Is White Phosphorus a Chemical Weapon?

In the last few weeks there have been some supposed revelations that US forces have been using Chemical Weapons in Iraq. The implication of this revelation is that the US has been hypocritical in its stance against Chemical Weapons since it uses such weapons itself. What is the Chemical Weapon that US forceas are using? It is called White Phosphorus (WP).

White Phosphorus is used by the US military in two ways. It is first used as a smoke screen. A WP shell is fired into a certain area where it explodes and releases large amounts of smoke - thus creating a temporary "smoke screen" to limit the enemy's ability to target troops or discern tactical maneouvers. It is also used as an incendiary weapon, causing the targeted area to burst into flame, including any enemy troops present.

The fact is that every weapon employed by modern armies has a "chemical" element to it. Napalm could be classed as a chemical weapon; bullets, whose kinetic energy derives from a controlled chemical explosion in the barrel, could also be classed as a "chemical weapon".

The issue is actually less one of hypocrisy than one of nomenclature: what exactly is the definition of a "Chemical Weapon"?

White Phosphorus - while being a chemical used directly in the conduct of war - is not a "Weapon of Mass Destruction". Mustard Gas, Nerve agents - all these forms of weaponry cause widespread death among the targeted people. When Saddam gassed that Kurdish town in the 1980s, he did not use White Phosphorus, and the Iraqis who have died as a result of WP use by the US military in recent times have not died in such massive numbers as that caused by chemical WMDs. White Phosphorus does kill people in a unique way - the chemical reacts with water, which means that "dry" items within the target area are not affected. The Wikipedia article on WP speaks of victims being incinerated while their clothes remain intact.

It's all very horrible - but WP is not strictly considered a "Chemical Weapon" and is most definitely not a "Weapon of Mass Destruction".

The same fate has befallen another controversial weapon - the use of Depleted Uranium (DU) in tanks. Many anti-war advocates have used the presence of DU to declare that US forces have used nuclear weapons in both Gulf wars. Again, this is a problem of Nomenclature.

Depleted Uranium is a very useful substance in warfare. It is a very heavy metal - much heavier than tungsten or lead. Its denseness allows it to be used as armour plating in tanks and other military vehicles. Because it takes up the same amount of room as regular armour, superior armour protection can be provided in the same amount of space.

But it is the use of Depleted Uranium in Kinetic energy penetrators - tank shells - that has caused the most controversy. DU shells are fired out of the tank's main cannon at an enemy vehicle - most likely an armoured vehicle like a armoured personnel carrier or tank. Because enemy armoured vehicles are well protected from standard anti-tank shells, the heavy DU penetrator is able to penetrate most modern forms of armour. Its speed and mass ensure that enemy armour is burned through and the target destroyed. The use of DU weapons by US forces in both Gulf wars ensured that Iraqi armoured vehicles were almost always completely outclassed by US tanks.

So what is the problem? Apparently, when a DU penetrator hits its target, a residual uranium dust settles in the immediate area. This is mildly radioactive and is highly toxic. People who have breathed in DU dust can become quite ill and even die. The use of depleted uranium is one of the major arguments why so many US and British soldiers have "Gulf War syndrome". None of this has been proven, but there is no doubt that large amounts of radioactive dust have settled in Iraqi battlefields.

So is this a nuclear weapon? In a literal way, yes, DU shells can be classed as "Nuclear Weapons". Can they be called Weapons of Mass destruction? Hardly.

As an opponent of the current occupation of Iraq, I am certainly interested in any and every bit of information that shows up how bad it is. Nevertheless, calling WP a "chemical weapon" and then proclaiming everywhere that US forces are waging a chemical war against Iraqi insurgents is not exactly accurate. Should WP use be restricted? Most definitely. Should DU rounds be removed from military use? Absolutely (they can use kinetic energy penetrators made from tungsten instead). It does the anti-war effort no good, however, to use half-truths and misconceptions in their arguments.

From the Department of Wha's happnin?

© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.


Raymond's Edge said...

Very informative! I learned a whole lot from that. Thanks for posting it. I was hearing a lot about WP and wasn't sure what is was.

The Angry Republican.

Craig Schwarze said...

Yeah, nice post Neil.

Note that there is some controversy surrounding the health risks of DU exposure. Different studies have come to different conclusions.

You make the correct point, though - DU is used because it is very heavy, not because it is radioactive.

(I assume tungsten is much more expensive than DU?)

One Salient Oversight said...

"As a product otherwise requiring long term storage as low level radioactive waste, depleted uranium can be obtained cheaply. It is useful for its extremely high density, which is only slightly less than that of tungsten. As well as a lower initial cost, depleted uranium is easier to roll, machine and cast than tungsten. However, it has extremely poor corrosion properties, can burn, spalls easily, and since it is toxic and radioactive the facilities for processing it need to monitor and filter dust and airborne particles. One disadvantage of DU is that it needs to be correctly handled when an object containing it is scrapped. The uranium is normally leased from the manufacturer and subsequently returned at the end of the object's life." - Wikipedia article on DU

Anonymous said...

If you read "Eating Fossil Fuels" (just google it) it has absolutely nothing to do with WP, but everything to do with NPK.

Forget WP... instead, wonder how we are going to get NPK to our farms after peak oil.. and whether or not www.dieoff.com really is correct! After all, while on of the more extreme peaknik sites, dieoff has some Phd level essays.

Unknown said...

Tungsten is less expensive and denser than uranium.