US Air Force discusses replacing depleted uranium ammunition
The manufacturer describes the F-35 as the most lethal and robust combat aircraft ever built, but numerous bugs delayed its operation and generated high costs. Recently, US President Donald Trump attempted to mitigate the additional financial burden by exporting the aircraft. Regardless of the delays, there is doubt as to whether the F-35 can replace the old proven model A-10.
However, as long as the F-35 fighter jets are not operational, the A-10 will continue to operate and for that the Air Force will need new ammunition soon. Currently, the DU ammunition PGU-14 from the manufacturer Orbital ATK is used but will soon reach the end of its shelf life. While the A-10 is not intended solely for the use of PGU-14 depleted uranium ammunition and there are numerous, common ammunition loads that can do without uranium, it can be assumed that, for example, in operations with so-called 'close air support', armor-piercing ammunition will be required. As the website military.com reports, the future use of depleted uranium ammunition and its replacement by an, as well armor-piercing, tungsten alternative is currently being discussed.
From a military point of view, two factors argue in favor of the toxic uranium ammunition. DU, as a byproduct of the nuclear industry, is on the one hand significantly cheaper than tungsten and on the other hand has a higher density and thus a greater penetrating power. Tungsten will only replace DU if comparable effectiveness of the ammunition can be achieved.
It should be noted that tungsten carbide ammunition has negative side effects as well. Even though a tungsten alloy is a non-radioactive material that has less chemically toxic effects than DU, it is still harmful to health and appears to be carcinogenic in the long term. Since 2005 a series of investigations with laboratory rodents, led by John F. Kalinich (Ph.D.) of the US Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute, have revealed the carcinogenic and immunotoxic potential of embedded fragments of depleted uranium (DU) and of heavy-metal tungsten alloys (WA). The investigators conclude that "rapid and aggressive tumor development occurred at the implantation sites in the WA groups. This raises significant concern since heavy-metal tungsten alloys are being used as replacements for DU in armor penetrators."
In its 14th Report on Carcinogens the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services it states that the substance tungsten cobalt is "known or reasonably anticipated to cause cancer in humans".
Nevertheless, the use of highly toxic uranium ammunition has to be condemned strictly and in view of the long-term consequences, for example as a result of the deployments in the Balkans or in Iraq, non-violent peace building and preventive diplomatic actions should replace and avoid any military operation. While the military has been defending the use of DU for years, the fact that a discussion is currently sparking in the US and that many other states generally refrain from DU ammunition gives cause for hope now.
Meanwhile, F-35A fighter planes have already been purchased by several Nato member countries. The replacement of the F-16 fighters by F-35A aircraft is currently a hot item on the agenda of the Belgian Parliament and widely discussed in public. Members of the Belgian Coalition ´Stop uranium weapons‘ were very concerned whether or not DU munitions would be used by the rotating Gatling (Aircraft Gun Unit) GAU-22/A gun installed on the F-35. This put the DU issue firmly back on the Belgian Defense agenda.
The detailed technical data sheet of the F-35A fighter plane shows that its Gatling GAU-22/A cannon is fitted to fire these types of PGU ammunitions:
- PGU-23/U - TP (TP = Target Practice)
- PGU-20/U API (API = Armor Piercing Incendiary)
- PGU-25/U HEI (HEI = High Explosive Incendiary)
The Gatling cannon GAU-22/A can fire 25 mm High Explosive Incendiary ammunitions. The Gatling 7-barrel cannon mounted on the A-10 attack aircraft (used by the US to fire DU ammunitions at adversary war tanks) employs 30 mm DU ammunitions and 30 mm HEI ammunitions, most often in a mixture of both types.
The penetrator of HEI ammunition is a rod that forms the core of the projectile. It is made out of tungsten carbide alloys such as tungsten-cobalt. Contrary to depleted uranium heavy metal, particles of heavy metal tungsten have no pyrophoric properties. That is why explosives and incendiary materials are added into the HEI ammunition in order to turn an armored vehicle into a blaze, Projectiles with DU penetrators as core do not need any explosive material to cause the same fire.
A-10 Thunderbolt II ('Warthog')
On the 17th of April 2018 a parliamentary question was asked by Dirk Van der Maelen, a member of the Belgian federal parliament. His question directed to the Commission for National Defense had this introduction:
‘In the past the Pentagon announced the replacement of the A-10 Warthog war planes by F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. On the 4th of February 2010 the magazine 'Flight International‘ published an article that said that the F-35 A would replace the USAF F-16, A-10 and F-15 war planes. A-10s were employed since the seventies as ´close air support´ to assist ground troops in order to destroy adversary tanks by means of flying over close to the ground. Many times DU munitions have been used (Persian Gulf War, Balkan War, Iraq War). The use of DU ammunitions had and still has disastrous consequences for human health and the environment.’
Deputy Dirk Van der Maelen then asked the following questions:
‘1/ The 34 F-35A that Belgium intends to buy, will it be equipped with a rotating Gatling gun capable of firing projectiles with depleted uranium? Can you give precise information about this?
2/ If the F-35A would use depleted uranium ammunition, how could this be brought into line with Belgian law prohibiting the provision, production, trading and transport of ammunition with depleted uranium?
3/ Should there not be an official control to see that Belgium never uses such weapons during an armed conflict, not even by introducing a new war plane in its military capacity?’
The Belgian Minister of Defense answered:
‘I already said a number of times that the government choose for an
open procedure and that the RfGP (Request for Government Proposal)
is available on the internet. In relation to your specific question about depleted uranium ammunition there are no requirements in the RfGP. Until today I do not know the content of the different offers of the candidates, so I can’t answer your question. I want to point out that there is no demand nor is it my desire that depleted uranium ammunition would be used by the new war planes.’
This answer is not clear to us and a lot of uncertainties remain. No concrete or detailed information has been given in response to the parliamentary question, specifically whether or not the F-35A will be equipped with a cannon that can fire DU ammunition.
After further research on the issue we found out that PGU-47 ammunition seems to have been developed for the F-35A, B and C (by NAMMO of Norway). This ammunition has a tungsten carbide penetrator.
(Ria Verjauw, Spokesperson ICBUW)