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Concern grows over possible use of depleted uranium in Libya

The likelihood of DU use in Libya has now increased following the deployment and use of A-10 and Harrier AV-8B aircraft. ICBUW calls for pressure to be brought on the US to clarify the situation, and to put DU ammunition beyond use.
30 March 2011

A-10s are known to have been active in Libya on the 26th and 27th of March, and are likely to have been used in operations since those dates. The 30mm PGU-14 Armour Piercing Incendiary DU round is fired from the GAU-8 heavy rotary cannon fitted beneath the cockpit of the A-10. It was designed for attacking armoured vehicles from the air, the kind of mission currently being undertaken by the A-10s.

At a Department of Defence briefing on the 25th March Vice Admiral Gortney suggested that only precision guided ammunition (i.e. bombs and missiles) was being fired and stated that: “At this time, [he was] not aware of any use of depleted uranium”.

While in some areas the threat of ground attack may mean that the GAU-8 cannon is not being used over land, and A-10s are only dropping explosive munitions, it seems unlikely that A-10s would have been brought into theatre for this purpose alone, as this is a role that can be played by other aircraft currently in use. It is known for certain that the cannon was used against two small boats on the evening of 28th March, which were alongside the Libyan Coast Guard vessel Vittoria. This means that Gortney's assurance that only precision guided weapons were being used no longer stands, and that his comments about the use of DU munitions are no longer applicable.

A-10s at Aviano Air Force Base, Itally. Still from a Video on Russia Today

A-10s at Aviano Air Force Base, Itally. Still from a Video on Russia Today

It is possible that the GAU-8 is being loaded only with PGU-13 High Explosive rounds, which do not contain DU. This is known to be the case with at least some A-10s in Afghanistan. While it is not therefore possible to categorically state that DU has already been fired, the use of DU in Libya by the A-10 now seems likely.

Six A-10s are thought to have been deployed from the 81st Fighter Squadron, 52nd Figher Wing, based at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, and are currently operating out of Aviano Air Force Base in Italy. They arrived in Aviano on Friday March 25th.

Another platform of concern is the AV-8B Harrier, which is equipped with a GAU-12/U rotary cannon, mounted in a twin pod on the underside of the aircraft. As stated in ICBUW’s earlier statement on this matter, the Harrier has historically been armed with the 20 mm PGU-20/U Armour Piercing Incendiary round, and fired 11 tons of DU during the 1991 Gulf War. While there have been some reports that the PGU-20/U has been taken out of service, recent US federal procurement documents describe it as being in the Department of Defence’s inventory. As such, the use of DU by the AV-8B remains a possibility.

The use of the AV-8B has been confirmed on at least two occasions – during the rescue of a downed F-15 pilot on the 21st March, and against targets south of Benghazi. While accounts of the first incident do not indicate any use of the cannon mounted on the AV-8B, in the second case a Department of Defence briefing on the 20th March described the Harrier being used against several targets including armoured targets.

Again, the threat of ground attack from Libyan forces may mean that only explosive munitions were used, but the use of DU cannot be ruled out. Cockpit images displayed by the Pentagon appear to show the use of explosive munitions against at least two of the targets. The AV-8B Harriers are part of the 26th Marine Expeditionary unit, based on USS Kearsarge.

It should be noted that another US ground attack aircraft, the AC-130 is also equipped with the GAU-12/U cannon. However ICBUW has not seen any strong evidence that the AC-130 fires DU, despite it having been employed in Iraq in both 1991 and 2003.

As the conflict continues, the threat to aircraft is reduced, and planes are increasingly targeting armoured vehicles, rather than air defence infrastructure, the likelihood of DU weapons being employed will increase. It is also likely that targets in urban areas will increasingly be engaged. This trend will make civilian exposure to DU more likely.

ICBUW calls on the US to immediately clarify whether any of the current aircraft being used in Libya are equipped with DU, and give a categorical assurance, similar to that given by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, that weapons containing DU have no place in this conflict. In the event that they have already been used, immediate steps to warn people in affected areas should be taken, and decontamination work should be undertaken at the earliest possible opportunity.

The US needs to take steps in a clear and transparent manner to assure the world that no US aircraft will go into the air equipped with DU ammunition, and that pilots will not be cleared to fire it. Any DU ammunition currently in theatre should be separated and left un-used and information concerning any locations where the weapons have been used should be made available. ICBUW calls on the global media, international organisations and governments around the world to press the US for these measures to be taken.


Transcript of US Department of Defence News Briefing, 28th March

US Navy press release about attack on Vittoria〈=0

Transcript of US Department of Defence News Briefing, 25th March

'Worthog News' Blogspot on arrival of A-10s in Aviano