Depleted Uranium in the Afghan War:
Are ground troops and civilians at risk in "hard target"

smart bomb and cruise missile target zones?

Update by Dai Williams, independent DU researcher, 30 October 2001


Internet sources from 1997 to date indicate that several 'hard target' versions of smart bomb and guided missile systems used by Allied forces in Afghanistan may contain Depleted Uranium (DU) as a major component to increase their penetration effect.
Of particular concern are systems that use the US "Advanced Unitary Penetrator" technology, or UK developed MWS technology with "shaped charge" penetrators.

Reports from the Center for Defence information suggest that at least 500 tons of smart bombs and cruise missiles have been used in the first three weeks of the Afghan war. They are most likely to have been used on "high value targets" e.g. Taliban and Al-Qaeda command centres, airfields and other military installations.

This information is offered for verification with governments and military authorities out of concern for potential DU exposure to UK, US and other Allied ground troops expected to be involved in search missions for Osama bin Laden and other Al-Queda or Taliban leaders. Also due to concerns for potential exposure to local civilians, international aid workers and media personnel.(1)

Military uses and health aspects of Depleted Uranium

DU has been used in weapons systems in the USA, UK, Russia and Israel for at least 15 years and exported to over 20 nations. It has two special qualities for use in military applications:
a) Very high density (1.7x heavier than lead) which gives it high kinetic energy for its volume.
b) Pyrophoric properties - DU ignites at high temperature, melting through armour and adding
incendiary effects to its munitions.

Depleted Uranium (Uranium 238) is the main by-product of refining Uranium ore for nuclear fuel. It emits high energy but very short range Alpha radiation. In its pure metallic state it is relatively stable and safe to handle (e.g.
if ammunition is handled with gloves). However it presents two main health hazards:
DU ignites at high temperature and burns into DU Oxide - a fine, Alpha-radioactive, toxic dust, easily
inhaled, widely dispersed by wind and water, very hard to detect and to remove from the environment or the

Military DU is not pure. It includes small quantities of highly radioactive and toxic isotopes including U236 and Plutonium due to recycling nuclear fuel rods in DU processing. It was probably these other elements that enabled the UNEP survey team to trace DU in Balkans target zones.(3)

DU oxide contamination has been suspected as one source of Gulf War syndrome for several years. Other
recently acknowledged radioactive elements may be an additional factor in long-term illnesses, cancers and birth defects suffered by civilians and veterans or their children exposed to DU during the Gulf War, and in Leukaemia deaths of some NATO troops following the Balkans war.

In April 1999 Greek scientists reported a dramatic increase in atmospheric radiation levels two weeks after the start of the Balkans air war. I have been informed that they subsequently lost their jobs and their research was closed down. One explanation for the Greek measurements might be that DU has been used in larger weapons systems, and therefore in far larger quantities and different locations than previously declared or studied.

Hard target guided weapons used to date in the Afghan War

First clues to the potential use of DU in guided weapons were picked up in the following document on the FAS website: [Air Force Mission Area Plan (MAP)] ANNEX F Common Solution/Concept List (U)

This included references to introducing or upgrading at least 9 systems to include "dense metal" penetrators or ballast to increase their penetration effect and hard target capability.

Only two high-density metals are usually mentioned in descriptions of kinetic energy weapons - DU and Tungsten. Both are similar in density (Specific Gravity 18+) but very different in material and manufacturing costs. They may also be used in alloys.

For health and safety reasons the crucial question to ask the US and UK governments is this:
Is the 'dense metal' used in any of these systems Depleted Uranium, or an alloy including DU?

Evaluation of potential DU hazards in Afghanistan

One disturbing comment from Jane's was that the Military do not always know the materials used by
manufacturers since some may be used interchangeably. Since the US DoD and UK MoD both take a public view that DU is not hazardous (at least in its metallic form) then the Military do not need any special instructions for munitions that may contain DU. If this logic is sustained there is no reason to conceal the past or current use of DU in smart bomb or cruise missile systems.

However if Military commands from any of the Allied forces have doubts about the potential use of DU munitions against hard targets in Afghanistan this will be a matter for urgent and full information exchange between the forces and governments concerned.

Note: although this paper concerns guided weapons that may contain DU any use in conventional systems e.g. armour-piercing shells from the AC 130 gunship matter too.

The immediate operational concern is the likelihood that Special Forces will be expected to enter and inspect strategic target locations, underground bunkers and caves if accessible. Unlike anti-tank shells which leave distinctive entry holes there may not be obvious way for troops to distinguish potentially DU contaminated locations from other bomb damage.

Local geography and climate may be important if significant quantities of DU have been used. Afghanistan has more in common with Iraq than the Balkans - arid terrain prone to strong winds and dust storms. 300 tons of DU was declared in the Gulf War. Elevated radiation readings are still reported in some areas, years later.

The new generation (post 1997) of guided bombs and cruise missiles with hard target capability may be using DU in considerable quantities to achieve the increased penetration effects claimed by several upgraded systems - possibly 50% of the overall weight.
The majority of hard target bombing appears to have been accomplished in the first two weeks of the campaign.

What's done is done. Potential DU use remains to be acknowledged, quantified and target locations identified.
The 18 months delay for the UNEP survey after the Balkans war will not be psychologically or politically acceptable in the current conflict.
However if DU has been used and this becomes known to the Taliban and Al Quaeda it may encourage them to evacuate strategic target locations at the earliest opportunity, and not attempt to return.

If DU munitions have been used in populated areas then contamination levels need to be assessed at the earliest opportunity - not only for Allied troops but for the welfare of local civilians, aid and media workers. Scarce water supplies are a special concern.

Unlike anti-tank shells - guided bombs and missiles containing DU seem likely to oxidise most of the ballast load and to dissipate the resulting DU oxide (and embedded isotopes) over a considerable area in debris and dust-clouds.

Questions for the US and UK Governments

The basic questions asked in Tip of the Iceberg remain to be asked and answered publicly:
1.Which guided weapons systems (i.e. guided missiles, smart bombs and sub-munitions) use Depleted Uranium as the "dense metal" involved in hard target penetrators, by itself or in alloy with other metals?
2.How many of the 1997 hard target system concepts have been produced in prototype or production form, or are still under development?
3.How many of these systems or their derivatives have been used in live tests and military operations since Operation Desert Storm?
4.How many countries currently have stocks of DU in guided or other weapons systems?

And now these questions about its suspected use in Afghanistan:
5. Which and how many weapons containing DU have already been used in the current Afghan War, and where? Have DU weapons been used there before?
6. What is the estimate dispersal pattern of DU oxide fallout for each weapon? Will independent observers e.g. UNEP be allowed to commence environmental monitoring immediately?
7. What precautions will be taken to protect Allied ground troops from potential exposure to DU
8. What precautions will be taken to protect civilians and international aid teams, media, water supplies and agricultural land in potentially contaminated regions?

These concerns were submitted to the UK Government by Sir Paul Beresford MP at my request last week. Their answers are urgent in view of the imminent despatch of UK and other Allied ground forces, and the welfare of those already there. These questions also have implications for communities and veterans involved in several recent conflicts who may have been in the vicinity of smart bomb or cruise missile targets. They may require fundamental re-evaluation of the consequences of DU health hazards and whether DU weapons systems comprise weapons of indiscriminate effect.
The potential use of DU in hard target guided weapons has obvious tactical military advantages. But its potential effects in large scale bombing campaigns may cause long term hazards for troops and civilians that seriously outweigh most military justifications.

Dai Williams, independent researcher
Surrey, UK
[email protected]

References to previous discussion papers available from the author

1. Need for a DU Civilian Safety Handbook. 10 January 2001
2. Tip of the Iceberg? - apparent use of Depleted Uranium in bombs and missile systems. 25 Feb 2001. Includes more links to original sources.
3. Use of Depleted Uranium in the Balkans War: will the UNEP report include "Dirty" DU and missile targets? 13 March 2001, updated 5 June 2001

Links used in this report

4. Janes report on Air and Missile strikes in the Afghan war
5. FAS links to guided missile and bomb specifications:
6. CDI Terrorism Project Action Update:

Internet Sources

This report was based on three direct Internet sources plus links to manufacturers' websites from these prime sites:

Jane's Defence Information
General information about weapons systems, manufacturers bulletins and actions in the Balkans (4). Huge range of subjects, informed summaries but detailed information about weapons systems only available to subscribers. More DU information was available during the Balkans war. Good access.
Federation of American Scientists
Extensive information about weapons systems (5), historical records of government procurement plans and weapons development. Some pages seem quite old so need verification for most recent progress from other sources (e.g. Jane's).
Center for Defence Information, Washington
Very concise strategic summaries of US military information by ex-military personnel. Its Terrorism Project gives a daily assessment of Afghan war operations and prime systems (6). Not as detailed as Jane's or FAS but easy to access, good links and useful for cross-referencing with other sites.

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