Yet isn’t it a bit odd to talk at all of ‘green’ military technology – stuff that is used in combat, perhaps lethally, but doesn’t harm the environment? The apparent irony is not lost on the researchers engaged in such work: “I know, some people think it is an oxymoron”, one has said. But it’s hardly cynical to say that, since armed conflicts do occur whether you like it or not, one would rather not pollute the environment afterwards for civilians.
With that in mind, making military armaments greener has become a significant concern. The US Department of Defense issued a ‘statement of need’ last October calling for research proposals for ‘environmentally advantaged submunitions’ – basically, ‘green’ explosives. For example, the primer that sets off the bullet-propelling explosive in small arms typically contains lead, which lingers in firing ranges and accumulates alarmingly in the blood of trainee soldiers and police officers.
High explosives are problematic too. TNT is a carcinogen, although rarely used now in military applications, while the most common alternatives, compounds called HMX and RDX, can cause neurological and reproductive problems. In 1984 a child was hospitalized with epileptic seizures after chewing on a piece of RDX plastic explosive stuck to the clothes of its mother, a munitions worker (and you thought your parenting was irresponsible?).
The army is worried about how much of this stuff is left lying around ranges and battlegrounds in unexploded dud shells, which constitute 3% to 4% of those supplied to troops. Hundreds of thousands of duds were dropped as cluster bombs in the 1991 Gulf War, for example.
The new green incendiary oxidizers represent another facet of this general trend – and they have the added appeal of benefitting peaceful pyrotechnics too.