5| Collateral Damage: How U.S. Troops Were Exposed to DU During the Gulf War (Excerpt)

"When DU is indicted as a causative agent for Desert Storm illness, the Army must have sufficient data to separate fiction from reality. Without forethought and data, the financial implications of long-term disability payments and health-care costs would be excessive."

—U.S. Army Environmental Policy Institute1

Dan Fahey


One of the legacies of the 20th Century will undoubtedly be the frightening evolution of weapons capable of killing or injuring large numbers of people both during and after their intended wartime use. With the passage of time, the variety of these weapons only grows: chemical and biological agents, land mines, nuclear weapons, and poisonous herbicides. In the wake of the Persian Gulf War, we must add to this list weapons made of a nuclear waste product called depleted uranium.

Tank armor and armor-piercing rounds made of depleted uranium proved highly effective in their first wartime use, but because depleted uranium weapons were so effective, dozens of countries now have or are developing depleted uranium weapons for their arsenals. The rapid proliferation of depleted uranium weapons will, in the near future, level the playing field and eliminate any battlefield advantage they currently provide.

Unfortunately, spreading depleted uranium in an uncontrolled fashion across battlefields can have severe health consequences for friend and foe alike. During the Persian Gulf War, most U.S. troops were unaware of the presence and dangers of depleted uranium on the battlefield. As a result, thousands of servicemen and women came in contact with contaminated vehicles which had been hit by depleted uranium rounds. The Pentagon is reluctant to discuss the dangers of depleted uranium weapons because of their effectiveness in combat and the prospect of costly health care and disability compensation for U.S. veterans who have been and are being exposed.

However, the impact of depleted uranium weapons is felt far beyond the veterans of the Persian Gulf War. Workers in the domestic uranium industry who mine and process uranium and manufacture depleted uranium weapons, in addition to civilians who live near processing plants, manufacturing plants, testing ranges and contaminated battlefields, are also affected. This paper focuses on the use of depleted uranium weapons in the Persian Gulf War, and the ways in which U.S. troops were exposed to them.

What is Depleted Uranium?

Depleted uranium (DU) is the highly toxic and radioactive byproduct of the uranium enrichment process. "Depleted" uranium is so called because the content of the fissionable U-235 isotope is reduced from 0.7% to 0.2% during the enrichment process. The isotope U-238 makes up over 99% of the content of both natural uranium and depleted uranium. Depleted uranium is roughly 60% as radioactive as naturally occurring uranium, and has a half life of 4.5 billion years.2 As a result of 50 years of enriching uranium for use in nuclear weapons and reactors, the U.S. has in excess of 1.1 billion pounds of DU waste material.3

In the early 1970s, the government began exploring ways to dispose of DU which would relieve it of the burden of having to store it in low-level radioactive waste repositories. DU has several characteristics which make it attractive for use in munitions: it is extremely dense, available in large quantities, and given for free to arms manufacturers.

During the 1970s and 1980s, testing at more than a dozen domestic sites including Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, Jefferson Proving Ground in Indiana, and Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona demonstrated that large and small caliber rounds made of depleted uranium were highly effective in piercing armor. At the same time, the Army found that incorporating depleted uranium metal into tank armor made tanks less vulnerable to penetration from conventional rounds. But while the Army conducted many tests to evaluate the effectiveness of DU bullets and armor, they failed to "closely coordinate the planning and performance of experiments for DU health and environmental assessments."4 After years of research, development and testing, Operation Desert Storm provided the first opportunity for the Pentagon to test DU munitions in combat.

Depleted Uranium Weapons in the Persian Gulf War

The Tomahawk Cruise Missiles launched on the first day of Operation Desert Storm, and used during the September 3, 1996, attack on Iraq during Operation Desert Strike, contain DU in their tips to provide weight and stability. When they impact a target or other hard surface, the resultant area can become contaminated by the DU. A U.S. Navy instruction manual notes that teams involved in the recovery of Tomahawk missiles which crash during testing must have radiological protection clothing, gloves, respirators, and dosimeters.5

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Since he wrote this paper in 1996, Dan Fahey has changed his opinion on this, apparently based on new information. He wrote in a paper in 2001, “"Although some U.S. missiles contain DU, Tomahawk cruise missiles apparently do not include any depleted uranium." This 2001 paper could be found on January 15, 2002, at http://www.du.publica.cz/papers/Fahey.htm. We apologize if not correcting this earlier has caused any incorrect information to be spread.]

The Navy also uses DU in ammunition for its Phalanx Close-In Weapons System gun. While this gun is primarily designed for missile defense, it is also effective against other targets, as was shown in June 1996 when a Japanese ship firing a U.S.-made Phalanx gun accidentally shot down an American jet during training exercises in the Pacific. The Navy's use of weapons containing depleted uranium during Desert Storm was small, however, when compared to their use by the Army, Air Force, and Marines.

The Army and Marine Corps employed more than 1,900 M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks, plus several hundred M1 and M60 model tanks, in combat during Desert Storm.6 U.S. tanks typically carry a mixed load of high explosive and depleted uranium sabot rounds. The M1A1 tanks fire 120mm rounds, while the M1 and M60 tanks fire 105mm rounds. The weight of the DU penetrator dart in a 120mm tank round is 10.7 pounds; in a 105mm round it is 8.5 pounds.7 The Army reports that a total of 14,000 DU tank rounds were expended during the war. 7,000 rounds were fired during training before the war into sand berms in Saudi Arabia; 4,000 rounds were fired during combat; and 3,000 were lost due to fires or other accidents.8 In addition, British Challenger tanks fired at least 100 DU tank rounds in combat.

The extended range of DU penetrators combined with the highly accurate fire control system and gun of the M1A1 provided American tanks with a considerable advantage over their Iraqi counterparts. While Iraqi T-72 tanks had an effective firing range of under 2,000 meters, U.S. tanks had an effective firing range of approximately 3,000 meters. In one case, the frontal armor of a T-72 was penetrated by a 3,500 meter shot (over 2 miles) from an M1A1.9 But the longest confirmed kill of the war was by a British Challenger tank, which destroyed an Iraqi tank with a DU round over a distance of 5,100 meters (over 3 miles).10 Even over these extended ranges, the DU rounds proved highly effective in penetrating Iraqi tank armor. In one case, a DU round "hit the turret of a Russian-made Iraqi T-72 tank, passed completely through the turret, and hit (and destroyed) a second T-72."11

Though the Army and Marine Corps fired thousands of DU rounds in battle, the Air Force by far fired the majority of DU rounds used during the war. The Air Force's A-10 "tank-killer" aircraft were used extensively against Iraqi armored vehicles and artillery. The A-10 fired approximately 940,000 30mm DU rounds in combat.12 The weight of the DU penetrator in a 30mm round is 272 grams, so roughly 564,000 pounds of depleted uranium were fired from A-10s during the war.13

DU penetrator rounds fired by American aircraft and American and British tanks destroyed approximately one-third of the 3,700 Iraqi tanks lost in battle.14 In addition, artillery pieces, armored personnel carriers and other equipment destroyed by DU rounds number in the thousands. By war's end, roughly 300 tons of uranium from spent rounds lay scattered in various sizes and states of decay across the battlefields of Iraq and Kuwait.

When a depleted uranium projectile strikes a hard surface, up to 70% of the penetrator is oxidized and scattered as small particles in, on and around the target.15 A fact sheet issued by the U.S. Army Armament, Munitions, and Chemical Command (AMCCOM) states:

When a DU penetrator impacts a target surface, a large portion of the kinetic energy is dissipated as heat. The heat of the impact causes the DU to oxidize or burn momentarily. This results in smoke which contains a high concentration of DU particles. These uranium particles can be ingested or inhaled and are toxic.16

Of the aerosolized particles produced, 60% are particles less than five microns in diameter (less than 10 microns being considered as respirable size).17 Army field tests have shown that when a vehicle is struck by a DU penetrator, the heaviest contamination occurs within 5 to 7 meters of the vehicle.18 However, DU particles thrown into the air by the round's impact, or by resultant fires and explosion, can be carried downwind for 25 miles or more.19

The DU armor on the M1A1 tanks proved effective in protecting tank crews from enemy fire, although the tank crews were continually irradiated by their own armor and DU rounds for the months many of them lived with their tanks. For example, a tank driver receives a radiation dose of 0.13 mrem/hr to his head from overhead DU armor.20 After just 32 continuous days, or 64 twelve-hour days, the amount of radiation a tank driver receives to his head will exceed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's annual standard for public whole-body exposure to man-made sources of radiation.21 Unfortunately, U.S. tank crews were not monitored for radiation exposure during the Persian Gulf War.

During the ground war, only seven M1A1's were hit by rounds fired from the Iraqi's T-72 tanks, with none being seriously damaged. The Army reported that the Iraqi armed forces "destroyed no Abrams tanks during the Persian Gulf War."22 Nine Abrams tanks were destroyed during the war: seven due to friendly fire and two were intentionally destroyed to prevent capture after they became disabled.23 One incident in particular demonstrates the effectiveness of armor-piercing rounds and tank armor made of depleted uranium. As allied forces pushed into southern Iraq at the start of the ground war, an M1A1 tank became stuck in the mud.

The unit (part of the 24th Infantry Division) had gone on, leaving this tank to wait for a recovery vehicle. Three T-72's appeared and attacked. The first fired from under 1,000 meters, scoring a hit with a shaped-charge (high explosive) round on the M1A1's frontal armor. The hit did no damage. The M1A1 fired a 120mm armor-piercing (DU) round that penetrated the T-72 turret, causing an explosion that blew the turret into the air. The second T-72 fired another shaped-charge round, hit the frontal armor, and did no damage. The T-72 turned to run, and took a 120mm round in the engine compartment (which) blew the engine into the air. The last T-72 fired a solid shot (sabot) round from 400 meters. This left a groove in the M1A1's frontal armor and bounced off. The T-72 then backed up behind a sand berm and was completely concealed from view. The M1A1 depressed its gun and put a (DU) sabot round through the berm, into the T-72, causing an explosion.24

U.S. forces came in contact with DU on the battlefield in a variety of ways. Some were exposed during combat. Some were exposed during the recovery of contaminated U.S. vehicles which had been hit by friendly fire incidents. Some were exposed during a massive fire in July, 1991, at the U.S. base in Doha, Kuwait. And some who continue to work with DU weapons, or deploy to contaminated areas in Kuwait, are being exposed today. In most of these scenarios, exposure to DU could have been prevented or minimized if our troops had been warned ahead of time about the use of DU weapons and effective safety measures, and if they had been issued protective clothing including respirators and gloves. No warnings or protective gear were issued before the war, however, because "Army officials believe that DU protective methods can be ignored during battle or other life-threatening situations because DU-related health risks are greatly outweighed by the risks of combat."25

The full text of this chapter (including the footnotes) is available in the book, Metal of Dishonor. Link here for order information.




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