Targets of Opportunity: Analysis of the use of depleted uranium by A-10s in the 2003 Iraq War
The US and UK have acknowledged firing 116,000kg of depleted uranium (DU) ammunition in the 2003 Iraq War. Just over 45% of this was fired by one platform, the US A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack aircraft. The chance release of targeting data from 1,116 sorties flown by A-10s between March 20th and April 15th 2003 has for the first time made it possible to reconstruct where the aircraft fired DU, what they fired at and how many rounds they used.
The analysis in this report reveals that in 2003 DU use was widespread across Iraq. While the majority of strikes were outside or on the outskirts of heavily populated areas, those strikes that were in towns and cities often saw proportionately more DU used. Significantly, the data confirm that only 33% of the A-10s’ targets were tanks or armoured vehicles, with the weapons also used against light vehicles, buildings and unmounted troops.
Before its entry into service, a legal review of the A-10s’ radioactive, chemically toxic and incendiary DU ammunition placed restrictions on its use: civilian areas were to be avoided, as were troops, and the weapons were only to be used against armoured targets, unless other weapons were unavailable. However, because of the design of the A-10’s 30mm cannon, its pilots are incapable of selecting between DU and high explosive ammunition once in flight. The ammunition belts are loaded before take-off, making the aircraft disproportionate by design. Recent and contemporary conflicts are very different to the Cold War context for which the aircraft and its ammunition were designed and, since 1991 A-10s have been documented using DU against a far wider range of targets than armoured vehicles alone. The data in this report brings the number of sites in Iraq confirmed to have been contaminated with DU from 350 to more than 1,000.
While the Iraqi government has taken steps to identify and clear some sites the work is far from complete, with efforts likely to have been slowed by the continuing insecurity in the country. Unlike explosive remnants of war, there are no formal obligations on the states that use DU or are affected by it to clear contamination and assist affected communities. The recently declassified documents discussed in this report demonstrate that the US government had policies in place to monitor DU use and the locations of contamination, and that they were sensitive to the risks DU posed to civilians, their own personnel and their relations with other states. Yet little information has been made available on what efforts they made to clear DU contamination beyond their own facilities; target location data, and information on past clearance is critically important to Iraq as it seeks to address the legacy of the two conflicts.
The need to increase data sharing and cooperation to address DU and other toxic remnants of war has been raised by repeated UN General Assembly resolutions and more recently by the International Law Commission and the UN Human Rights Council. The report concludes by analysing state practice on DU management by the US and UK in the wake of the 2003 conflict in order to examine whether new norms are being created. This report reveals that the claim by the proponents of DU weapons that their use is restricted to the specific task of destroying armoured vehicles is demonstrably false: a fact that should further increase the existing stigmatisation on the use of the weapons. We also hope that the data in this report will be of use to the Iraqi authorities, and to the demining organisations, researchers and affected communities seeking to address the legacy of DU use in the 1991 and 2003 conflicts in the absence of formal post-conflict clearance obligations.
The report, and its source materials - including the US targeting data - are available for download at the bottom of this article.
The early location of DU contaminated sites is critical for the implementation of measures to reduce the risk of civilian exposure. This requires the swift release of detailed targeting data to national authorities, relevant international organisations and demining organisations. The UK performed better on transparency and data sharing than the US following 2003, where the US’srefusal even to share information with UN bodies hampered post-conflict assessments. It is likely that the US is still holding data on the use of DU by land platforms in the conflict and this should be made available without delay in order to facilitate clearance activities.
Clearance and assistance
The government of Iraq has made clear that it requires support from the international community and international organisations to address DU contamination from the 1991 and 2003 conflicts. UN General Assembly resolution 69/57 in 2014 encouraged states to provide assistance to affected states, in particular in identifying and managing contaminated sites and material. Donors and international organisations must ensure that Iraq has the technical capacity and resources it needs to effectively manage contamination and to assist affected communities.
Formalise post-conflict DU management obligations
The absence of clear international obligations for the post-conflict management of DU places civilians at risk of unnecessary exposure and leaves affected states with a significant financial, technical and political burden in the wake of conflicts. Peacetime regulatory frameworks, international radioactive waste management guidelines, the emerging norms on data sharing, assessment, clearance, recovery and monitoring, as well as the principles being examined by the International Law Commission and UN Human Rights Council could all provide guidance on the possible scope and structure of obligations. Whether specific obligations should be developed, or whether DU should be included within an existing framework – such as Protocol V of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons – should be urgently considered by states.
Ban DU weapons
This report details the reality of DU use in conflict, while promoted and legally justified as an antiarmour weapon, the reality has proved very different in recent conflicts. This has placed civilians at increased risk of exposure, as have the lack of formal post-conflict obligations, the cost and complexity of DU management and the persistent refusal of some DU users to publicisewhere the weapons have been used and what efforts have been undertaken to deal with contamination. The uncontrolled dispersal or DU in conflict runs counter to themost fundamental radiation protection norms and, in spite of the ceaseless assurances of those that use the weapons, is unlikely ever to go unchallenged by the dictates of public conscience – as they are all too well aware. DU has no place in conventional weapons and the only lasting solution to the unacceptable threat its use poses to civilians is a global ban.
Further coverage: https://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2016/10/06/exclusive-iraq-war-records-reignite-debate-over-us-use-depleted-uranium
- 3454 Kb - Format pdfPAX and ICBUWTargets of Opportunity reveals for the first time the extent to which the US breached its own restrictions on the use of DU in the 2003 Iraq War. Fewer than half of all targets attacked by A10 aircraft were armoured and many were in populated areas. The report triples the number of sites known to be contaminated with DU and also analyses whether norms on data sharing and clearance of DU are emerging.
- 397 Kb - Format xlsWim ZwijnenburgData used in Targets of Opportunity, released from CENTCOM through FOIA on A-10 DU target locations and characteristics converted from PDF into excel.
- 5289 Kb - Format pdfVarious US milPart one of the FOIA provided to us by George Washington University National Security Archive and containing the original record of US firing data used in Targets of Opportunity.
- 3214 Kb - Format pdfVarious US milPart two of the FOIA provided to us by George Washington University National Security Archive and containing a draft US environmental policy for the Iraq War, DU data collection policies and DU usage statistics.
- 1954 Kb - Format pdfUSThe original pre-service weapons review for the DU ammunition fired by the A-10 Thunderbolt II, which placed restrictions on the use of the weapons.