TCS Daily

High Explosives Anxiety

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - October 28, 2004 12:00 AM

Okay, Okay, let's put that 377 tons of "X" word explosives in perspective.

Most people had never heard of the "powerful conventional explosives," stored at Al-Qaqaa until they were mentioned by the New York Times.

Yes, they are powerful, and, yes, at least one of them could -- when properly formulated and precisely formed -- be used to detonate the real "nuclear" part of a nuclear weapon.

It appears that these "high order" explosives -- chiefly RDX (rapid detonation explosive), HMX (high melting explosive), and PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate) -- were concentrated at what the Times called one of Iraq's "most sensitive" military installations at the behest of United Nations weapons inspectors after the 1991 Gulf War.

It was felt that inspectors could more easily keep an eye on them if they were in one place. However, it is not known whether the Iraqis complied fully. There might be, or have been, other concentrations of these explosives elsewhere.

As we have pointed out on these pages more than once, Iraq is one vast munitions dump. Saddam Hussein, when he wasn't building palaces with his UN oil-for-food money, was apparently spending it on yet more explosives and munitions.

By some estimates he had stockpiled at least a million tons of munitions.

As The American Spectator's Shawn Macomber reported last June, "many of these ammo dumps -- some up to 40 square miles -- are wide open and only spottily patrolled, serving as Jihad 7-Elevens."

And as coalition troops secured cities and towns, they found that a lot of this stuff had found its way into homes and apartments, schools, mosques and hospitals. In Baghdad, for instance, troops reportedly found a 3000-square-foot house packed to the walls with artillery shells, rockets and small arms ammunition.

So, let's keep these 377 tons of high explosives in some perspective.

First, RDX and HMX have been around for a long time (RDX, sometimes called cyclonite or hexogen, since 1899). They are manufactured and sold all over the world. You can go on the web and look up prices and product catalogues.

Because they are relatively stable and deliver a big bang for a buck they are the mainstays of most sophisticated military arsenals. PETN is most often used as the core of detonators or fuses to set off other high explosives.

In other words, in some form, combined together or with other explosives, like the venerable TNT, these explosives are all over Iraq -- in artillery shells, rockets and bombs -- and have thus been used regularly in terror bomb attacks.

Second, all the car bombings and roadside bombings since the end of "regular combat" in Iraq have involved a relative few tons of explosives -- a fraction of what must be available to the Islamofanatics.

Thus far, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, allied troops and some private contractors have destroyed over 250,000 tons of munitions at six demolition sites around Iraq. The Engineers say they have secured another 180,000 tons for eventual demolition.

Destroying munitions is a difficult, dangerous and surprisingly tedious process. (Believe it or not, you can get tired of digging big holes and "cooking" piles of munitions until they explode.) In many instances, early on, U.S. troops simply removed and destroyed the fuses (the pointy head of an artillery shell, for instance) of munitions so they could not be fired at them.

It is likely that many of these defused shells have been used (bound together with a small amount of plastic explosive) in the roadside and car bombs that have plagued Iraq.

The fact that so much RDX and HMX had been amassed gives credence to Saddam's efforts to build nuclear weapons. In a simple implosion type nuclear weapon, a hollow sphere of plutonium or uranium about the size of a softball would be encased in a carefully crafted, much larger sphere of HMX or an HMX-type explosive.

The secret is how to get the force of this explosive, once detonated, precisely directed so it will instantly compress the inner sphere into a critical mass, thus triggering a nuclear explosion.

It seems unlikely that all this RDX and HMX would be stored (usually in cloth bags inside plastic-lined fiber drums filled with water) to be used later in conventional munitions. In that case the stuff would be shipped directly to the point where shells and bombs are being made.

That U.S. and coalition forces were overwhelmed by the sheer number of munitions stockpiles and the huge amount of real estate devoted to them, is now a given. With around 900 sites of particular strategic interest on the U.S. list, it seems unlikely that a military force two or three times the size of that which conquered Iraq could have successfully "secured" all of them.

This was a miscalculation of the classic "Who knew?" type that will be endlessly batted about when history looks back on this long and difficult struggle. But whatever is finally determined about the missing 377 tons (Are they buried in the desert somewhere?), they seem at the least to be more validation of the efforts of the Saddam regime to build nuclear weapons.


TCS Daily Archives