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Depleted Uranium in Modern Warfare- Unethical or Indispensable?

17 Sep

Depleted uranium (DU) is the uranium remaining after the enriched fractions are removed and is most commonly obtained as the byproduct of a nuclear reactor or the manufacture of nuclear weapons. DU is typically about 40% less radioactive than purified natural uranium, however that is still considered to be highly toxic.

According to the most recent statistics available, the countries with the 5 largest stockpiles in the world in order are the US (480,000 t), Russia (460,000 t), France (190,000 t), UK (30,000 t), and Germany and the Netherlands tied for 5th place (16,000 t). DU is about twice as dense as lead and harder than steel. It has numerous civilian uses like being used in the construction of counterweights for aircraft, radiation shields in medical radiation therapy machines, dental porcelain for false teeth(really?), containers for the transport of radioactive materials and most recently in high energy particle experiments. In the military it is highly prized in armor plating and is used in penetrating ordinance because of it’s high density and also due to the fact that it ignites on impact if the temperature exceeds 600°C. It’s now being used widely in both light, medium and heavy machine gun ammunition.

DU munitions are a key aspect of what makes modern, advanced militaries so effective. Most notably, the American M1 Abrams tank is protected by steel encased DU armor and fires DU anti-tank round penetrators which were brutally effective in the massacre of Iraqi tanks and armored targets during both Persian Gulf Wars.  The M1’s armor has proven to be miraculously effective and since it first entered service with the US military, only a handful of tanks have been heavily damaged. And of those few that were damaged, it was often at the hands of an opponent armed with a DU tipped weapon system. The A-10 Thunderbolt is armed with a heavy assault cannon which fires 30mm DU rounds and was used in the First Iraq War, numerous theaters in the War on Terror and NATO peacekeeping missions.

The most common way people suffer health complications from DU is by being in areas where munitions have been used for extended periods. There is a startling lack of knowledge on the effects of exposure to uranium but here are some known facts.

  • There is debilitating damage done to the kidneys, more specifically to the proximal tubules which act as the main filtering component for the kidneys.
  • The inhalation of DU dust particles like one would encounter in plane crashes or munitions impact craters are known to carry a high risk of lung cancer, and if a person has preexisting lung damage then cancer is almost a certainty.
  •  There is also some evidence that DU can accumulate in the central nervous system and impede its functions.
  • In addition to being radioactive, DU is also classified as a toxic metal and since similar substances are known to adversely affect the kidney, brain, liver and heart it is very likely that DU has similar negative properties.
  • It has been suggested that DU may be responsible for Gulf War Syndrome and veterans of the Gulf Wars and Balkan peacekeeping missions have been found to have up to 14 times the normal level of chromosome abnormalities in the genes.
  • People exposed to DU have a significant chance of having children with birth defects.
  • In the aftermath of the large tank battles in the 2nd Iraq War, numerous “cancer fields” have formed where locals salvage scrap metal for a living and hospitals in the area have recorded an dramatic uptick in child leukemia and genetic malformation among children born after the 2003 invasion.

As of yet, there is little other data on the adverse effects of DU on humans since most cases of exposure occur in poor or isolated areas and are not reported or diagnosed by medical professionals.

Results of DU exposure. WARNING: Not for the squeamish. Baby 1. Baby 2. Kid with no arms. Kid. Mushroom head baby. What is this I don’t even. Malformation.

As we’ve seen, DU is a potent tool of modern warfare. Described by some as a “silver bullet”, DU munitions are capable of piercing through almost any armor or obstruction as well as being able to provide the best protection money can buy. When used properly, DU equipped weapons system are capable of sweeping aside lesser equipped armed forces with ease. If you had the stomach to click on all of those links to the photos then I’d really like to hear your opinion on this. Do the consequences of using depleted uranium in weapons outweigh the benefits?

Check out this great article for further reading if you’re interested. Here’s another.

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NATO and the SCO. Doomed to be Enemies?

6 Sep

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a military alliance formed at the beginning of the Cold War to check the influence of the Soviet Union and its allies. Ever since the dissolution of their arch enemy, NATO has been having a bit of an identity crisis with many wondering if the alliance should be dissolved due to the lack of a common enemy. But recently it has taken on the role of a peacekeeping force, engaging in operations around the world and is a counterweight to the Eurasian dominance of China-Russia.

Collectively, NATO accounts for 70% of the world’s military spending and despite the seemingly bleak future of the European Union, the alliance is strong and relatively united despite occasional hiccups. New member states are added every few years after an intensive dialogue process, the newest prospective members being Georgia, Ukraine, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and possibly Cyprus once their dispute with Turkey is resolved. NATO also maintains several agreements with surrounding countries including the Individual Partnership Action Plan and the Partnership for Peace.

Member nations are currently wrapping up their operations with the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, enforcing the no-fly zone in Libya, peacekeeping in the Balkans, monitoring the Mediterranean Sea,  pulling security in Iraq, combating Somali piracy, and assisting the African Union with peacekeeping missions on the Somali mainland.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is comprised of a soon to be superpower (China) and a shattered shell of a superpower (Russia) along with former Soviet central Asian countries, always state that the organization is not a military alliance like NATO. False. It started out as an economic group somewhat similar to the European Union but it’s slowly taken on a militaristic side, again, similar to the EU. Even Putin denied any similarities to NATO. But in recent years the SCO has raised some eyebrows by staging numerous military exercises and war games involving member countries.

As global economic power begins to shift to the east, and Russia attempts to tag along on the coattail of China’s recent success, the SCO will become an even tighter knit community which seeks an active leadership role in the world. However, if two autocratic, major powers on the UN Security Council with veto power should team up in enforcing their  often shady policies then the regional balance will be thrown into disarray. China will surely use SCO support to push its unfounded claims in the South China Sea and should India fall further under US influence then its admittance into the organization will be unlikely at best and the chances of territorial disputes breaking out into open conflict again will increase.

Russia is currently battling Islamic insurgents in the Caucasus region and is engaged in territorial disputes in the Arctic with several nations. It’s also against former Soviet republics joining NATO or Western alliances and isn’t above bullying them as in the cyber attacks on Estonia, war with Georgia, and politcal meddling in Ukraine.

SCO members in dark green. Nations with observer status in light green.

Strengths

Including active duty, reserves and paramilitary forces, NATO currently has approximately 8,013,809 soldiers and boasts an unprecedented command and control system among all member states that serves to deter the machinations of larger, less friendly countries. Almost all armed forces in the alliance are highly trained and have access to the most advanced combat systems, and equipment available and the industries that produce them are located on friendly soil. NATO maintains a broad network of friendly nations around the world, bound by treaties such as ANZUS with Australia, New Zealand, and the US, and the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the US.

The SCO has around 6,932,300 available soldiers. China and Russia are rapidly modernizing and reforming their militaries but they have been plagued with setbacks. Their effectiveness has yet to be seen and remains suspect. Both nations are developing new fighters, ships, and armored vehicles to replace aging Cold War relics and are on pace to achieve complete modernization by 2020-2025. While NATO generally advocates democracy and the Rule of Law, both China and Russia are notorious for publicly supporting rogue regimes like those of Kim Jong Il, Ali Khamenei, Omar al-Bashir, and Bashar al-Asaad.

Conclusion

The SCO realizes that in the modern world, seeking out dialogue and cooperation with NATO and its allies is necessary and beneficial for all involved but there are numerous disputes, ranging from Russian support for Iran, Chinese support for North Korea, Chinese cyber incursions and Russian espionage in the US among many other issues. At the end of the day there can only be one big kid on the block. However both sides face incredible internal issues that will test their strength. How they handle those problems in the coming years will decide who will reign supreme.