UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

May 15, 2009

IS U.S. USING INCENDIARY WEAPONS IN AFGHANISTAN?

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 . . .

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; this was replaced with thickened triethylaluminum, 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. . .

The Geneva Protocol does not ban flame or incendiary weapons, but prohibits them from being used on or near concentrations of civilians. . .

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. . .

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