that 4 inches of topsoil, over a few mile radius, was scooped up and later stored away as nuclear waste. 14e DU dust results from the use of DU ammo (which forms as it pierces the armor) and can easily spread far away from the target. There was one tested case in the Gulf War where DU dust spread up to 42 km from an enemy target site pulverized with DU rounds!14e Just recently, the UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) stated that they still found traces of DU dust in the air two years after the end of the bombing of Kosovo.18 Remember that DU has a half life of 4.5 billion years. That means that local environments contaminated with poisonous DU dust will remain that way for a very long time and will continue to spread.
“There has been, and continues to be, a concern regarding the impact of DU on the environment. If no one makes the case for the effectiveness of DU on the battlefields, DU rounds may become politically unacceptable and be deleted from the arsenal.” – Colonel Ziehman of Los Alamos National Laboratory. 11
Soldiers of the future? If we continue to use DU ammo, may so (protection from DU dust). Image source: P12 and P2
DU ammo can also cause extreme biological effects to those exposed to it. DU dust commonly is inhaled and digested through simple inhalation of air and consumption of food. Insoluble and Soluble uranium oxide enters the body and eventually enters the bloodstream.2 Soluble uranium is expelled through urination, but insoluble uranium (around 50% of DU) stays in the body and travels from the bloodstream and settles in bone and organ tissue.2 Veterans and civilians exposed to DU have experienced extensive irreversible damage to kidney and partial kidney failure. Cancers related to one’s blood, bone, and immune system become common.14h There are also various other biological effects claimed from DU, such as chronic fatigue, respiratory problems, heart problems, digestive organ damage (e.g. liver failure and severe rectal bleeding), etc.2
Finally DU ammo can be shown to have radiological effects. On the outside DU is quite harmless. It is a low-level alpha particle emitter. Fortunately, alpha particles can easily be stopped by a piece of paper! Hence, a soldier can be in contact with a DU-armored tank for years and not see any effects at all! However, DU dust that enters the body can be quite harmful, depending on the amount of exposure. When DU enters the body, alpha particles directly bombard one’s cell tissue. On average 1 in 70,000 human cells that are bombarded from alpha particles emitted from DU turn into cancer cells.14h Hence depending on length of exposure and concentration any person exposed to large amounts of DU would most likely suffer long-term cancer-related effects. Also, remember that DU is very similar to natural uranium (around 99% similar), which is dug up as an ore using conventional mining techniques. It is well known that uranium miners suffer significantly higher levels of cancer related illnesses, respiratory, and digestives related problems from natural uranium dust and radiation.5 Hence it would make much sense that DU exhibit similar characteristics and side effects.
“If DU enters the body, it has the potential to generate significant medical consequences. The risks associated with DU in the body are both chemical and radiological. Personnel inside or near vehicles struck by DU penetrators could receive significant internal exposures.” – Statement by US Army Environmental Policy Institute (statement made after Gulf but not before Kosovo). 11
“The ingestion of small amounts of radioactive dust …will cause a building up of radioactive material in the body, which eventually may have serious consequences…Lung cancer, bone necrosis, and rapid anaemia are possible diseases due to the deposition of radioactive substances in the cell tissue or bone structure of the body…” – Warning by the Canadian Department of Mines on uranium ore. 5
Military technology has always brought up large professional issues. The research, military application, use, and capitalization on DU ammo and weaponry contain similar professional issues as the military use of smart bombs, cruise missiles, or any form of military technology. Military defense is a big industry throughout the world and DU is just a part of it. However, on a professional level, such military weapons can produce dramatic political and international ramifications, such as seen by expanding nuclear weapons. Another professional issue deals with the relationship between the military command and their soldiers. Commanders are obligated to ensure the safety of their soldiers under all conditions. But when your own soldiers start to die off from their own ammunition, then serious questions are raised about the professionalism of one’s army.
AH-64 Apache helicopters fire a huge load of DU from their 30 mm cannon. Image source: P13
Close up of the gatling gun on the AH-64 Apache helicopter. Fires 30 mm DU rounds. Image source: P13.
The legal and policy issues of DU can be analyzed with respect to other special weapons, such as those that pertain to land mines, cluster bombs, napalm, white phosphorous, agent orange, anthrax, etc. It is difficult to determine whether or not DU possesses any international legal infringement. However, if proper research were to dictate that DU was unsafe and causes numerous long-term side effects, then it would be quite simple to proclaim that DU is illegal in combat. The UN already considers DU to be illegal and many lawyers are currently pushing for international legislation banning all forms of DU weaponry. A UN resolution was written in 1996 stating that “all States to be guided in their national policies by the need to curb production and spread of weapons of mass destruction or with indiscriminate effect, in particular nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, fuel-air bombs, napalm, cluster bombs, biological weaponry, and weaponry containing depleted uranium.” 14j In addition, the UNCHR (UN Commission on Human Rights) recently passed a resolution categorizing DU ammo alongside nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons as “weapon of indiscriminate effect.” 13. Hence it could be argued that if DU weapons are indiscriminate and cause unnecessary suffering, then that itself would be a violation of the US military field manual on The Law of Land Warfare: “It is especially forbidden to employ arms, projectiles, or material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering. (HR, art. 23, par. (e).) …Usage has, however, established the illegality of the use of lances with barbed heads, irregular-shaped bullets, and projectiles filled with glass, the use of any substance on bullets that would tend unnecessarily to inflame a wound inflicted by them, and the scoring of the surface or the filing off of the ends of the hard cases of bullets.” 4 It would seem that one could make a strong point against the illegality of DU ammunition!
Helicopter taken out by 120mm tank shell. Image source: P1
Ethical issues arise primarily when comparing the harmful effects of DU versus their military combat benefits. There are many different perspectives that could be used to analyze this situation. From the Utilitarian perspective (the ethical action is the one that produces the greatest benefit overall to those directly affected), using DU is unethical for it presents too many horrible long-term side effects that would in turn cause excessive amounts of suffering to large groups of people (mostly innocent civilians). The environment is ruined for many future generations! Future generations will suffer for political actions they were not responsible for. Chemical, biological, and radiological effects will continue to plague many innocent people and many lives will be lost to poisonous DU contamination. The only elated victors here are the military commanders, politicians, and ammo manufacturers.
From the Kantian perspective (a philosophic perspective similar to the Golden Rule, “do unto others as they would do onto you”), the use of DU ammunition is somewhat difficult to analyze. The Kantian perspective is difficult to apply to military situations. From one perspective, you wouldn’t want the enemy to use powerful DU-armed weapons against your army, but that is sort of awkward. On the battlefield, soldiers most likely are aware that they will often be facing an enemy who is researching means of improving military weapons and vice versa. Hence there is some sort of indirect consideration and understanding that both sides are constantly enhancing their own weapons. Hence the use of DU is currently a military advancement that only a few countries have benefited from, but when you are on the battlefield in the near future, you still are aware that the enemy could also possess DU ammo and can use it against you. There is some sort of mutual acceptance on the rules of warfare in terms of technological advancement between both sides. Hence on a slight level and strictly concerning military combat, the Kantian perspective could somewhat promote the ethical use of DU weapons.
Concerning the Rights perspective (an action is ethical if it obeys fundamental rights that relate to human dignity and autonomy), the use of DU is unethical for it violates the personal rights of all civilians and soldiers who are directly affected from DU (especially your own soldiers). Nuclear, biological, and chemical effects violate and will continue to violate numerous civilians’ rights to live a normal life. Future generations will continue to be punished for conflicts they had no part in. The personal rights of soldiers are also affected. As mentioned before, there is also violation of military-soldier contract/obligation concerning the knowledge of DU contamination. In addition, if DU is harmful in combat, then there is an obligation to warn your own soldiers of the negative side effects and hence make the necessary precautions to protect them.
The Fairness/Justice perspective (treating people differently based on crucial moral differences) would question whether or not DU ammunition is fair on the battlefield and whether or not it is fair to the innocent civilians who suffer the consequences of DU contamination? It is not fair towards the soldiers when they get sick form their own bullets. It is not fair towards civilians and society as well. However it could be debated as being fair on the battlefield. War is tough and technology is a way of getting a slight upper hand during combat. This reaffirms the previous concept of the mutual rules of engagement on the battlefield versus military technological research and advancement.
From the Common Good perspective (an ethical action is one that promotes the most common good for the society overall), it is unethical to use DU. It is simply too destructive and poses too many side effects towards the community for many generations. DU will not only affect the community of our military opponents but might also eventually affect our communities as well. DU takes warfare to the extreme since armies who use it consider only the short-term tactical benefits with no regard for the aftermath.
From the Virtue perspective (an ethical action is one that promotes the most individual and social moral virtues), DU ammunition is unethical for we will demean ourselves as a civilized society. DU weaponry is clearly not necessary to conduct warfare on a sophisticated level. DU ammo is not a necessity. As mentioned, it is amazing how far our military will go to win the war despite horrific future side effects.
A final perspective is a perspective on warfare ethics. Is it right to use weapons that exercise “overkill” on the battlefield? As previously mentioned, a 120 mm DU projectile not only destroys a tank, it pulverizes it! When the DU anti-tank round punctures a tank, parts of the tank’s armor and projectile get so hot that they both literally vaporize.1 The tank heats up to such a high temperature that it often times causes parts of the tank to melt and catch on fire. As the projectile enters the tank, it splinters into many pieces, often times bursting into flames. The tank ammo and fuel blow up( due to the ignition of fuel fumes) and the tank that’s leftover is barely recognizable.1 There are numerous other weapons that are quite efficient at destroying a tank but doesn’t require the use of DU ammo. Tactile weapons from conventional Apache hellfire missiles to 1970’s short-range Soviet Sagger rockets can easily destroy any tank, especially at close range. A wide variety of weapons can pulverize even the most sophisticated tanks at ambush range19 (e.g. Palestinian homemade explosives have proven destructive against advanced Israeli Sabre and Merkava tanks). Hence, DU doesn’t have to be a military necessity in terms of destroying armored vehicles.
This widespread Soviet-era RPG is more than adequate at taking out armored vehicles at ambush range. Image source: P15
Iraqi Soviet-made T-72 hit by 120 mm tank shell fired from M1 tank. Overkill? Image source: P14
A Yugoslav M-84 tank destroyed by DU fire from A-10 during the Kosovo conflict. Image source: P2