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"Focused lethality" and modern warfare

Anyone reading through the Goldstone Report, the fact-finding mission into during the Gaza conflict, will find themselves confronted with the painful realities of modern warfare.

For instance, doctors working in Gaza during the conflict noticed a “strikingly high percentage of patients with severed legs.”

The amputations mostly occurred at waist height in children, generally lower in adults, and were combined with skin-deep, third-degree burns, four to six fingers upward from the amputation. Where the amputation took place, the flesh was cauterized as a result of the heat. The patients with these amputations had no shrapnel wounds, but red flashes on the abdomen and chest. The excision of large pieces of flesh was not infrequent in these patients.

These wounds are believed to be the result of a new weapon that is intended to minimize collateral damage in urban conflicts. The bomb is made of special materials that limit the effects to a small diameter. Inside that circle, however, is sheer hell.

Most bombs have a metal casing that turns into shrapnel, but this bomb has a carbon-fiber casing that turns to dust on impact.  Packed inside is an “explosive fill,” a powder, really, made of an alloy of tungsten.

The physics involved are complex, but the presence of the tungsten makes for a much more powerful blast. During tests, instruments used to measure blast force were destroyed. The high-velocity, extremely hot tungsten particles can easily slice through skin, tissue and bone.

This new weapon goes by many names. They are also known as focused lethality munitions. The U.N. calls them dense inert metal explosives or DIME weapons.

Boeing Integrated Defense Systems, which builds the bombs in St. Joseph, Mo., refers to them as GBU-39s. One of these bombs dropped from an F-15E can be guided via satellite to a target as far as 40 miles.

Israel ordered (.pdf) 1,000 GBU-39s in September 2008. The Jewish state has denied using DIME wepaons during the conflict.

The U.N. fact-finding mission found no actual proof that DIME were dropped on Gaza during the Israeli military operation known as “Operation Cast Lead” from December 2008 to January 2009.

However, the mission’s ordnance expert believed that some weapons used during the conflict had a “DIME component.” Samples taken from the scene of the attacks in Gaza revealed the presence of tungsten.

U.S. forces have been using DIME weapons since at least October 2006:

The new bomb, the first of its kind in the Air Force inventory, gives aircrews the ability to destroy targets that would normally be “passed over” due to the proximity of friendly troops, civilians, structures or personal property.

The efforts to minimize collateral damage raise difficult (and so far unanswered) questions about the laws of warfare.

Tungsten alloy particles are so small they can’t be removed from the body. They are also highly carcinogenic (.pdf) At a U.N. press conference in Geneva, Col. Desmond Travers, one of the report’s authors, referred to a potential “time bomb” inside some of the Gaza victims.

This raises a thorny (and as yet unanswered) question: Should GBU-39s and other DIME weapons properly be classified as biological weapons which are illegal under the Geneva Convention?

Israel is a signatory to the Conventional Weapons Convention, which prohibits the use of any weapons that injures by fragments that cannot be detected by X-rays. The United States is also a signatory.

Boeing is set to make thousands of these weapons in the next few years. The defense giant apparently believes that the international community will not stand in its way.