It may have taken five years, but Canada may finally be getting some green artillery that won't poison people.
In the process, military scientists have found a more effective and cheaper type of ammunition that could reduce the environmental impact of war across the board.
A research project in the Canadian Armed Forces began looking for a new type of ammunition in 2011 in response to fear that its shooting ranges were posing a threat to local water sources. Explosive rounds, especially from its Howitzer artillery, were being scattered around their training sites, and the military feared that the toxic chemicals inside the water-soluble rounds could seep into drinking water.
So scientists with the Canadian military began researching how to fix the problem. Their solution: make sure the rounds explode fully, and replace the decades-old explosive solution inside them with less-toxic material.
The project was called RIGHTTRAC — an acronym for Revolutionary Insensitive, Green and Healthier Training Technology with Reduced Adverse Contamination — and it was undertaken by Defence Research & Development Canada (DRDC).
It served essentially as a proof of concept, and the results are expected to be replicated on other types of ammunition.
The final report is dated May 2015, but the results were only just published by the DRDC.
"This project has proven that it is possible to develop [insensitive munitions] and green munitions that perform better than current munitions and that will help to ease the environmental pressures on [ranges and training areas]," the report concludes.
"The end result is that military personnel will be able to train and fight with ammunition having comparable or better properties than current munitions, with the added benefit of decreasing the environmental pressure and the health hazards on soldiers, sailors or airmen."
The report notes that the project was unique, in that it put environmental considerations at the forefront — without regard for cost — and ended up saving money in the long run, as well as developing a superior product.
The trouble with munitions, like artillery shells, is that they're designed to only explode in specific conditions. As such, there's all sorts of cases where the rounds only partially explode, or where they turn out to be duds and don't explode at all.
"Unexploded or deflagrated RDX does not degrade in soil and, because of its solubility in water, migrates easily to groundwater and off military property," the report says, referring to Research Department Formula X, a powerful and very common explosive developed during WWII. "This may trigger a serious environmental problem and becomes a public health concern if the groundwater is used for drinking."
One of the researchers on the project told La Presse newspaper that "we never know in which state of instability we'll find these non-exploded munitions."
The Canadian military, under this project, developed a formula for the shells that doesn't include RDX.
The 80-year-old chemical compound wasn't the only problem. Researchers also looked to improve the engineering of the rounds to avoid duds, and sought to replace toxic and carcinogenic compounds in the rounds with more earth-friendly chemicals. And, by and large, they succeeded.
This breakthrough may mean that the Department of National Defense won't have to pay to continually remediate these training sites to detoxify the soil.
The new ammunition was primarily designed just for training ranges in Canada, but the fact that the new rounds are both more effective, and cheaper, than regularly ammunition means that they could become the military standard for other militaries, both at home and in theatre.
In 2009, Patrick Brousseau, one of the researchers responsible for the project, noted that the Canadian Forces were working alongside the American, Swedish, British, Dutch, and Australian militaries on the project.
The international impact of toxic ammunition can be disastrous. A report on the effect of shelling in Syria says the ravaged country will also be facing "problematic soil and water contaminant" in the long-term, after the bombing ends.
Motherboard reported in 2015 that one Canadian Forces training base was re-building its firing range in order to prevent the littering of ammunition. More than a decade ago, the American military tried to green itself by reducing the amount of lead in its bullets — though that effort appeared, ultimately, to be counter-productive.
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