Italy's Concerns Are Unlikely to Deter U.S. Use of Uranium Weapons

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ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP

Yugoslavian tanks sit abandoned after having been destroyed by NATO air strikes

Criticisms of NATO's use of depleted-uranium weapons in Kosovo could be easily dismissed by the Pentagon when they came from environmentalists, peace activists and Belgrade. But when the complaints come from their European NATO partners, the generals in Washington may find the issue more troubling. Italy called Wednesday for a full inquiry into the alliance's use of depleted-uranium tipped weapons in the Kosovo campaign after a sixth Italian soldier died of cancer following deployment in the Kosovo peacekeeping mission. Italy's concerns have already been echoed by France, Spain, Portugal and Finland, who have all begun investigating the link between illness and the use of such ordnance, which has also been the focus of considerable speculation in relation to so-called Gulf War Syndrome. But in the absence of definitive proof of a connection between depleted-uranium and various soldiers' ailments, the Pentagon isn't about to scrap its favorite tank-busting hardware.

It was during the Gulf War that Western armies first began firing uranium-tipped weapons, which are prized for their armor-piercing abilities. Since then, a number of veterans suffering unexplained symptoms have suggested there may be a link between their illnesses and the use of depleted-uranium ordnance. Depleted uranium is not radioactive, and speculation over its potential health effects focus on its toxicity as a heavy metal. It is precisely its weight — 1.7 times that of lead — that allows depleted-uranium shells to pass through all sorts of armored surfaces that might stop steel, brass or copper, and makes it an attractive tank-busting weapon. Depleted-uranium ordnance was originally used on A-10 tank-busting bombers, but during the Kosovo campaign was used in an even wider range of weapons.

Many studies, no links

The Pentagon hasn't been dodging the issue. It has commissioned exhaustive studies, backed up by research by such respected independent bodies as the Institute of Medicine, that have been unable to sustain a causal link between exposure to depleted uranium and various ailments suffered by U.S. personnel who served in the Gulf. After all, from a political point of view, the Pentagon would prefer to resolve the issue, since the military gets blamed as long as the mystery remains. Judging by their response to Gulf War Syndrome, it's safe to assume that the U.S. military won't deny that there may be a problem; they're simply not prepared to blame the problem on depleted-uranium weapons in the absence of stronger evidence. Of course the fact that U.S. allies are calling for a more comprehensive review of the impact of depleted uranium may press the Pentagon to mount further studies in the coming years. But until they’ve proved a connection between illness and the ordinance, it's a safe bet that when an A-10 is being armed to go after some enemy’s armor, it'll be carrying depleted-uranium rounds.