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ICBUW's view on depleted uranium in cruise missiles and Tomahawks

Claims that DU is used in missiles still appear to lack foundation.
12 April 2011

The conflict in Libya has brought with it a lot of speculation, assertion and debate over the presence of DU in the munitions being used by the US and its allies. ICBUW has already identified the platforms which are known to fire DU and to have been deployed to the conflict.

As pointed out in our statement on the 21st March, we do not believe there is any hard evidence that DU has been used in cruise missiles. We have subsequently been contacted several times with links to articles, and in some cases documents which state that DU is used in cruise missiles. While we retain an open mind on these matters, none of these documents or articles amount to persuasive evidence that DU is to be found in these weapons.

 

A BGM-109 Tomahawk land-attack missile (TLAM) is fired toward an Iraqi target from the battleship USS MISSOURI (BB-63) at the start of Operation Desert Storm.

 

Cruise Missiles
Cruise missiles are in fact a whole class of missile – encompassing many different self propelled munitions which fly themselves to their target, made by many different countries. Many of the articles which state that DU is used in cruise missiles do not seem to recognise this distinction, and do not identify a specific warhead or missile design in their claims. This lack of specificity makes it almost impossible to investigate these claims, and does not add to their credibility.

At present, ICBUW’s position is that, while DU is known to have been used in place of nuclear warheads for testing some cruise missiles,1 there is no evidence that it has been used in conventional warheads, or any missile fired in wartime. However, the regularity with which these claims are repeated online mean that they will be taken by many as established fact.

Tomahawk missiles, which have been used extensively in Libya, are a family of US made cruise missile, and are one of the few named cruise missile which are claimed to contain DU. These claims have been extensively researched by campaigners in the US,2 and found to lack foundation.

A related issue is the occasional appearance of DU amongst a list of materials in patents for weapons systems which require a heavy metal. This is standard practice in patent applications, in order to prevent a patent being easily circumvented by use of an alternate heavy metal. Again, this issue has been researched by US campaigners who have found no evidence that DU has ever actually been used in these weapons (see previous reference).

 

The Serbian Experience
Because claims about the use of DU in cruise missiles are often taken as established fact, when Tomahawk missiles were used against Serbia during the Kosovo conflict in 1999, Serbian authorities believed that Tomahawk missiles contained DU. The Serbian Army had already established that DU ammunition had been used in NATO strikes in Bosnia, from investigations at the Han Pijesak site in Republika Srpska, although this information was not made public. Researchers at the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Science in Belgrade had prepared a programme prior to NATO’s involvement in the conflict, and visited strike sites, including Tomahawk strike sites, with dosimeters to investigate the possible presence of DU.

The results of this programme showed that the only DU ammunition used in the conflict with Serbia were 30 mm rounds fired by A-10 aircraft.3 Decontamination work at sites in Serbia only found DU material which was attributable to A-10 strikes. Analysis of a KFOR document which suggests DU was used in cruise missiles, suggests that the author was not writing from a position of knowledge, as the document contains several inaccuracies, such as stating that DU is fired by many mobile artillery platforms, or that British Harrier jets may fire DU.

 

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Logo

The US Domestic Context
While it is important not to solely rely on government sources and to regard official pronouncements with a critical eye, the same scrutiny must also be used when assessing information in websites and articles. In the case of US weapons it is difficult to see how use of DU in the weapons claimed by some campaigners could be kept hidden without some documentation coming to light. The US has domestic legislation which governs the use of radioactive material and requires all possession of radioactive material to be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

The use of DU in missile counterweights would not be exempt from regulation. Although a specific exemption exists in Federal law for counterweights in aircraft and missiles, this only pertains to the possession of counterweights, so that owners of individual aircraft do not need an NRC license. The manufacture of counterweights requires an NRC license, which would be publically accessible. ICBUW knows of no NRC licenses involved with the production of counterweights for missiles. A 2001 NRC assessment document was unable to identify any conventional missiles using DU counterweights,4 and stated that demand for counterweights in aircraft had essentially disappeared. It appears that there are now no facilities making DU counterweights left in North America.

 

Lack of Documentation
Considering that the US government does not seek to hide its use of DU in penetrator munitions, it is difficult to see what purpose would be served by taking a more clandestine approach with other types of munitions, considering the effort which would be involved, and the political difficulties which would ensue if such deception came to light. The law governing licensing of radioactive materials, and other regulations, such as those dealing with the transport of DU munitions, are partly in place to protect those carrying out this work. Authorities that did not follow these regulations would be breaking federal law, and putting their workers at risk; it is difficult to see how they could rely on the discretion of their workers if this was the case.

ICBUW has yet to see the kind of documentation that would necessarily be generated if DU was indeed incorporated into cruise missiles. The production of uranium weapons involves many stages – metallurgy, milling, assembly, transportation, testing and the inevitable extensive environmental remediation work at the facilities where this work has been done. In the US it is routine for most, if not all, of these stages to be contracted out to private firms in open bidding processes governed by legal contracts. This creates an extensive paper trail which could be used to prove the presence of DU in cruise missiles, and a wide pool of potential whistle-blowers. As yet, no documentation or informants have been found.

ICBUW retains an open mind on this issue, and will continue to monitor the situation. However, at present our assessment of the situation remains that there is not credible evidence that DU is used in any kind of cruise missile.

Notes:

1. http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/du_ii/du_ii_refs/n52en215/9354_019_0000001.htm and http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/du_ii/du_ii_refs/n52en216/9354_020_0000001.htm

2. See http://www.nukeresister.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/DU-Disinfo-essay-1005.pdf pp. p3-4

3. See Milan Zarić, “The use of depleted uranium ammunition during NATO aggression against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia,” Archive of Oncology 9, no. 4 (2001): 215-7

4. http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/nuregs/staff/sr1717/nureg-1717.pdf