From the pages of



Politics of War

Tank-Plinking in the Gulf

By Kemp Houck


Through two decades of post-Vietnam recovery, U.S. military strategists were restricted to a variety of low-intensity conflicts in the Third World, including protracted covert action (Nicaragua), proxy war (Afghanistan), and surgical interventions (Granada, Libya, Panama). The Persian Gulf crisis in 1990 presented Pentagon war planners with a sudden opportunity for the highest-intensity conflict in military history. If the duration of the war could be kept within strict limits, unprecedented volumes of firepower, money, technology, and troops could be poured into the Arabian peninsula. The desired conclusion would be a consolidation of the western alliance and a decade of security for Middle Eastern oil supplies.

High-speed movement of forces and computerized command-and-control were the keys to funneling a year of ordinary warfare into 43 days of combat. Supporting it all, a logistics effort comparable to the Normandy invasion was launched through the fall of 1990; seven billion tons of military supplies were stockpiled into ten square mile depots while half of all U.S. armed forces were moved into the Gulf from around the world.

Much of this gigantism was superfluous. Iraq had no allies, no intelligence capability, only a few hundred functional military aircraft, and its most modern tank, the Soviet made T-72, was a 20 year old design with an effective firing range 1,000 meters short of late-model western tanks. It was Iraq's 5,000 tanks and 500,000 troops that made up what General Schwarzkopf had called "the fourth largest army in the world." Within two weeks of ground war in February 1991, 4,000 of these tanks were destroyed or captured, 100,000 of the troops were killed, 85,000 captured, and 100,000 deserted. Over 300,000 survivors had received war-related injuries, and in January 1992, a Greenpeace investigation estimated that 90,000 of these had died. The U.S. Census Bureau revealed at the same time that the life expectancy for the remaining Iraqi population had declined by 20 years for men and 11 years for women. The United States suffered 146 combat deaths, many of them from accidental or friendly-fire incidents.


Economics of Destruction

Essentially these figures show what happens when a poorly trained army with obsolete equipment ventures onto an electronic battlefield dominated by B-52s, Stealth aircraft, cruise missiles, and satellite intelligence. With Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Germany paying tens of billions of dollars in support, Iraq became a shooting gallery for advanced missiles. For example, 4,000 infrared-guided Hellfire missiles costing $40,000 each were fired in the Gulf at a total cost of $160 million. Complaints were voiced when it was found that over 100 Hellfires had been used on trucks and foot soldiers.

According to well-informed histories of the war, the Hellfires, TOWs, Mavericks, and other guided missiles destroyed 2,300 Iraqi tanks, or 62 percent of the total of 3,700 tanks eliminated by the Allies. Many of these were sitting empty in trenches when hit, and Brig. Gen. Richard Neal, operations officer for Desert Storm, has said that most were struck from the rear.

Another 1,400 Iraqi tanks were destroyed by two types of cannon: the 30 millimeter multibarrel gun in the nose of the A-10 Thunderbolt "tank-killer" aircraft, and the 130-millimeter (4 inch) main gun in the M1A1 Abrams tank. The A-10s fired 940,000 of their 30mm rounds in the Gulf, and 10,000 of the big 120mm rounds were fired by the M1A1 guns. The A-10s may seem to have expended their ammunition rather exorbitantly, but they were designed to do that: the firing rate of these guns is 4,100 rounds per minute, or 68 rounds per second. In the Gulf they were also used to shoot aircraft, bunkers, and small vehicles. A-10 pilots became so bored with their task that they began to speak of "plinking tanks," as if they were tin cans.

What makes these details significant is that the 30mm and 120mm rounds fired in the Gulf were made of depleted uranium (DU), a waste product stored in tens of thousands of drums at the plants where uranium has been enriched for warheads and reactor fuel since the Manhattan Project. As with the many high-tech weapons used in the Gulf for the first time, this was the first full battlefield test for DU armaments. Also being battle-tested was the DU armor plate on the Abrams tanks, which sustained only negligible damage from Iraqi guns even when hit at ranges as close as 400 meters. The total U.S. tank damage inflicted by Iraq's armed forces consisted of a few tanks disabled by mines.


The Arrow That Can Stop A Tank

The 120mm DU penetrator round is a devastating projectile which has been through two decades of development at Army firing ranges. This is a three-part shell, 36 inches long, in which a protective shoe or "sabot" holds a 6-pound arrow-shaped uranium projectile during its flight through the gun barrel. Within the first 100 meters of trajectory, the sabot drops off, allowing the DU projectile to cross a battlefield at the incredible muzzle velocity of 1.5 kilometers per second or Mach 4.

Because of the extreme density of uranium alloy--uranium is 18 times as heavy as water, three times as steel--its flight is only minimally affected by air resistance, rain, or sandstorms. When a DU sabot round strikes conventional armor plate, it concentrates unparalleled amounts of energy on a single point, throwing incandescent fragments about the interior of a tank and exploding its flammable contents. In one incident in the Gulf, a DU round penetrated both walls of a T-72 tank, exploding it, and then went on to destroy another T-72.

The extraordinary velocity of DU ammunition also means that the range of existing tank guns has more than doubled. In one incident in the Gulf, three Iraqi tanks were destroyed by 120mm rounds at 3,000 meters, and the surviving troops were captured. One, an English speaking lieutenant, "asked his captors what kind of hyper fast antitank missiles they had used to destroy his platoon. When told he had been engaged with tank cannons, he was incredulous. "No tank cannon exists that kills tanks at that range." he exclaimed." Another tank kill by a British Challenger tank occurred at the unbelievable range of 5,100 meters. (Unlike the smooth-bore barrel in the M1A1 gun, the Challenger's gun has a rifled barrel which causes the sabot round to spin, giving it an even more stable trajectory and a proven range that will revolutionize battlefield tactics.)


We've Got to Do Something

Matching the range of these weapons in the Gulf were the 10-power infrared sights used by tank crews during sandstorms and under the dense smoke of burning oil wells. Even at 5,000 meters, these sights could pick out the thermal images of hit armored vehicles as bright dots on the horizon, especially as the surrounding environment cooled off at night. When the gunners sighted a dot, their gun computers would zero in the first round in less than six seconds, and then if necessary a second and a third round would be fired "until something blew up"...and a large hot spot from the resulting explosion showed up on their thermal sight.

Unfortunately, the "something" that blew up might well have been another Abrams or a Bradley Fighting vehicle, according to evidence brought forward in an investigation by Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). For example, six U.S. soldiers were killed and 25 wounded on Feb. 27 when an M1A1 fired on five other M1A1s and five Bradleys because of incorrect identification; on the same day, two other soldiers were killed and nine wounded when another M1A1 fired on three Bradleys, again because of incorrect identification. In OTA's analysis of a dozen similar incidents, DU weapons were clearly the chief cause of the Gulf War fratricides (63 percent of 60 friendly fire casualties are attributable to DU hits on U.S. vehicles).

The Army's immediate response to the friendly fire crisis was to equip its armored vehicles with infrared identification signals called "Budd Lights," but these signals can easily be jammed by bright infrared lights. OTA has recommended futuristic tank identification and communication systems similar to the AWACS system for controlling aircraft combat. Tank crews who found their DU rounds outshooting their command-and-control systems are wary. Col. David Weisman told a Newsday reporter in 1991: "We've got to do something. We need to learn from our mistakes." Weisman's "Hell on Wheels" brigade, which suffered 8 soldiers killed and 36 wounded by friendly fire, has erected a monument to its losses, and his troops have expressed fear of further combat in the tanks that became death traps in the Gulf. Even so, some commanders are calling for an increase in the 10X power of the M1A1 scope so that longer and more risky shots can be fired.

Just as ominous as these considerations are the health and environmental risks from the residues of uranium dust and fragments left after the firefights in the Gulf. Depleted uranium has the chemical toxicity of lead and is half as radioactive as natural uranium, whose record of carcinogenicity in the lungs of miners is well known. The seriousness of this threat was recognized by investigators from the British Atomic Energy Authority (AEA) who concluded after a visit to the Gulf that 500,000 eventual deaths could be part of the long term aftermath of the war. The AEA report, which was leaked to the Independent of London in November 1991, was based on the assumption that 25 tons of DU weapons had been fired in the Gulf, rather than the 300 tons that are now estimated.


Future DU Arsenals

In the shadow of the famous "smart and clean" weapons introduced in the Gulf, a series of sub-nuclear armaments has come into being that will multiply conventional firepower many times at negligible cost. Commanders throughout the Gulf coalition were convinced that the time has come to develop their own DU weapons systems. Thousand-ton shipments have been moving from the U.S. Energy Department to British Nuclear Fuels and the French nuclear agencies for the manufacture and deployment of DU munitions throughout the NATO alliance. Munitions catalogues are giving favorable mention to DU penetrator rounds currently under development for .50 caliber machine guns and 7.86 mm rifles--the standard NATO small-arms calibers.

As a largely unregulated nuclear waste product, DU exists in billion-pound stockpiles around the world and the market for its military uses is wide open. Already DU is being used as an aerodynamic stabilizing material in aircraft wings, cruise missiles, and helicopter blades. No obstacle exists that would prevent it from proliferating through worldwide arsenals to the point that it becomes a common metal in ships, jeeps, and humvees. The long-term effects of allowing unrestricted DU weapons proliferation into the 21st century is an arms control issue that is badly in need of continued public investigation.


Kemp Houck is on the staff of the WISE documentation center which specializes in nuclear issues and is currently working with a research network in Europe and the U.S. on a book on depleted uranium weapons.