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U.S. Denies Incendiary Weapon Use in Afghanistan
May 14, 2009
By David Hambling (Wired)
More than a year ago, I came across a curious line item, buried in an an inventory report outlining all of the U.S. Army’s equipment in Afghanistan. It was for a bazooka that fired controversial incendiary rockets. At the time, the Army denied using the weapon, which relies on a napalm-like substance that burns skin on contact, and the matter seemed to end there. But I couldn’t help thinking about that line item again this week as a new furor has arisen over the use of incendiary weapons in Afghanistan, showing that there is likely to be renewed scrutiny into the weapons held by both sides in the Afghan conflict.
When there were allegations that the U.S. used incendiaries against civilians in an air strike on the village of Garni, the Pentagon not only denied the claims but has just declassified documents showing that the Taliban have themselves used white phosphorus bombs.
The inventory, published by Wikileaks, includes a register of all U.S. Army equipment in Afghanistan. Among the vast quantity of gear listed is a type of 66mm rocket launcher, referred to only by its reference number. Using this number it can be identified as the M202A1 “FLame Assault SHoulder weapon” or FLASH. There are two entries for FLASH launchers held by different units.
FLASH is four-barreled bazooka firing rockets loaded with an incendiary mixture. It was developed during the Vietnam era to replace flamethrowers, producing the same type of effects but with much greater range and accuracy. On impact a rocket scatters burning incendiary over a twenty-meter radius. The original filler for the rockets was napalm (in the XM191 version); this was replaced with thickened triethylaluminum (TEA), a liquid which spontaneously combusts in air and burns at high temperature. TEA reacts violently with water, so the fire must be put out with dirt or sand. A safety data sheet says that TEA is corrosive, burns skin on contact and is extremely dangerous if inhaled.
The U.S. Army manual for the weapon says FLASH is intended to be used against “enemy gun emplacements, fortified positions, and unarmored vehicles. It is also used for fighting in streets and villages.” It would be useful against caves and defensive positions in the rocky terrain of Afghanistan. The rockets are accurate enough to go through a window at 125 meters, or a bunker aperture at fifty meters. Maximum range for a larger target is five hundred meters.
Incidentally, a lot of the rockets manufactured for the FLASH are now very old and there are various horror stories about outdated ammunition with TEA leaking and rockets blowing up their users. The manual contains many warnings to this effect: “Do NOT use rocket clips that are rusted or corroded. Use of these clips may cause rocket motor blow-up and serious injury or DEATH.”
The Geneva Protocol does not ban flame or incendiary weapons, but prohibits them from being used on or near concentrations of civilians.
There has been much debate about such weapons in recent years. In 2004, U.S. forces used artillery shells loaded with the incendiary white phosphorus in Fallujah. Initially, the military claimed they these were only used to produce smoke or mark targets. It later emerged that the shells were used to target insurgents in “shake and bake” fire missions. This led to an editorial in the New York Times calling for such weapons to be banned on humanitarian grounds -– “all of us, including Americans, are safer in a world in which certain forms of conduct are regarded as too inhumane even for war.”
A similar row erupted over the use of napalm in Iraq, which the U.S. Air Force at first denied. This was because the substance was not technically napalm but a similar agent based on thickened jet fuel rather than thickened petroleum.
Dan Smith, Senior Fellow for Military Affairs at the Washington peace lobbying group Friends Committee on National Legislation, says the current legislation on flame weapons is abhorrent. He argues that a new criterion of acceptability should be adopted based on the effects on the target.
“Under this criterion, the M202A1 would be banned because like other “flame” weapons such as napalm and white phosphorous, the suffering inflicted on either military or civilian personnel is unnecessarily excessive,” says Smith. “It is no accident that in both literature and history, the descriptions of death from flames is always the most painful and agonizing.”
Our first enquiry as to whether the FLASH has been deployed or used in Afghanistan was received what looked like a flat denial.
“We are not using them and I am not aware that there are any in Afghanistan,” said Lieutenant Colonel David A. Accetta, then the Public Affairs Director for Regional Command East/CJTF-82.
However, that did not rule out there being weapons which Lt. Col. Accetta was not aware of and which were not currently being used. Further questions elicited a second response.
“Due to operational security we do not speak on the specific type or amount of weapons we have in any combat theater,” said 1st Lieut. Nathan Perry of CJTF-101 Public Affairs. He added: “All of our weapons have been legally reviewed to comply with the Law of Armed Conflict required by international law.”
In this climate, a failure to deny may speak volumes.
Thanks to David Hambing and Wired magazine for covering this document. Copyright remains with the aforementioned.