Opinion: Depleted Uranium Weapons – a new area of Liberal Democrat policy?

After 40 years of increasing disquiet over depleted uranium (DU), the UK’s last operational DU tank munition – CHARM3 – is nearing the end of its shelf-life. DU weapons are chemically toxic and radioactive. Their use (especially in Iraq) generates a hazardous legacy that states recovering from conflict struggle to monitor and mitigate. CHARM3’s propellant charge expires in 2013 and the decision to renew or reject DU munitions may provide an opportunity for us in government.

Unlike the US and France, the UK has not upgraded its anti-tank ammunition in over a decade. This is due to the technical limitations of the current ammunition system. The Challenger 2 tank’s rifled gun relies on non-NATO standard bespoke ammunition – leaving the MoD unable to buy off the shelf, with serious implications for effective procurement.

Conscience of this, the MoD undertook trials which demonstrated superior performance from a NATO standard gun and Tungsten (non-DU) ammunition. The MoD says that this upgrade would also offer considerable cost savings.

Following the treaties banning anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions DU is expected to be the next controversial weapon subject to an international ban. The European Parliament has passed four resolutions on DU, the most recent of which in 2008 called for an immediate European moratorium on DU munitions and efforts towards a global treaty ban. Three UN General Assembly resolutions on the issue (2007, 2008, 2010) have garnered increasing support from many of the UK’s EU and NATO partners.

DU weapons have been banned in Costa Rica and Belgium and legislation is under development in Ireland and New Zealand. Campaigners argue that an international treaty ban on DU weapons would set a valuable precedent by synthesising elements of arms control and environmental law, encouraging the increased protection of human and environmental health during conflict.

Liberal Democrats and DU

Liberal Democrats who have been supportive of efforts to ban DU include; eight members of the All Party Group on Depleted Uranium, 22 and 17 MPs who signed EDM 825 and EDM 2318 respectively and all of our MEPs who voted for the EU 2008 resolution (which Liz Lynne MEP actually tabled on behalf of the ALDE). Within Westminster, supportive MPs include party president Tim Farron, former leaders Ming Campbell and Charles Kennedy, backbench co-spokesperson for Defence Martin Horwood and our member on the Defence Select committee Sir Bob Russell. As Shadow Defence Secretary, Nick Harvey tabled a number of parliamentary questions on the issues of civilian and service personnel health, and alternatives to DU weapons.

A strong position on DU would help differentiate the party from the Conservatives, creating a distinctive area of policy. Also notable is the political capital New Labour gained by signing the 1997 Convention on land-mines and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. Liberal Democrat support for a move away from DU would reflect growing international concern and provide an opportunity for significant political gains.

Martin ‘Lev’ Eakins was elected to Manchester City Council when he gained a seat off Labour in 2008. He also stood for parliament in Wythenshawe & Sale East in the 2010 general election.

* Lev Eakins is a former Manchester Councillor and parliamentary candidate who now lives in Sussex.

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  • You make it sound like switching to Tungsten is much better but Tungsten has equally horrible effects on the environment and people’s lives. Since we use the things so rarely then I wouldn’t give it too much thought…

  • DU weapons are chemically toxic and radioactive. Their use (especially in Iraq) generates a hazardous legacy that states recovering from conflict struggle to monitor and mitigate.

    DU is weakly radioactive and chemically toxic, yes. The question is how toxic is it, and the answer to that is uncertain. Certainly there is no evidence of long term harm after its use in battle. There are of course various congenital and other diseases associated with warfare, but nobody has ever established a causative role for DU.

  • Hi Tommy. Tungsten and DU anti-tank rounds have very different properties and Tungsten is much safer for civilians (and more deadly to enemy tanks) than DU.

    The reason for this is that when a DU round hits a hard surface, it self sharpens as the surface of the round ignites and burn off. This is great for killing the occupants of a tank, as it normally creates internal fires as bits of flaming DU bounces around burning anything (including ammunition and people) it comes into contact with it.

    Sadly, bits also fly off that don’t ignite, resulting in a cloud of DU dust. If the round misses an enemy tank, and flys into civilian buildings (as was the case in Iraq) this dust can be inhaled or ingested by civilians.

    Tungsten doesn’t have this dust releasing property, and spent rounds that missed armoured targets can be safely retrieved (normally in one piece) after battle by civilians or military personnel without fear of radioactive or genotoxic contamination.

    For more information about how DU contaminates and harms civilians, have a look at this short video clip: http://youtu.be/UlGPtBX0IRY

  • Conscience of this, the MoD undertook…
    shouldn’t this be Conscious

  • Jones – yes, you’re right. My bad. I’ve asked the guy who uploaded it to correct that. Thanks.

  • Given all the cuts being made, particularly to our military spending budget. Is now really the best time to propose changing from DU ? Surely this is going to take money from areas where it can be better spent. For example less cuts in military personnel. I don’t disagree with the cause, just the timing.

  • I’ve read claims it’s not a massive risk??

    Obviously, it’s not nice stuff, and I’m not going to defend it, but how big a hazard is it?
    The video Lev links to tells you what uranium does, but admits “unfortunately, there have not been any large-scale studies on civilians” to quantify the effects of DU weapons.”

    WHO report seems fairly muted:

    Is using white phosphorous in weapons still legal? That IS ghastly stuff.

  • Cassie – the MoD acknowledges it’s a hazard, as does the WHO. However the MoD continues to promote a series of straw men to justify its continued usage. These include presenting the opposition as sensationalising the issue – when they in fact argue that DU usage leads to localised areas of contamination, which in reality are hugely challenging for post conflict states to manage. They also argue that no science has been done on the effects on civilians, while true, it’s a disingenuous argument as the reasons for this include the staggering complexity of epidemiology in post conflict environments and the singular lack of interest from the users in funding this work.

    What we can say is that a range of lab assessments – of the sort used to gauge the risk from say medicines or consumer products – have clearly demonstrated that DU exposure has the potential to cause a range of health problems. We can also show that DU is not managed appropriately following conflict – even to the standards recommended by the WHO and others – and, because of a lack of political interest and the huge financial liabilities involved, is never likely to be.

    There is a good reason why the states that use DU have strong domestic controls over its handling and to avoid its release – it’s a shame that these are ignored overseas. Its uncontrolled release during conflict – often in civilian areas – runs completely counter to the most basic principles of environmental and health protection. Its use also has a profound psychological impact on the civilian population.

  • In my view the actual problem is that the current ammunition (which is DU ammunition) is fired from a rifled gun, a unique gun only used on the UK Challenger tank and not used by other army such as U.S, Germany, France, etc that today all use Tungston rounds fired from ‘smooth bore’ guns.

    So the real decision we are facing is not what to do about DU (thats obvious from other counties actions) but indeed what to do with the tank’s unique gun, if indeed as reported its DU ammunition is soon to be obsolete.

    Looking logically there seems to be a few options …

    1) invest a lot of money in the development of new tungston ammunition that remains unique to Challenger 2’s rifled gun, for the relatively short remaining life of these vehicles OR

    2) Buy an existing ‘smooth bore’ gun, fit it to CHallenger and have common ammunition with other countries (this solution is already sucessfully tested on the Challenger tank, but it would no doubt require high costs for conversion) OR

    3) Give away our Challenger tanks and buy second hand tanks (having smooth bore guns) common with other major countries, firing common ammunition, as they reduce their tank fleet sizes (the likely short term cheapest solution and also providing access to a common spares pool ) OR

    4) install a smooth bore gun (common ammunition) onto an existing UK vehicle.
    E.G. fit one to say a derivative of the new SV vehicle, which would then give fleet savings OR

    5) Finally, do nothing and loose the important military advantage of DU or Tungston ammunition.

    As Challenger 2’s gun is shown in a recent House of Commons report to only become obsolete by 2023, can we assume that a decision is already made and is this already in favour of Tungston ammunition ?

  • Jeff,
    You make some good points. Of the options listed, number 2 is the most likely. 3 would probably involve a downgrade in tank capability more significant than option 5, but would be more expensive. Option 4 would only really make sense if the Challenger 2 was scrapped, but I can’t see this being considered acceptable in defence circles.

    Option 1 would be difficult as neither the manufacturing capacity nor the expertise are really present in the UK these days. Furthermore, the dimensions of the current round mean that increasing the penetrator length (the most simple way of making the round more effective) is not an option. The fact that no new round has been developed since the late 1990s, and development switched to installing a smooth bore barrel, suggests that new ammunition for the current gun would not be any more effective than CHARM 3.

    Figures on the costs of option 2 were cited in a Jane’s article in 2008. Although the conversion to smooth bore guns was estimated to require upfront spending of £85 million, the figure would presumably be lower for a reduced fleet size, as envisaged under current plans. Also this upfront expenditure was estimated to generate savings of £325 million over the 25 year life of the Challenger 2.

    Considering the costs, the only realistic choices involve abandoning the UK’s main battle tank capability altogether, or spending the money upfront for the smooth bore conversion, saving money in the long term and retaining a cutting edge tank fleet.

  • Doug – cheers for the reply.

    >They also argue that no science has been done on the effects on civilians, while true, it’s a disingenuous

    Absence of scientific proof is always a problem. Whether it’s mobile phone masts, artificial sweeteners, whatever. Allows both sides of an argument to claim something is perfectly safe/ very dangerous. Makes it hard for an objective person to know which side is right.

  • I would broadly agree if there were no proof but many aspects of DU’s potential health risks have been fairly well documented. The main issue is that the impact is not as simple to map as that from explosive weapons such as land mines or cluster munitions, instead you are talking about a percentage risk in a range of negative health outcomes over a prolonged period. However this is a similar story to many other long-lasting or bioaccumulative substances, from DDT to pthalates, many of which have been banned without resort to epidemiology. Instead you can assess the intrinsic hazard to health and examine whether they are in a form likely to get into people. In the case of DU both of these hold true.

    Alternatively it’s possible to resort to the common sense test – is it a good idea to disperse chemically toxic and radioactive materials in a bioavailable form in the knowledge that they are unlikely to be cleaned up? There is a good reason why the MoD don’t use DU rounds in training on home turf!

  • David,

    Installing a smooth bore gun onto the existing Challenger tank and gaining the sensible ability to use similar ammunition as other important friendly countries (using tungsten, so by default we would no longer use DU) may be the political way forward but I cannot see how this can ever be achieved at the £85 million cost quoted above from Janes magazine. Consider the upgrade required. New gun, new fire control system for aiming the gun, new turret integration, new places to install long ‘single piece’ ammunition (instead of the current 2 piece explosive and projectile used in Challenger) and likely a new smaller powerpack to make room for the new ammunition, and also required to bring the tank back up to modern standards due to continued weight growth. Then there is new ammunition to buy in all its varieties (firing off the old stuff in training, where possible) and also of course the cost of maintenance training, spares etc for the new gun and equipment.

    If politics did not come into the equation, the most sensible solution seems be to scrap the Challenger fleet and buy second hand Leopard 2 tanks, upgrading them to the latest A8 standard, adding UK radios etc. Certainly this would be the cheapest most cost effective solution, in view of the fact countries are practically giving away for free their unwanted modern Leopard tanks (as we did with our Harrier’s to the U.S). The modern Leopard certainly gives better tank capability than today’s average Challenger 2, though we would not buy so many, so overall perhaps total tank capability could reduce, as you mention. However, history has shown under Thatcher and the Chieftain Replacement Program that gave us Challenger 2 (and its rifled gun), that politics usually rules.

  • Thanks for responding Nick, regarding the different interpretations of the reports, I think it is more a question of how one should respond to their findings. Clearly the MoD has some interest in retaining its DU munitions. As a result it spins each new study on the basis of the science covered. However what they neglect to do (understandably enough given their public position on this) is to accept the scientific uncertainties regularly documented by the same reports and use these as a basis for acknowledging the limitation they pose to risk calculations.

    The recent study by the European Commission is perhaps a good example. The MoD promotes it thus: The European Commission, through a group of independent scientific experts taking into account potential pathways and realistic scenarios of exposure, concluded that “exposure to depleted uranium could not result in a detectable effect on human health”.

    And yet on closer analysis the study based its calculations on the likelihood of civilian exposure on a study of just 25 Kosovar civilians. A proportion of whom lived in varying degrees of proximity to sites where a specific type of air launched DU round was used. More fundamentally, it was clear that a lack of understanding over the response of different human tissues to particular doses of DU meant that it was impossible to use the study as a basis for assessing risk. For more please see: http://www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/a/415.html

    Notwithstanding the hard science, it is increasingly clear that the actual usage of the weapons during conflict – and the management of sites afterwards is hugely unpredictable. These real world issues are difficult to include in risk modelling.

    Finally, you mention the requirement for a causal link to ill health. This is all to the good but you must understand what you are asking for. Such a study would require full transparency from users over targeting data, detailed site management data and environmental assessments, a stable non-migratory cohort of civilians numbering in the thousands, detailed pre and post conflict health records, a stable security situation and sufficient political interest from the user nations to fund the work. Taking Iraq as an example, would the above seem workable? If your answer is no then you must look to other sources to base policy on.

    So can you demonstrate that DU is a potential hazard? Yes: a fact acknowledged by the UN, its agencies, UK environmental regulations and even the MoD. Can the level of risk it presents be accurately modeled on the basis of our current understanding? No: demonstrably not the case on the basis of the EC’s recent attempt. And then add in to the mix the social and cost liabilities that affected states are being burdened with through its use.

    On the basis of current knowledge, and on the ongoing uncertainties over its impact, a precautionary response is the only scientifically justifiable approach. This has a clear basis in EU and UK environmental law – why should this be overruled by the MoD’s claims of perceived necessity? Of course anti-personnel land mines and cluster munitions were once necessary too…

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