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Edited by Christian Lowe | Contact

Cancer Worries for New U.S. Bombs

The U.S. military is working on a small, precise bomb that could hit targets "previously off limits to the warfighter." The problem is, it might cause cancer.

Dense Inert Metal Explosive (DIME) is one of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s responses to the challenge of fighting in an urban environment without hurting innocent bystanders in the process.

Recent news about an airstrike which may have killed civilians, as well as Taliban fighters, highlights the problem. Similar situations have occurred repeatedly in Iraq and Afghanistan; sometimes targets could not be engaged, because of the risk of harming nearby civilians. One option is to use smaller weapons. Another is dropping inert bombs, filled with concrete rather than explosives, to minimize collateral damage.

DIME.jpgBut what's really required is something which is just as lethal as a standard bomb, but keeps its lethal zone to a minimum. This is exactly what DIME delivers.

DIME is used in the Low Collateral Damage version of the Small Diameter Bomb currently under development. This has a carbon fiber casing which turns into dust rather than creating dangerous fragments. The bomb is filled with explosive mixed with tungsten powder, which becomes micro-shrapnel. The small-sized tungsten particles drag to a halt at about 40 charge diameters. In the case of the SDB, that gives a destructive radius of about 25 feet.

The result is an incredibly destructive blast in a small area, what the Air Force Term "Focused Lethality." The AFRL Munitions Directorate provided this picture of a DIME test, but were unable to discuss the topic. However, I talked to others who have worked in this area. They were consistently awed by the destructive power of the mixture, which causes far more damage than pure explosive within the near field. The impact of the micro-shrapnel seems to cause a similar but more powerful effect than a shockwave.

Early blasts even destroyed test instruments:

Unfortunately, the high-velocity, high temperature inert metal particles found in DIME fills have proved to be extremely damaging to traditional pressure measurement instruments. Hence, new measurement diagnostics had to be developed to investigate DIME formulations.

Because there are no large fragments, Focused Lethality Munitions should not cause a hazard at any great distance. The standard Small Diameter Bomb is claimed to be lethal out to 2,000 feet or more, the Focused Lethality version will have a smaller but deadlier footprint - a 12-gauge compared to a rifle.

DIME2.jpgLittle has been released on the exact effects of DIME explosives, but it’s interesting that a presentation on future munitions illustrates focused lethality with a tank which had been turned on its side by blast. Aimed accurately, it looks like it would be capable of destroying a building completely without damaging the rest of the neighborhood.

Metal powders -- typically aluminum -- have been added to explosives for many years. But those are reactive metals, making the blast even stronger. Tungsten, on the other hand, is inert. So it remains in metallic form and absorbs some of the energy of the explosion. DIME originated in work to increase the density of the explosive mixture, improving the penetrating power of bunker busting bombs. But the bonus effect of the micro-shrapnel proved to be more significant than the increased density.

The Air Force's focused lethality munition had an enthusiastic write-up in the Wall Street Journal. The US Navy's Surface Warfare Center at Dahlgren is also working on DIME munitions.

According to the Air Force’s FY 2007 Unfunded Priority List, the focused lethality munitions "will be able to prosecute targets previously off limits to the warfighter."

This suggests that they will be used in close proximity to civilians or friendly forces. The only collateral damage may be stray tungsten particles – clumping, or larger particles in the mix might mean some effect outside the focused zone. Would grains of inert tungsten present a problem? According to New Scientist magazine:

In a study designed to simulate shrapnel injuries, pellets of weapons-grade tungsten alloy were implanted in 92 rats. Within five months all the animals developed a rare cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma, according to John Kalinich's team at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Maryland.

92 out of 92 - "tumor yield was 100%" - is a significant result. The full report is here.

I checked with University of Arizona cancer researcher Dr. Mark Witten, quoted in the New Scientist story, to see how things have developed. Dr. Witten is investigating links between tungsten and leukemia, and is concerned about its possible use DIME or other munitions:

"My opinion is that there needs to be much more research on the health effects of tungsten before the military increases its usage."

We don’t know whether a Focused Lethality Munition is likely to result in tungsten particles striking anyone outside the lethal area. Nor do we know the possible environmental impact tungsten powder left afterwards. But given that the Focused Lethality munition will be used in situations which are likely to produce media attention and political repercussions, these should be addressed.

The aims of the Low Collateral Damage program are worthwhile. But unless the issues around tungsten are resolved we could see a repeat of the depleted uranium story. Instead of decreasing controversy, the new weapon might create even more.

-- David Hambling

UPDATE 05/22/06 1:45PM: Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch comments:

While Human Rights Watch is supportive of the US military's commitment to reducing civilian casualties, collateral damage as they call it, it is unfortunate that these weapons are being developed specifically for use in densely populated areas which may negate the intended effect.

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Posted by: wowpowerleveling at April 16, 2008 04:58 AM


But what's really required is something which is just as lethal as a standard bomb, but keeps its lethal zone to a minimum. This is exactly what DIME delivers.

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Posted by: china tour at March 28, 2008 01:50 AM


Gaza doctors say patients suffering mystery injuries after Israeli attacks

· Deaths caused by burning and internal wounds
· Jerusalem denies using experimental weapon

http://www.guardian.co.uk/frontpage/story/0,,1924906,00.html

It's funny how when the Germans did this kinda thing to the special people, back in WWII, these little experiments were called war crimes, and people got very very upset.

Guess we're going by totally different rules now, hunh.

Posted by: mack at March 1, 2007 10:29 AM


With regards to:

"Little has been released on the exact effects of DIME explosives, but it’s interesting that a presentation on future munitions illustrates focused lethality with a tank which had been turned on its side by blast. Aimed accurately, it looks like it would be capable of destroying a building completely without damaging the rest of the neighborhood."

If you go and check out the google cache (below or click on my name) of that PPT that's been converted to PDF and most certainly EDITED and probaby REDACTED prior to posting... you will see
what has been blacked out is the words "MULTIMODE WARHEAD SHOT" (see slide 18).

The full photo as well shows some kind of test stand - which you've cropped out in the photo you've posted. Why'd you do that? Hmm?

Stop jumping to conclusions and making assumptions on very thin evidence (about the tank).

The "MUNITION TECHNOLOGY DRIVERS" preseentation does not say one d*mn thing about DIME.

Stop futzing up your otherwise good website with crappy reporting and blatent speculation.

It makes you look like bumbling amateurs.

http://72.14.203.104/search?q=cache:Vh0wtam0ucsJ:www.dtic.mil/ndia/2001munitions/masiello.pdf+%22MUNITION+TECHNOLOGY%22+Masiello&hl;=en≷=us&ct;=clnk&cd;=1

Posted by: Dakota at November 17, 2006 07:22 PM


Testing on rats wasn't "conclusive", so the US warmongers gave some of these things to Israel to test on live humans as part of their "final solution" to the Palestinian problem. Read all about it: http://www.guardian.co.uk/frontpage/story/0,,1924906,00.html

Posted by: Micah at October 20, 2006 05:55 AM


The good mr lambrecht and mr toal have probably never seen a combat victim. No doubt they will respond citing a largely imaginary sevice record. A munition no matter what type hitting a civilian is just plain wrong. Lambrecht's comments are totally inaccurate as well as armchair warrioring

Posted by: Paul T at October 19, 2006 03:40 PM


As this weapon has the ability to destroy the measureing equipment ..in the past testing ....sounds like a dam fine bomb to me ...lets get real busy with it ...again our troops deserve any and all advantages we the people can provide to them ...the enemy plays by no rules at all...!!

Posted by: Steven p. Toal at October 18, 2006 07:42 PM


I feel very strongly that if we can develope these kinds of munitions to prosecute this war to ultimate victory we should do so...our soilders and marines deserve every advantage on the battlefeild that we can find for them...where ever they are fighting now and in the future ...!!

Posted by: Steven p. Toal at October 18, 2006 07:29 PM


i got here after some armchair research on wikipedia provided a link.

i do not see how anyone can possibly suggest that these weapons are any less destructive when they are not only immediately and obviously destructive with explosions but are actually subversive which makes them even more dangerous BIOLOGICAL WMDs. this is disgusting.

Posted by: nicole at October 18, 2006 12:27 PM


nbk2000 top attack mode of a javalin missle shoulder fired troop carried.. this such munition is capable of producing a frontal attack mode as well but excellent at hitting armor in defliade. it carries a dual primed warhead for punching thru armor..

what i find thats intresting is that i recently read that italian news gropups are saying this weapon DIME was used in the gaza strip.. hmm when was that oh yeah sept 2006- but wait didnt this article say just now above us that this weapon will be in the hands of troops by sept 06 regarless that its not tested or cleared under the geneva convention..

Posted by: James at October 12, 2006 05:53 AM


Josh, these dudes we're hunting kill dozens of people per attack, just like using artillary. If we can find out where they are, hitting them quickly, even if it kills a few civilians, will probably save more lives in the future. SWAT may be fine against a gun nut barrackaded in his apartment, but these cockroaches are on another level.

"Nuke them from orbit. It's the only way to be sure."

Posted by: Tom Lambrecht at June 8, 2006 08:40 PM


...and a couple weeks later, the USA nails Zarqawi himself in... an air strike.

Any more brilliant ideas from Josh?

Posted by: Joe Katzman at June 8, 2006 08:22 AM


Please give us the 'alloy' composition in full- and to a tenth of a percent on all components one expects that rather more than cobalt is being used to glue this powder metallurgical wonder together - nickel, for instance , is a lot more bologically active than either Co or W.

It would also be handy to know what strain of lab rat.

Posted by: Russell Seitz at June 7, 2006 06:12 PM


The shrapnel used in the cancer tests were "tungsten cobalt" and "tungsten cobalt nickel" alloys. Pure tungsten metal powder has been used in medicine for ages, biomedical implants, and even nutritional suplements. It is an inert element, and has never been linked to cancer.

It's interesting to note that the Gov't is stuck with Hundreds of tons of DU, Tungsten costs about 200X that of DU, and the cancer tests conspicuously avoided using pure tungsten powder (cobalt has been known to cause cancer for years, and nickel is poisonous as well).

If I mixed sugar & tobacco, had rats smoke it, then published on the resulting cancer, I could easily say "Sugar product linked with cancer." Although the effects of pure sugar smoking was never tested, I could easily say "There is much more to learn about sugar, and it's possible effects on human beings."

The spin works for everyone. The military gets to use more DU, the government spends less money, the scientist gets to do more testing because "There is much more to learn." Tungsten carbide cobalt is dangerous and there are procedures to handle the material safely.

Posted by: technically speaking at June 5, 2006 04:22 PM


The comment that the picture of the tank on its side was a result of the blast...is that correct?

Having seen the whole picture, not the cropped version on this site, it looks to me like the tank is on it's side to faciliate testing of a multi-mode warhead, aimed at the top of the tanks cupola, like it would be if it was air-delivered.

Reason?

Test instruments are more easily emplaced on the ground than suspended up in the air, like they'd have to be if the warhead was suspended above the tank.

So tilting the tank over greatly simplifies test instrumentation.

Posted by: nbk2000 at May 25, 2006 02:32 AM


American troops are taking, as General Carter Ham recently said "great measures" to protect innocent civlian lives.

That's not to say that even one member of the US Armed Forces has laid down his or her life to protect an non-combatant.

You know, I don't know that Hitler used air strikes against the French Resistance.

The mayor of Philadelphia used air strikes to get the group MOVE, ended up burning down 60 blocks of Philly.

Traditionally, in US law enforcement, helicopters are not used as attack platforms, but for monitoring activity on the ground. They don't need to be terribly close to see people running with weapons any larger than a pistol.

I'm quite convinced, though, that it is evil to use air assaults on non-military units. We can roll up, 100% safely, in a variety of military units. I'm not saying it is a good use of M1-A1 tanks, but it certainly doesn't kill any innocent bystanders.

SWAT is the mindset I sorely wish the military had in mind.

I sorely wish we didn't care about an Iraqi Army, since any of its neighbors would be insane to invade it now, but instead trained cops. The mindset (crowd of civilians vs range of targets) is critical.

If the insurgents show up with tanks or planes, or even the most primitive of armored vehicles, I fully support the use of aerial attack platforms.

Since we are not now engaging any foreign armies in urban areas, nor can we reasonably expect to do so any time in the immediate future unless we start another war, this program is of very low value.

Posted by: Josh Narins at May 24, 2006 12:09 PM


Brian,

1) Human Rights Watch's concern is that the safer weapon will result in it being used in more dangerous situations where current munitions are not used, negating the benefits.

2) It is unlikely to be be feasible to remove tiny tungsten fragments from all friendly troops and civilians. If you look at the pieces used in the study, just 1mm x 2mm and conosider that these produced a 100% cancer rate, we don't know just how small a piece is dangerous but clearly it's fairly small.

It's certainly not true to say all heavy metal fragments are equally carcinogenic. Tantalum pellets used as a control in the tests caused no cancers. The researchers also mention that "we did not observe tumor formation in DU-implanted rats" - and there are still people walking around cancer-free with DU fragments from the 1991 Gulf War. See - http://www.defenselink.mil/news/May2004/n05032004_200405036.html

Whereas the rats in the tests did not just develop tumors: they died of them. Tungsten shrapnel is seriously bad stuff.

Posted by: David Hambling at May 24, 2006 02:42 AM


Two things:

1) Human Rights Watch is stupid. We don't need to reduce shrapnel for areas out in the middle of nowhere. We need to reduce it for heavily populated areas. That's the whole point.

2) Any heavy metal that gets implanted into the body will cause cancer. Tungsten will do it. Uranium will do it. Just about any heavy metal. Because heavy metals aren't supposed to be in the body. I'm not worried about friendly troops, because we'll surgically remove any pellets that get embedded in the skin. Remember, these were pellets embedded in rats for 5 months. Dust particles shouldn't be harmful--the only thing we need to worry about is a decent sized piece that gets lodged inside somebody. That said, I'm willing to take the cancer risk on these--the other option is that the person hit by the shrapnel is instead hit by a much larger piece and just dies outright.

Posted by: Brian at May 24, 2006 12:10 AM


Well, shrapnel in the case of this bomb is a purely incident product of blowing up the case. Unless you had a caseless bomb, you'd have a metal case which was destroyed in the explosion, sending fragments. You can't necessarily "do away with" shrapnel, so they've decidd to use something that breaks up into dust quite easily, which is the carbon case. Another advantage is that the case is lighter and could probably pack in more payload for the same weight...

Posted by: Charles at May 23, 2006 08:49 PM


"it is unfortunate that these weapons are being developed specifically for use in densely populated areas which may negate the intended effect."

You know it's too bad scumbags hang out with innocent people around them as shields, until they can make a pinpoint accurate, to within a cm munition or beam weapon the powers that be are heading in the right direction... In a perfect world the same collateral would just stick a knife in the back of the intended target.

Posted by: MD at May 22, 2006 08:38 PM


Joe Haldeman predicted something like this in his book The Forever War.

His weapon involved a shotgun round for a rocket launcher that created a blast that was instant death to five meters and harmless dust at 10. (page 240, look it up on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/gp/sitbv3/reader/102-9049076-4623369?%5Fencoding=UTF8&keywords;=shotgun%20&v;=search-inside&asin;=0060510862.

Posted by: Smartalix at May 22, 2006 07:10 PM


The point is to kill everybody within 10' of a point, and not kill anybody more than 20' away.

My question is as to whether the conditions required to cause cancer occur outside of the lethal radius--that is, you'd get cancer if you hadn't already been blown up. Likewise, the effect of tungsten particles lying around with the potential of inhalation needs to be studied.

Posted by: Big D at May 22, 2006 06:08 PM



A cancer bomb to use on civilians? Cool.

Wouldn't sweat the carbon dust too much - we get lots in coal mines and it takes plenty of exposure to kill you.

Posted by: Canary at May 22, 2006 02:14 PM


i just noticed that 'carbon fiber case blasted to dust'.. and it reminds me of some old old story about asbestos-powders and cancer.

besides that; why are shrapnells neccessary?
i mean: shrapnells are to kill people - and i thought to minimize this was the intent of this invention..

Posted by: fronten at May 22, 2006 12:50 PM


Now that's what I call dropping a dime on someone.

Posted by: JSAllison at May 22, 2006 11:12 AM


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