October 26, 2004

A little bit on explosives

Josh Marshall is all over the missing explosives story. Just a couple things you should know when you read stories like this:

The "600,000 tons of explosives" Saddam Hussein had is a number of dubious provenance. The occupying authorities have admitted to locating 405,000 tons. While the number that Hussein had is certainly somewhat larger, certainly no one's arguing the Americans have lost 200,000 tons of explosives to terrorists, are they?

Of that 400 kTons of ordnance, much of the weight will be the weight of the shells/bombs themselves, not the explosive. Assuming they were all 105-155mm HE shells, which is generous (many could have been hand grenades, landmines, etc., all with lower ratios of explosive to shell), we're talking dividing by a factor of roughly five at the least. So that's really 80 kT of actual explosive. Actually, don't forget up to half of that by shell weight would be illumination, smoke and other non-HE ordnance types. So 40 kT.

Now, at most, artillery explosive is about half as powerful as RDX/HMX... so to compare apples to apples, we're really talking 20 kT. And remember that artillery shells start to lose sealant and become inert in 10-20 years. Since most of the purchase dates on all those UXOs were probably before the 1991 embargo, at most a fifth of that HE would likely be recoverable now. Mostly it was just junk.

So on the one hand, you have, scattered around a huge country for the terrorists, about 4,000 tons of RDX/HMX equivalent, to be generous. Recovering HE from UXO shells, by the way, is extraordinarily difficult and dangerous... with a high risk of explosion if you don't know what you're doing. It should be noted there have been suspiciously few reports of terrorist screwups of this nature in Iraq. On the other hand, you had 300-plus tons of the best explosives you can make sitting there, catalogued, well-stored, and ready to be trucked away.

Yes the looting of Al QaQaa was not a necessary condition for car bombs. But boy, did it sure have the potential to help.

It should also be said that it's pretty easy for the forensic types to determine how many of those car bombs and other IEDs that kill American soldiers used recovered ordnance explosive vice RDX/HMX. The American military certainly already has a pretty good idea how many times they've been attacked with the better explosive so far. Wonder what the answer is? Or did it all go to Iran in a big convoy?

UPDATE: That other 400,000 tons, it should also be noted, was scattered in some 10,000 locations, according to the White House. So it's fair to say the average Iraqi cache contained around 40 tons of munitions, which works out by the ratios above to 0.4 tons of RDX-equivalent explosive in each. The Al QaQaa stash, which remember was one of the few that was completely documented, amounts to over 700 times the average amount of exploitable explosive.

UPDATE #2: You know, if the Marine operations officer occupying the next town over said at the time Al Qa Qaa had been left unguarded and then ransacked, and that's why his men were dying, I'm going to assume he knew more than some jackass on Fox News does now.

Posted by BruceR at 04:40 PM