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Pacific Ecologist

Conventional Weapons: Misuse of Resources

DES BROUGH notes the human and environmental costs of the US-led war on Iraq. The huge increase in US defence spending could have solved world poverty. Yet humanitarian aid for post-war Iraq has been severely under-funded and the use of near nuclear weapons and cluster bombs will have very long-term, harmful effects.

Today's "conventional weapons" are near nuclear in their capabilities. Uranium weapons from bullets to bombs are able to release radioactive dust clouds long after the war is over. We can assume the war was used for testing on the battlefield a new generation of weapons.

US war on Iraq toolbox

Operation Shock & Awe - The following predictions were modified if not abandoned by the US military. The information flow on the Internet by the anti-war movement provided an alternative source of news to that of imbedded reporters with the troops, censored by a military command structure. Faced with huge international opposition, the US military realised that "collateral damage"- high civilian casualties would have profound political effects in the controversial war. So the anti-war movement had a substantial success. The US dumped the Shock and Awe strategy as outlined below. It is instructive to note what would have been unleashed.

The Shock and Awe plan was to drop 3000 guided bombs and Tomahawk missiles within 48 hours before ground troops moved in - six kilos of ordnance for every Iraqi citizen.

Carpet bombing

Tons of dumb bombs were to be dropped from high altitudes by B-52's - indiscriminate in effect, as the name implies. An outdated strategy used in Cambodia & Vietnam.


Lockhead C-130's bristling with cannon like some giant hedgehog - with awesome firepower from the air. (2000 rounds/minute)

Patriot Anti-missile weapons

Ground to Air to knock out SCUD missiles; guided by sensors with small rocket thrusters to collide with missiles. With 16 to a launch pad they cost $US1 million apiece. The previous model didn't work in the Gulf. War. It worked this time around.

Cluster bombs

They explode in the air into 202 bomblets, each packed with razor sharp shrapnel. In Afghanistan, their failure rate was 5-30 %. Trouble was they look exactly like food parcels for kids. Same colour, size and shape; explode if touched after lying around. Deadly stuff. Their use against military targets situated in high-density population areas accounted for most of the civilian casualties (collateral damage) caused by the war. Such use is probably in contravention of the Geneva Convention.

Uranium weapons - indiscriminate

Uranium is 1.7 times more dense than lead. It is the ideal penetrator to take out tanks, or bust bunkers. DU ordnance comes in all sizes, bullets, shells, missiles, bombs - all tipped with depleted uranium, which bursts into flame when penetrating armour plate releasing a deadly radioactive aerosol. It can be ingested, or settle in sand, or forever be blowing in the wind for its half-life of two million years.

Over 300 tons of DU was dropped on Iraq in the Gulf War. No cleanup plan was put into place. Medical statistics show sharp increases in infant congenital abnormalities, leukemia, infant mortality. The sharp rises in incidences of illness and birth defects are currently unexplained. Anecdotal evidence, however, is mounting to implicate contamination by depleted uranium ordnance. An NGO campaign has led the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva to classify DU munitions as "weapons of mass or indiscriminate effect." This is because they fail:

  • the temporal test: effects continue after war ends
  • the humanitarian test: they have effects beyond those necessary to achieve military objectives
  • the environmental test: they pollute food, water, soil
  • the geographical test: the particles can potentially travel to non-combatant countries
The United Nations Environmental Programme has recommended that an immediate risk assessment field study be undertaken in Iraq with regard to possible health effects and environmental contamination. They have the experience in the Balkans of monitoring samples of plant, soil and water to ascertain possible contamination of water supplies and the food chain. They have also mapped radioactive "hotspots," so people, by avoiding areas, can reduce any possible health risks from excess radioactivity caused by exposure to DU.

The Royal Society (UK) Working Party on Effects of DU Weapons have also advised the occupying powers that monitoring of plant, soil and water samples should be undertaken in Iraq. The recent Iraq war released another 350 tons of DU munitions - the highest concentration of DU munitions ever used. Therefore the health and environmental effects will require monitoring for many years to come.

Meanwhile both the US Department of Defence and UK Ministry of Defence deny that the use of DU weapons are a hazard to human health or result in environmental contamination. The United States Embassy in Wellington, New Zealand, recently invited a selected audience to a video conference, attempting to reduce concern caused by the international debate on the effects of DU. Now the New York Academy of Medicine is arranging a symposium on the effects of the use of DU involving leading researchers on both sides of the debate. It will be interesting to learn of their conclusions.

Bunker Busters

B 61-11 earth-penetrating bunker buster bombs, have casings made of depleted uranium. This enables them to penetrate underground up to 30 feet before exploding. A revised version contains a nuclear warhead to increase penetration with an added advantage that radioactivity is not released into the atmosphere. The DU Bunker Buster was used on the supposed hideout of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

Daisy Cutters

Fuel/air explosive bombs are used to destroy chemical weapons. Step 1 - release cloud of gas in atmosphere. Step 2 - detonated gas sucks out oxygen creating a giant shock wave. This produces a tactical nuclear weapon effect without the release of radioactivity.

Such weapons have removed the distinction between conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction, posing a real challenge to the arms control community which seeks to ban use of weapons of mass destruction.

Tomahawk Missiles

Operation Shock & Awe planned to release 3000 over 48 hours. They cost $US2 million each and use DU as ballast. In reality, only 300 Tomahawk Cruise Missiles were used in the war. Proven most effective under battleground conditions, a recent updated version of the Tomahawk Missile has since resulted in many orders being placed for these weapons.

Unmanned Drones

Predator unmanned air vehicles can read every street address. They can also be equipped with Hellfire missile platforms. They cost $US6 million each.

Non-Lethal weapons

Toxic chemical agents such as Cs gas (calmatives) and pepper sprays are used for riot control situations. The 1972 Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits use of precursors in military warfare. US Marines have shipped supplies to Iraq. The International Red Cross opposes their use.

Misuse of Resources

With the cost of this weapons toolbox, world poverty could be solved. The astronomical increase in the US military budget is unprecedented in history. The US military budget has now exceeded $US 400 billion. This exceeds the combined defence budgets of all EU countries. Yet this does not include the actual cost of the war in Iraq.

Post-war issues

All this spending on preparation for war means under-resourced budgets to deal with the post-war issues. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says that funds are lacking to cope with the estimated 300,000 refugees to move into Kurdish-controlled Northern Iraq alone. Because the money is not upfront, delays will occur in orders for tents, blankets, food and water. Inevitably the UN will be called in to deal with the immediate post-war humanitarian issues.

Using a unilateral approach, the occupying powers set up three zones controlled by the US, Britain and Poland. General Jay Lerner was dumped after being in command of the provisional government for three weeks.

  • The challenge of reconstruction of water, sewerage and electricity supplies stretched the resources and abilities of the US & British military. They were not trained for a peacekeeping role.
  • The United Nations Security Council rescinded the oil for food programme to pave the way for contributions of humanitarian assistance and reconstruction from countries that did not support the war.
  • Contracts were allocated to US Bechtel Corporation and Halliburton Oil. These contracts were not offered for open tender in line with usual business practice. They were contracted to put out oilfield fires and given responsibility to get oil back into production from Iraqi oilfields.
US military spending - who pays?

Where does this military spending come from and who will be paying for it? The Bush budget has one basic aim: to reduce taxes for the wealthy, cut spending on health, education and welfare. Privatising Medicare is on the agenda. The budget plan is to rack up a ten-year projected deficit of $US2.1 trillion from a previous surplus of $5.6 million. Regardless of economic trends of growth, stagnation or decline - the Bush Administration has only one solution to kickstart the US economy - tax cuts for the wealthy.

US consumer spending is dropping and it drives 60% of the US economy. There will be less spending on building schools, cleaning up toxic wastes and other vital public works programmes that put people to work. University costs will soar; student loans will inflate. Environmental programmes will be reduced with clean water taking the biggest hit. The poor will be the first to suffer. There will be fewer police on the streets. Community development and public housing will be cut. It will be harder for poor children to get school lunches.The bulk of the cost of Bush tax cuts will be levied against healthcare and Social Security in the future. The Bush budget priorities are to free corporations from accountability and feed the Pentagon.

What About Oil?

Previously there has been a reasonable balance between supply and demand. The US consumes 25% of oil production. OPEC aims to maintain prices at $US22-28 per barrel. Market perceptions of instability have driven the price up to $US38 per barrel. The USA has added 26 million barrels to its Strategic Petroleum Reserve this year. This brings the total up to 580 million barrels. The SPR capacity is 700 million barrels. When SPR stocks fall below 300 million barrels, oil prices go up. A provisional military occupation government in Iraq will give priority to releasing the capacity of the Iraqi oilfield potential for the world market. In turn, this will lead to long-term reduction in price to stabilise at around $US15 per barrel. This is a fundamental aim of the US economy.


Domestic investment looks far more attractive in an unstable world. Cautious investors will look to low-risk local markets rather than high-risk offshore investments. Dr Cullen should note this fact in regard to the NZ government superannuation fund. Politically stable economies will attract investment as they are perceived to be low risk by global investors.


To recap, the US military intervention in Iraq is multi-dimensional in terms of its impact on world resources. As the US economy is a key driver of globalisation it has a high impact. Distortions created by an imbalance in allocation of budget resources for defence and homeland security mean that the American poor will suffer disproportionately as will the poor in countries with economies closely related to the US.

The military intervention by the US in Iraq is all about a new US policy in the Middle East to ensure its world domination as a single superpower. Geopolitics are important for releasing Iraq's oil resources onto the world market. The benefits to America are greater because of their high consumption of world oil supplies. Disarming Iraq is not the fundamental issue, neither is the so-called "war on terrorism." By comparison, there is no crisis over weapons of mass destruction in North Korea. Despite the North Korean plan to build more nuclear weapons, they are unlikely to be attacked by the US as was the case with Iraq. North Korea suffers from famine, failing food supplies, electricity shortages, plus lack of industrial development, aside from foreign exchange earnings through the sale of medium to long-range missiles. This so called " axis of evil" country is not rich in resources. So we can expect to see a diplomatic solution to the issue of another country planning nuclear deterrence as a strategy against possible aggression.

Finally the US-led war on Iraq provided the arms industry with an opportunity to test new weapons in battlefield conditions. Post-conflict humanitarian aid is severely under-funded in comparison with military spending. The environmental cleanup from the war will have to receive far more attention than was the case in the Gulf War and in Afghanistan. Today's short wars have long-lasting environmental effects through the use of radiological and near-nuclear weapons. They also create distortions in allocation of economic resources which further delay international co-operation necessary to solve the most pressing global economic and social issues.

Des Brough, Chair, National Consultative Committee for Disarmament, New Zealand.This article is updated from a talk given at the public forum held on 22/3/03, RESOURCE WARS - FROM THE GLOBAL ECONOMY TO IRAQ, organised by Pacific Institute of Resource Management (PIRM) - held at the Law School, Victoria University of Wellington.

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