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How near is 'near-nuclear'?

"What made the gulf war so distinctive," Klare wrote in The Nation, ". . . was the widespread (and often experimental) use of a new breed of munitions designed to duplicate the destructive effects of tactical nuclear weapons. These munitions--fuel-air explosives, penetration bombs and wide-area cluster bombs--were dropped in great profusion to destroy fortifications, demolish underground bunkers, disable tanks and vehicles, and kill or maim military personnel."

Klare's argument, similar to one expressed by Mary Kaldor and others, is that NATO powers had favored the development of these "near-nuclear" weapons as a way to resolve the dilemma posed by the clashing imperatives of cost--nukes are supposedly cheap in terms of what could be called destructive productivity--and of political pressure to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons. The gulf war offered a chance to deploy this new arsenal.

Walker, Stambler and Klare all insist that with some 87,500 tons of bombs dropped by the United States on the Iraqis, the war was in Klare's term the most "firepower-intensive conflict since World War II." That figure is arrived at by dividing the tonnage of dropped explosives by the war's duration, also by a vague calculus of deaths per ton of explosive dropped. But it doesn't really mean much, particularly since no one has any clear idea of how many Iraqis were killed by bombs and missiles. Among civilians the figure may well have been around 4,500, and though Schwarzkopf said 100,000 Iraqi soldiers may have died, this could be a considerable overestimate. The number of wounded Iraqi soldiers does not suggest losses of this magnitude. Prisoners of war from two Republican Guard divisions reported 100 and 1,000 casualties respectively. The rate of desertion was also high, so there is no hope of ever resolving the matter with any pretense to accuracy.

As against the estimated 110,000 tons of bombs dropped by all "coalition" forces in the gulf war, the Allies dropped 3 million tons of bombs in World War II, and U.S. forces dropped 4.6 million tons on Vietnam. In fact the tonnage in the gulf war was lower than it would have been if sorties using "smart" bombs had used standard ones instead, precisely because fighters carrying "smart" bombs release only an eighth of the warhead tonnage of "iron," or dumb, bombs. The refurbished B-52s, meanwhile, are so crammed with retrofitted electronics that they carry half the explosive payload of the Vietnam-era B-52s. Furthermore the weaponry rolled forth by Walker, Stambler and Klare is less innovative than they pretend.

For example, the Multiple-Launch Rocket System (M.L.R.S.) is invoked by the trio as having "awesome" effectiveness, covering up to "six football fields" (an image common to both articles) with 7,700 grenade-like "submunitions." The basic idea of the M.L.R.S.--a container hurling rockets--goes back to World War II, to the Soviet Katyusha in fact. It is very expensive and very inaccurate. The Army Tactical Missile System (ATACM), with slightly longer range, has similar failings and lack of novelty. Lack of novelty is also a feature of the aircraft-fired SLAM missile, whose Walleye video data link dates back to the Vietnam era, though it is mounted on a different air frame. Only seven were fired in the gulf war.

Walker, Stambler and Klare reserve their most morbid excitement for cluster bombs and fuel-air explosives. "Near-nuclear" is certainly a misnomer for cluster bombs, which have a devastating impact on infantry and civilians in the open but are effective only against such exposed troops and light-skinned vehicles. They are nearly useless against tanks and dug-in troops. In Vietnam, U.S. commanders forbade the use of cluster bombs in close support of troops, since many of them "dudded," were retrieved by the enemy from a roll trench dug for that purpose, re-fused and then delivered back by hand.

The fuel-air explosive has had a far more sensational existence in myth and propaganda than in actual war. In the fall of 1990 the Pentagon was touting it to the press as a new terror weapon, "near-nuclear" in potential, possessed not by the United States but by the Iraqis. It was in fact an old weapon, used in the gulf by the United States.

Klare and the others cite it as having "awesome potential," with a vapor cloud ignited over a large area, releasing a blast of immense force. The technology is fairly simple, though subject to frequent glitches. What is essentially a propane bottle is broken; gas spreads and is then ignited. Conventional bombs have a short, high-pressure explosive pulse. Nuclear bombs have a long-duration pressure pulses. Like nukes, fuel-air explosives are unconfined explosives with long pulses, but the pressure is low, and if you are in a bunker or an armored vehicle, the pressure coming through the vision slits will be insufficient to collapse your lungs. Even a sandbag bunker will protect you.

Fuel-air explosives, evaluated back in the McNamara days of the late 1960s, were designed to kill people first in bunkers and then in foxholes and behind cover. In this second function they had an effectiveness equivalent to high-explosive bombs, with no radical change in capability. They failed to incapacitate people in bunkers.

The "Daisy Cutter," or BLU-82/B, a 15,000-pound bomb classified by Klare as the "most potent" of the fuel-air explosives, is no such thing but rather a giant bomb filled with conventional high explosives. It can be delivered only by specially fitted C-130s (large, slow transports), making it pretty much useless against militarily defended targets. Its purpose has nothing to do with unleashing "near-nuclear" force, as opposed to clearing covered areas for helicopter landings.

It was General Schwarzkopf who said that if the U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqis had exchanged weapons the results would have been the same. Indeed, the Iraqis had many similar sort of weapons. But aside from innovative tactics, what the U.S.-led coalition had was the most potent weapon of all, the extraordinary common sense and political courage of the Iraqi fighting man, who refused to fight. The left, mesmerizing itself with Defense Department handouts and arms company brochures, is forgetting--as Schwarzkopf did not--the maxim of Napoleon that in war the physical balance of forces is only 25 percent of the story; the rest concerns "des affaires morales"--i.e., nonmaterial factors.
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Title Annotation:Beat the Devil
Author:Cockburn, Alexander
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:column
Date:Jul 8, 1991
Words:1058
Previous Article:Materiel boys: who won the war?
Next Article:Reach out and lobby someone.
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