Uranium Wars

The Pentagon Steps Up its Use of Radioactive Munitions
by Marc W. Herold
Dissident Voice
December 30, 2002

"The A-10 is a near-perfect aircraft for combating [such] third world conflicts" [1]


F-15E 'Strike Eagle', top, and A-10 'Warthog'

In the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, the two primary delivery agents firing Depleted Uranium munitions have been he A-10 'Warthog' (bottom) and the F-15E 'Strike Eagle' (top).


Ever since the first Gulf War the U.S. military has increasingly used radioactive Depleted Uranium (DU) munitions. Against Iraq in 1991 they proved very effective at penetrating enemy armor (tanks). More recently in the Afghan campaign they were used extensively for destroying underground facilities and caves. The following table summarizes estimated usage of radioactive DU in three of America's recent wars. All these weapons will be almost certainly be heavily used should Gulf War II take place.




Munitions known or suspected of containing Uranium

Delivery agent of munitions

Total tons of DU delivered

Iraq, 1991

30mm and 120mm cannon shells

Abrams tank and A-10 Warthog

320- 750*

Balkans, 1999

30 mm cannon shells, bunker busing bombs and missles [GBU-15, 24, 27,28,31]

A-10 Warthog,B-2,F-15E,BGM-109 Tomahawk and AGM-86D CALCM [prototype] cruise missiles



25 and 30 mm shells, bunker busting bombs and missiles [GBU-28, 15,24,27,31 and 37, AGM-130C]

F-15E, B-2, A-10, AC-130 Spooky, and Apache helicopter [AH-64], GBM-109 Tomahawk and AGM-86D CALCM cruise missiles


* U.S. DOD estimates that 315 tons of DU were deposited in the Gulf War battlefield.

** This estimate is based upon an assortment of A-10 firing [15 missions per month, each mission 1,500 rounds] 200 GBU-24 bombs being dropped, 50 GBU-28 and GBU-37 bombs being dropped, and use of a variety of other DU-containing weapons [e.g., the AC-130s, AGM-130, etc.].


DU burns intensely and is very hard. DU is also much cheaper than the substitute metal, tungsten. In effect, the U.S. military is trading off lower costs for increased health hazards. The health dangers of using DU-munitions have now been widely recognized, hotly debated and reported upon and need not be repeated here.[2]  Beyond just the health consequences, DU-munitions must be considered weapons of mass destruction insofar as the consequences of their usage are indiscriminate.


Intensely bombed hard target zones like Tora Bora and Shah-i-Kot may now be heavily contaminated with DU oxide. During the battle of Shah-i-Kot, A-10s were heavily used, flying up to eight hours every day from an unnamed base outside Afghanistan. The potential health risks to U.S. and Afghan troops being sent to check out bombed cave systems are horrendous unless they are using full nuclear, chemical and biological (NBC) protection. But even more serious are the risks in densely populated target zones like Kabul - where DU oxide is likely to contaminate soil, buildings and water and be suspended in the Kabul "haze" seen in several media reports.


Depleted uranium is the staple in the ammunition used by the M1A2 Abrams main battle tank [which fires 120 mm DU rounds to cut through enemy armor], and in the 30 mm rapid fire Gatling gun in the A-10 attack aircraft and Apache AH64 helicopter. The Gatling cannon fires 4,000 rounds per minute of 30 mm armor-piercing munition, delivering 1,200 kilograms of depleted uranium per minute!


The GAU-8/A 'Avenger' 30 mm cannon
Made by General Electric, the 'Avenger' is a formidable weapon, as the photo below suggests in a line-up next to a VW Beetle.



The General Electric GAU-8/A 'Avenger' 30 mm cannon



The Fairchild Republic-produced A-10 has now become the main fighter plane used in Afghanistan.[3] Four A-10s were deployed to Bagram air base on March 23.[4]  In the Kosovo-Serbian theater, NATO forces delivered 31,000 - 50,000 rounds of DU ammunition (as compared to 944,000 rounds during Gulf War 1) during plus 100+ air sorties, primarily by the A-10 Warthog with its GAU-8/A cannons. The 30 mm PGU-14/B API Armor-Piercing Incendiary [DU] ammunition, made by Olin/Aerojet Ordinance, was extensively used in Gulf War I and in Kosovo. A report on the Kosovo campaign noted:

“Repeated by NATO propaganda, ‘31 thousand DU bullets’ were only at the Kosovo sites with records. Many entries in the list of DU sites indicated ‘unknown number’ of bullets. Probably Yugoslav and Russian army estimate of 50 thousand bullets in the Kosovo campaign was closer to the truth. Zoric [7] analyzed NATO Kosovo list. Out of 112 sites, NATO knew DU quantities for only 89 sites. The rest was ‘unknown’. The known number was 30,523 DU bullets, which represented a total mass of about 9 metric tons. One 30 mm bullet contains just under 0.3 kg of DU metal. Using an average from the sites with known quantities, Zoric estimated 7,888 additional DU rounds at the ‘unknown’ sites, adding up to a total of 38,411.

The number might be higher still, if NATO used large or very large quantities at some sites. This could be the reason NATO hid the true quantity from the start, with a view on belittling the problem through propaganda. It is unclear why the quantities appear counted precisely only in a few cases. The rest appear rounded up or down to tens and hundreds."[5]

The widely-used Lockheed Martin GBU-28 5,000 lb. 'bunker-buster' bomb with a BLU-109 penetrator head carried only by the Air Force's F-15E's and B-2s, contains 1.5 metric tons of depleted uranium, compared to only five kilograms in the 120 mm shell. According to the GBU-28 Bunker Buster animation on USA Today the warhead is "classified".[6]  The 30 mm PGU-14 armor-piercing cannon shell contains 4,650 grains [0.66 pounds ] of extruded DU, alloyed with 0.75 weight percent titanium.[7] The Olin Corporation is the sole maker in the U.S. of DU antitank rounds, and its foundation funds "research" which purports to show that DU has no harmful health effects.


An "improved" version of this bomb - the GBU-37B, made by Northrop Grumman - with a BLU-113 warhead also contains DU. Another bunker-penetrating munition dropped on caves and tunnels in Afghanistan is the AGM-130 - widely used in the Tora Bora campaign - which is a 2,900 pound, rocket-propelled bomb fired by helicopters and F-15E's up to 40 miles away from its target.[8]  Other earlier versions of bunker-penetrating bombs include the GBU-15, GBU-24, GBU-27 and GBU-31.


The $231,000 GBU-37B bomb began being dropped upon Afghanistan on October 10, 2001 by B-2s flying out of Missouri. On October 22, Abdul Hemat of the Taliban's Bakhtar News Agency, announced that doctors in both Herat and Kandahar were reporting patients showing unusual toxic sickness symptoms which could not be identified.[9]  Two or three of the patients died mysteriously.[10]  The Pakistani daily Dawn reported on November 12 that:

"A leading military expert told Dawn that since October 7 the United States Air Force has been raining down depleted uranium shells at targets inside Afghanistan, especially against Taliban front lines in the north..."[11]  

On October 28, an article in the Sunday Times noted,

"In the past three weeks, the U.S. air force has used burrowing or "bunker-buster" bombs against caves that showed signs of human use. Last week it reportedly focused on the Paktia province, near Pakistan. Dr. Jack Schroder, a University of Nebraska geologist who worked in Afghanistan, says a recent video statement by bin Laden showed distinctive patterns on the rock behind him, indicating a spot in Paktia, where the mountains are full of natural limestone caverns and tunnels -- and man-made passageways. Bin Laden was based in this area when fighting the Russians."[12]

At about the same time, bunker-busting bombs were being dropped by F-15Es on old mujahideen caves containing ammunition supplies in the Spin Shagga mountains of eastern Paktia.


In mid-November 2001 concerns were being raised about bunker-busting bombs being used to flush out Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from caves, tunnels, and karezes, and in so doing, leading to severe delayed environmental consequences as water supplies became contaminated with DU.[13] 


Given the heavy U.S. bombing of the mountains in eastern Afghanistan, it seems probable that large amounts of DU have found their way into the rivers of the Hindu basin, whose source is precisely in the mountains of the Hindu Kush. After heading east from Kabul through heavily-bombed Nangarhar, the Kabul River crosses into Pakistan and feeds into the Indus River. In arid areas as in southern Afghanistan, most of the DU remains as surface dust where it is easily dispersed by wind.[14]


In mid-December the Pentagon announced deployment of another new, high-tech bunker busting bomb in Afghanistan.[15] The laser-guided bomb is called a "thermobaric" weapon, and uses a high temperature, high pressure explosive that destroys underground caves and tunnels. The new warhead, known as the BLU-118B, is fitted onto the BLU-109 2,000 lb. air-launched bomb and is delivered by Air Force F-15Es. Ten of the bombs were sent to Afghanistan.


In early December, Philip Coyle, a senior advisor at the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, said that DU was being employed in Afghanistan, though he sought to minimize it. On January 16, 2002, Secretary Rumsfeld admitted that the U.S. had found traces of radioactivity in Afghanistan, but predictably quickly attributed such to the nefarious acts of Al-Qaeda.


U.S. Air Force A-10s shot 30 mm ammunition in combat in Afghanistan on at least four occasions between March - September 2002, namely on March 3-6 in Shah-i-Kot, May 21 at Chapman Air Base in Khost, August 25 at the Special Forces base in Asadabad in Konar province, and September 20 at the Lwara Special Forces base in Paktia.[16]  Both the A-10 and Apache attack helicopters fire 30 mm shells and are now being regularly employed in Afghanistan.


Dr. Asef Dracovic said in November 2002, that U.S. forces had used more DU weapons in Afghanistan than they had in the Gulf War and the Balkans.[17]  The above table indicates about 10 times more than in Gulf War I. Thousands of DU bombs were dropped upon Afghanistan. In early November 2002, reports began surfacing about the birth of disabled and deformed children in Afghanistan. A large number of health specialists in Afghanistan as well as international observers, including one of the officials of a local hospital, regard these increasing numbers of birth defects in Afghanistan to be the result of U.S. dropping DU munitions upon Afghanistan.


If the 30 mm cannon shells of the A-10 Warthog doesn't kill the Afghan immediately, the longer-term consequences of dispersing deadly DU [with a half-life of 4.5 billion years] just might, later on, by precisely delivering a time-delayed, lethal injection.


Marc Herold is a professor in the Departments of Economics and Women's Studies at the Whittemore School of Business & Economics, University of New Hampshire. Email: mwherold@cisunix.unh.edu.  This article first appeared at Cursor.org





1. Capt. Robert H. Brown [USAF], "A Real Hog War. The A-1- in Low-Intensity Conflict," Airpower Journal [Winter 1990]


2. see the extraordinary report by Dai Williams, "Mystery Metal Nightmare in Afghanistan? Depleted Uranium Weapons in 2001-2002. Occupational, Public and Environmental Health Issues" at : http://www.eoslifework.co.uk/du2012.htm


3. Jusuf Fuduli, "The Politics of Depleted Uranium," ICE Case Studies 92 [May 2002], at: http://www.american.edu/TED/ice/uranium-training.htm


4. Chris Otton, "Deadly A-10 Fighter Jets Show US Not Backing Down," Agence France-Presse [March 24, 2002 at 8:49 PM IST]


5. A paper by Piotr Bein and Pedja Zoric titled "Propaganda for Depleted Uranium: A Crime against Humankind" was prepared for "Facts about Depleted Uranium" conference that was held in Prague, Czech Republic, November 24-25, 2001. The text can be found at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/du-list/files/DUPraha.doc


6. See http://www.usatoday.com/graphics/news/gra/gbuster/frame.htm


7. "PGU-14/B API Armor Piercing Incendiary 30 mm Ammunition," at FAS site http://www.fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/land/pgu-14.htm


8. Vernon Loeb, "Concrete-Piercing Bombs Hammer Caves," Washington Post [December 13, 2001]


9. "US Deploying Chemical, Biological Weapons: Taliban," Agence France-Presse [October 22, 2001 at 14:39 IST]


10. Sayed Salahuddin, "Taliban Claim U.S Using Chemical Weapons," Reuters [October 29, 2001]


11. "US Bombings to Have Lasting Effects: Experts," Dawn [November 13, 2001], at: http://www.dawn.com/2001/11/13/int6.htm


12. Tony Allen-Mills, "Why They Can't Find bin Laden," Sunday Times [October 28, 2001]


13. Fred Pearce, "Bombing Afghan Water Supplies," New Scientist [November 17, 2001]: 7.


14. Richard S. Ehrlich, "Depleted Uranium Toxicity in Afghanistan," The Laissez Faire City Times 5, 44 [October 29, 2001]


15. "Airstrikes Resume Over Eastern Afghanistan," CNN.com [December 21, 2001]


16. from site of Dan Fahey [October 13, 2002 ] at http://www.antenna.nl/wise/uranium/dissafdf.html; " The reported dates of A-10 attacks are March 3-6, May 21, August 25, and September 20, 2002. U.S. Department of Defense News Transcript, "DoD News Briefing - ASD PA Clarke and Brig. Gen. Rosa," (5 March 2002) http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Mar2002/t03052002_t0305asd.html http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Mar2002/t03052002_t0305asd.html. Evan Thomas, "'Leave No Man Behind,'" Newsweek (18 March 2002) 26; Thomas Shanker, "U.S. tells how rescue turned into fatal firefight," The New York Times (6 March 2002) A1; Peter Baker, "Afghans Strengthen U.S. Force," The Washington Post (8 March 2002) A1. Eric Schmitt, "American Planes Foil an Attack on an Airfield in Afghanistan," The New York Times (22 May 2002) A9. Cesar G. Soriano, "U.S. to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely," USA Today (25 August 2002). Associated Press, "U.S. base in Afghanistan attacked," (20 September 2002).


17. "U.S. Used More DU Weapons in Afghanistan Than in Persian Gulf War: Dracovic," Tehran Times [November 9, 2002]