DU-turn? The changing political environment around toxic munitions

By Wim Zwijnenburg and Doug Weir

Is the US backpedalling on its use of depleted uranium (DU) rounds? There are indications that the use of these highly toxic munitions could increasingly be a political liability for the US, with countries affected by DU, like Iraq, other UN Member States, and populations in contaminated areas all expressing concerns over its use and impact. But stigmatisation, although important, is not enough on its own – in order to make sustained progress on accountability and in reducing civilian harm, a broader framework that addresses all toxic remnants of war is needed.

A US Air Force A-10 being deployed to support Operation Inherent Resolve.

A US Air Force A-10 being deployed to support Operation Inherent Resolve. Credit: US Air Force

In a recent policy change, the Pentagon stated that it has not, and will not use DU in Iraq and Syria during Operation Inherent Resolve. The decision, which was cautiously welcomed by campaigners, contrasted with a statement made in October 2014, when the US announced the deployment of A-10 gunships to the conflict. The standard combat load for the A-10’s cannon includes a 30mm DU armour-piercing incendiary round, and in autumn 2014 a US Air Forces spokesperson said that the Air Force was ready to use DU again in Iraq and Syria.

Iraq is no stranger to DU: at least 404,000kg of the radioactive and chemically toxic heavy metal was fired in the country in 1991 and 2003. The fine dust created by DU impacts presents a hazard to civilians if inhaled, and both the dust and fragments of the ammunition can contaminate soil, vehicles and buildings. As DU particles are environmentally persistent, DU’s legacy can last long after conflicts end. Exposure to DU has been linked to increases of cancers and congenital birth defects in areas of Iraq that saw heavy fighting.

Yet despite long-running concerns voiced by Iraqi civilians and international advocates, no robust civilian health studies have ever been undertaken in Iraq to determine this link. Progress on clean-up operations has been slow, and has been hindered by the US’ refusal to provide comprehensive targeting data to UN organisations and the Iraqi government.

The evolving use of DU

The A-10 gunship has long been promoted as a “tank killer”, with the US arguing that DU ammunition is crucial for this function. Justifying the apparent U-turn over Inherent Resolve, a US public affairs official explained that: “The ammunition is developed to destroy tanks on a conventional battlefield. Daesh [Islamic State] does not possess large numbers of tanks.”

While its original Cold War close air support role did primarily concern the destruction of Soviet tanks and armoured vehicles, even then there were questions over the legality of DU. As a result, a 1976 legal review undertaken by the United States Air Force of the A-10’s DU ammunition sought to ensure that it was not used in populated areas and to restrict its use to armoured targets.

A boy standing in front of military scrap metal in Shat’l arab, an area near Basrah.

A boy standing in front of military scrap metal in Shat’l arab, near Basrah. Credit: Wim Zwijnenburg

However, the role of the A-10 has evolved since the 1970s, as has its range of targets. This was clear from data from the 2003 Iraq War, acquired by PAX in 2014. It revealed DU use by A-10s against anti-aircraft guns, buildings, trucks and un-mounted troops. Data on targets from the conflicts in the Balkans painted a similar picture. With the A-10s role evolving from attacks on armour to more general close air support, aircraft were often called in for a broader range of operations, this led to DU being used against other targets, even in densely populated areas. Once loaded with the standard combat mix, a mixture of DU and high explosive rounds, it is impossible to change the type of munitions in flight for attacks against non-armoured targets of opportunity, thus heightening the risk of exposure to civilians close to other targets.

Recently published figures on the 4,817 targets selected by US CENTCOM show that more than 120 tanks and armoured vehicles were destroyed in the first six months of the air campaign. There was therefore ample opportunity for the A-10 and its DU rounds to “kill tanks”, yet the US subsequently chose not to equip its A-10s with DU. Could this change in posture have more to do with a changing political environment, and in particular the growing stigmatisation of DU, than military calculations alone?


More than two decades after its first use in Kuwait and Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, concern over the humanitarian and environmental legacy of DU has gradually increased.

In recent years, legislation banning the weapons has been introduced in Belgium and Costa Rica. The European Parliament has also issued a number of resolutions calling for a moratorium on use and, most recently, a common EU position in favour of a ban. Since 2007, five UN General Assembly resolutions have been passed by large majorities. These have highlighted DU’s potential health risks, called for the release of targeting data to allow clean-up, for a precautionary approach to DU’s post-conflict management and, in 2014, for international assistance for states affected by DU use. This last resolution was supported by 150 states and opposed by just four, including the US. In addition to establishing soft law norms on DU, the process has also created a platform for an increasing number of states to voice their concerns over the weapons.

Perhaps the most influential of these was from Iraq in March 2014, where its government expressed:

[D]eep concern over the harmful effects of the use in wars and armed struggles of armaments and ammunitions containing depleted uranium, which constitute a danger to human beings and the environment.

The Iraqi government called for the UN, its specialised agencies, member states and civil society to take a proactive approach to the issue and to condemn DU use. They also argued for:

[A] binding and verifiable international treaty prohibiting the use, possession, transfer and trafficking of such armaments and ammunitions.

Clearly then, the further use of DU munitions by the US in Iraq would have been viewed as unacceptable by the Iraqi government, and would have been likely to result in further criticism of the increasingly controversial munitions.

Leaving through the back door?

Could the changing political climate be influencing US policy on DU? The US had previously come under pressure from civil society campaign the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) in 2011 over fears that DU would be used against Gaddafi’s tanks in Libya. Recent evidence of DU’s international stigmatisation has come, ironically, from the Joint Strike Fighter, which is supposed to replace the ageing A-10 in its close air support role – a decision that is proving controversial in the US. During the fighter’s development, project partners including Australia, Norway and Denmark expressed concern over the US proposal that it would use a DU round, insisting that an alternative material be found. DU was eventually ruled out, as were other toxic metals such as beryllium. Elsewhere there are signs of shift away from DU in the US’s other medium-calibre ammunition.

In 2008, just a year after the first UN General Assembly resolution, the US Army Environmental Policy Institute (AEPI) argued that alternatives were needed, stating that ‘the military should continue pursuing R&D for substitutes and be prepared for increased political pressure for current and past battlefield cleanup’. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one of several bodies researching less toxic materials, and in December 2014, published a new advance in manufacturing nanocrystalline tungsten alloys, which results in a material with similar properties to DU. DU’s toxicity is a key driver for this research.

While changes in procurement policies are slow, decisions like that taken over Inherent Resolve are tangible signs that international pressure is changing DU policy. Nevertheless, the emerging threshold of acceptability for DU use remains poorly defined and it is unlikely that the US will seek to clarify it any time soon. Operation-specific factors – such as Iraq’s clear position in favour of a ban – are also likely to remain important in determining whether DU is used or not. Backlash over veteran exposure, community opposition and financial liabilities associated with former testing ranges may also influence policy within the US.

The way forward

Welcome as these developments are, they serve to highlight the current lack of formal obligations for post-conflict DU clearance and victim assistance. Unlike explosive remnants of war, and in spite of the soft norms developing at the UN General Assembly, accountability and assistance for past DU use is underdeveloped and requires attention from both civil society and the international community.

As was the case with anti-personnel landmines, it will not be enough to simply stop DU being deployed. Protecting civilians requires that its legacy is also dealt with. DU remediation is costly and technically challenging, and states recovering from conflict require assistance to implement effective programmes.

More broadly, DU is just one of a number of toxic munitions constituents, and munitions just one of a wide range of pollutants generated by conflict. These toxic remnants of war pose a threat to human and environmental health before, during and after conflict. Efforts to minimise the practices that generate them and work to ensure that their impact is properly assessed and responded to could contribute greatly to not only the protection of civilians but also of the environment upon which they depend. Tackling the causes and legacy of conflict pollution also provides a welcome opportunity to creatively merge the environment, public health, human rights and humanitarian disarmament in response to the toxic footprint of modern warfare.

Wim Zwijnenburg works as a Program Leader Security & Disarmament for PAX, a Dutch peace organisation. He has a research program in Iraq on the impact of depleted uranium munitions, works on Toxic Remnants of War in Syria, emerging military technologies such as (armed) drones, and is supporting the Control Arms campaign in regulating the global arms trade.

Doug Weir is the Coordinator of the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons, a global coalition seeking a ban on the use of DU and for assistance to communities affected by its use. He also manages the Toxic Remnants of War Project, which explores state responsibility for the toxic legacy of military activities. 


Featured image: A tank destroyed and contaminated with DU in 2003 near Basrah. Credit: UK Ministry of Defence

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