In three military conflicts since 1991 (Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo), the US has shot bullets containing low-level radioactive uranium at enemy tanks.
No doubt this armor-piercing weapon saved American lives, justifying its use. And the Pentagon has been diligent to warn that the dust from this dense, fiery dart of "depleted uranium" (DU) must be cleaned up after battle.
But now the use of DU bullets in the 1999 Kosovo conflict, in particular, has touched off an anti-US political firestorm in Europe. (See story on page 1.)
Allegations that European soldiers serving as peacekeepers in Kosovo have suffered ailments from DU radiation have put a strain on NATO, even though the medical links remain unproven. The transatlantic military alliance, which is led by the US, plans to address the complaints of Italy and other European nations this week about DU's effects on the soldiers.
Ever since these bullets were used in the Gulf War, the Pentagon has been on the defensive over their effects. Its insistence that DU is harmless to health "when used properly" has yet to quiet critics, which was designed in the 1970s to penetrate advanced Soviet-made T-72 tanks.
The Pentagon must now judge whether the effectiveness of this bullet in battle outweighs potential postwar repercussions, such as the rupture of the world's most successful military alliance.
The outgoing Defense secretary, William Cohen, has warned the new US administration that the strengthening and preservation of NATO needs prompt attention, especially in the disparity of military spending between Europe and the US.
Despite DU's many advantages as a weapon (it self-sharpens), the Navy has chosen instead to use tungsten, a less-effective but more politically benign metal. Is it time for the Army and Air Force to follow suit? Congress may want to press them to seek alternatives to DU.
At the least, the Pentagon must recognize that DU is a public-relations disaster. The world's sole superpower cannot afford to be seen as acting with hegemonic hubris while it stealthily strews low-radioactive waste across all future battlefields, even if many experts find DU to be "harmless."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society