Months after the Pentagon said it wouldn’t use a controversial type of armor-piercing ammunition that has been blamed for long-term health complications, US aircraft fired thousands of the rounds during two high-profile air raids in Syria in November 2015, the Pentagon acknowledged Wednesday.
The use of the ammunition, a 30mm depleted-uranium bullet called PGU-14, was first reported by a joint Air Wars-Foreign Policy investigation on Tuesday. The 5,265 rounds of the munition were fired from multiple A-10 ground attack aircraft on Nov 16, 2015, and Nov. 22, 2015, in airstrikes in Syria’s eastern desert that targeted the Islamic State’s oil supply during Operation Tidal Wave II, said Major Josh Jacques, a US Central Command spokesman.
The strikes, which involved 30mm PGU-14 cannon fire, rockets, and guided bombs, destroyed more than 300 vehicles, mostly civilian tanker trucks, the Pentagon said at the time. The two incidents were championed by the Pentagon and footage of trucks being destroyed were posted online. The Pentagon said that no civilians were present during the bombardment because fliers had been dropped before strafing runs warning those in their trucks to flee.
Before the November strikes, the Pentagon said it would not use depleted-uranium munitions in the campaign against the Islamic State. In response to a query from a reporter in February 2015, Captain John Moore, a spokesman for the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition in Iraq and Syria said in an e-mail that ‘‘US and Coalition aircraft have not been and will not be using depleted-uranium munitions in Iraq or Syria during Operation Inherent Resolve.’’
Later that year, the Pentagon’s stance toward depleted uranium changed. As US-led forces ramped up their campaign to go after the Islamic State’s cash flow, US planners for Operation Tidal Wave II decided that depleted-uranium ammunition would be the most effective weapon for targeting hundreds of Islamic State oil trucks in the Syrian desert.
‘‘Given the international opprobrium associated with the use of depleted uranium we had been pretty astonished to hear that it had been used in operations in Syria,’’ said Doug Weir, the International Coordinator for the Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons.
Depleted uranium is the byproduct of the enriched uranium needed to power nuclear reactors. Depleted uranium is roughly 0.7 percent times as radioactive as natural uranium, and its high density makes it ideal for armor-piecing rounds such as the PGU-14 and certain tank shells.
Where adverse health effects are caused by exposure to depleted uranium exposure has been debated. When it was used during the 1999 NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo, the United Nations advised that children stay away from the impact zones. The Iraqi government has also routinely stressed the danger the munitions pose to its people, soil, and air.
In a 2014 United Nations report on depleted-uranium munitions, the International Atomic Agency said that ‘‘the existence of depleted-uranium residues dispersed in the environment, when observed as confined contamination of soils, vegetables, water and surfaces, does not pose a radiological hazard to the local populations.’’ The agency did say, however, that direct contact with larger amounts of depleted uranium through the handling of scrap metal, for instance, could ‘‘result in exposures of radiological significance.’’