The Second Version

26/01/09

Blowing Up a DIME

A few years ago it was white phosphorus that caused a kerfuffle, now it seems to be the turn of the novel DIME ordnance to be labelled as the Nastiest Weapon Ever.

DIME stands for Dense Inert Metal Explosive and this kind of ordnance is being developed in the USA (and possibly already being used by Israel) in order to reduce collateral damage.

Yes, that's true. DIME is not meant to be a weapon of mass extermination in the most painful ways. Can you believe that?

The inert metal used in these devices is usually tungsten or a tungsten alloy as a fine powder, mixed thoroughly with the explosive. There are a few reasons to do that, as I will illustrate.

One is to reduce production of shrapnel. The casing of the DIME bombs is made of a lightweight composite which produce little or no shrapnel; the metal powder instead produces micro-shrapnel which is highly destructive at short range but loses its energy within a few meters. By contrast, the steel shrapnel from a standard HE artiller shell or aerial bomb can be lethal up to 200 meters or even more.

The presence of the metal powder displaces some of the explosive reducing the overall power of the warhead and the maximum overpressure - again, reducing collateral damage.

The dense explosive has higher penetration capabilities without the need for a strong metal casing: the US Air Force objectives are to obtain a warhead able to penetrate one foot (something less than 30 cm) of reinforced concrete and detonate behind the obstacle - this feature can be used to take out fighters in one room leaving the rest of the building relatively undisturbed (while the current method to deal with this problem is to flatten the whole building with air or artillery strike, or to fire a 120 mm HEAT round from a tank into the room).

All sounds good, at least for the brutal and bloody standards of war so far, but there is a problem: fragments of tungsten alloys with nickel and cobalt are known to cause an aggressive form of cancer when they become embedded in living tissue. These metal powders are also suspected of being environmental pollutants*.

The actual effects of DIME explosives on survivors are unclear due in part to the fact that the battlefield use of that ordnance is not yet confirmed, and in part to the fact that many middle-eastern sources are notorious for the exaggerations, distortions, and outright fabrications in their reports of casualties and damage.

If the toxic effects of the metal powder in DIME will be confirmed, as it is likely in my opinion, they could be legitimately seen as weapons producing unnecessary sufference.

However, that would also result in an intractable problem, because standard ordnance causes more collateral damage, at least at the moment of the blast.
Other dense metals perhaps suitable for replacement of tungsten alloys are prohibitively expensive (osmium, iridium) while depleted uranium is already disgraced; lead is already regarded by many as a serious pollutant and copper or iron may lack the required properties.

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