While I am generally loathe to quote other media sources, recent news on both the Foreign Policy and Airwars websites show how the United States has potentially added to the already significant problems facing Syrians who have remained in their war-torn homeland.
According to both non-mainstream sources, United States Central Command Spokesman, Major Josh Jacques, recently admitted that the United States had used a total of 5265 armour-piercing 30 mm rounds from Air Force A-10 fixed-wing aircraft between November 16 and 22, 2015, destroying about 350 vehicles located in Syria's eastern desert. These vehicles were part of a convoy being used to transport oil as a means of funding ISIS' operations in the region as shown here:
Let's look at some background before we continue with the main subject of this posting. Here is a photo of the A-10, also known as the Warthog:
The A-10 is equipped with a 30 mm gun, giving it significant and precise firepower, resulting in lower collateral damage. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the A-10's arrived at the Incirlik base in Turkey on October 18th, just after the Turkish government opened up the base to "strike assets". Most of the operations from the base are over Syrian territory and are used to provide air support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (i.e the anti-Assad forces) in the northeastern part of the country. A fully loaded A-10 has the capacity to carry 2000 pound and 500 pound joint direct attack munitions or JDAMs, laser-guided JDAMs, the AGM-55 Marverick air-to-ground tactical missile and the aforementioned 30 millimetre GAU-8/A Avenger gun with 1150 rounds of ammunition. The gun is a hydraulically driven seven-barrels Gatling-type auto-cannon that is so accurate that it is not guided by lasers or Global Positioning System signals.
Here is a photo of the GAU-8/A:
Here is a video showing a test of the A-10s GAU-8 Gatling gun both on the ground and in-flight:
At its high rate, the GAU-8 fires 3900 rounds of mixed high explosive incendiary and armour piercing incendiary ammunition per minute with a maximum range over over 1250 metres and a muzzle velocity of 1067 metres per second.
With that background, let's go back to the news posted by both Foreign Policy and Airwares. While use of the awesome power of the A-10's Gatling gun is not surprising, what is surprising is that the Air Force is admitting that they used 5265 rounds of armour-piercing rounds that contained depleted uranium on the dates in question, similar ammunition to that which was used during Operation Desert Storm. Back then, the Airforce used Armour Piercing Incendiary munitions with a depleted uranium (DU) penetrator slug because these munitions were particularly effective at countering armour-plated Iraqi tanks. The 148 A-10s used during Operation Desert Storm flew 8077 combat sorties, firing a total of 783,514 rounds of Armour Piercing Incendiary munitions, leaving a total of 249 tons of DU in the region.
Depleted uranium is sourced from depleted uranium 235 discarded by nuclear power plants as well as depleted medical waste. According to the World Health Organization, it has a radioactivity level that is about 60 percent of the radioactivity of the 3 percent uranium used as a fuel source. It has a density twice that of lead and, as such, makes an ideal metal for penetrating armour plating. WHO's summary of DU states that there are three main methods of exposure:
1.) inhalation - the most likely route of intake when the depleted uranium is re-suspended in the atmosphere by wind or other forms of disturbance.
2.) ingestion - from drinking water or food.
3.) dermal contact - only a risk when it enters the system through an open wound or from embedded fragments.
About 95 percent of the uranium entering the body is not absorbed and is eliminated by way of faeces. Between 0.2 and 2 percent of the uranium in food is absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract. The organs that suffer the most from exposure to depleted uranium are the kidneys and lungs with particles smaller than one to ten micrometers in size being retained in the lungs, resulting in radiation damage and potential lung cancer over a long period of time. A 2010 study by Chris Busby et al found that there was an increased occurrence of cancer, leukaemia and congenital birth defects in the Fallujah area of Iraq between 2005 and 2010. Keep in mind that Fallujah was an area where there were a very significant number of U.S. military operations, some of which used depleted uranium (as well as white phosphorus). Here is a table showing the relative risks of various types of cancer in Fallujah with the "Rep" column showing the reported number of cases and the "Exp" column showing the expected number of cases:
As you can see, the reported incidences of cancer are far higher than what would normally be expected. While the authors do not draw a direct link between the use of depleted uranium munitions and the significant increase in the occurrence of cancers in the Fallujah region, at the very least, the coincidence is rather interesting.
Given that the use of depleted uranium munitions has become highly controversial particularly after Operation Desert Storm, it is rather surprising that the United States Air Force would continue to use these munitions in Syria, especially given that the long-term ramifications of its use could be linked to increased medium- and long-term health risks to the civilian population. As well, the operations in November 2015 were aimed at disabling "soft targets" like oil tanker trucks as in the video above rather than enemy armoured vehicles; in the Department of Defense's own Law of War Manual it clearly states that :
"6.5.7 Depleted Uranium Munitions. Depleted uranium (DU) is used in some munitions because its density and physical properties create a particularly effective penetrating combination to defeat enemy armored vehicles, including tanks."