Ignoring the big story

Strategy Page:

Laboratory tests have confirmed that the artillery shell detonated by American combat engineers on May 15 was a binary type nerve gas shell containing Sarin nerve agent. There were no markings on the shell to indicate it contained chemical weapons, nor its date of manufacture. Therefore, the shell may have been from the 1980s, when Iraq was buying billions of dollars in weapons and military technology from Russia, France and Germany. Russia had binary nerve gas shell technology, but it was always believed that Iraq got most of its nerve gas technology from Germany (in the form of dual use chemical manufacturing equipment, as nerve gas is simply a form of insecticide tweaked to work on mammals instead of insects.)

Since the 1980s, Iraq has been manufacturing its own artillery ammunition. In 1995, after the defection of the head of Iraqs chemical weapons program. Iraq admitted that it manufactured a small batch of 170 Sarin binary shells for testing. These were supposed to have been destroyed, but Iraq never offered any conclusive proof. The shell in question was unmarked and apparently used as part of a roadside bomb by Iraqis unaware that it contained only a small amount of explosives (and thus not much good for a roadside bomb), and two chemicals that would form only a minute amount of Sarin (not enough to cause much, if any, injury.) A binary chemical shell has two chambers inside, each filled with a non-lethal (but still somewhat toxic) liquid. When the shell is fired, the tremendous spin of the shell breaks down the partition between the two chambers, thoroughly mixing the two chemicals and creating Sarin nerve gas. When the shell lands, a small explosive charge disperses the Sarin and kills anyone who gets some of it on their skin. Thus a cache of unmarked Sarin binary shells poses no threat unless you can find a 155mm howitzer to fire it from, and you somehow know how to identify the shell (which could probably be done by an expert in artillery ammunition.)

But they would have been a threat with Saddam in power on willing to use his artillery to fire them.


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