U.S. Army troops operating at a former Iraqi air base recently made a startling discovery: Russian-made missiles marked with radioactive warning signs.
Army bomb disposal troops confirmed using Geiger counters that the missiles are indeed radioactive.
The discovery is not, however, considered the long-sought “smoking gun” of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
The missiles appear to be part of a cache of weapons supplied to Iraq before the 1991 Gulf War.
The Russian-made R-60, NATO code name AA-8 Aphid, air-to-air missiles are part of a huge stockpile of former Iraqi Air Force munitions uncovered in over a dozen concrete bunkers.
The Russian-made missiles are more than 6 feet long. Each carries 1.6 kilograms or about 3.5 pounds of radioactive uranium wrapped around a high explosive warhead.
The uranium is not pure enough nor in large enough quantity to be a nuclear warhead but it is dangerous enough, as you can see from the label:
U.S. bomb experts noted the R-60 warheads are similar in design and content to a so-called “dirty bomb” that could contaminate a small area with radioactive materials.
The discovery of the uranium-laced R-60 missiles illustrates the difficulty that coalition troops have in trying to dispose of the billons of dollars of Iraqi weapons left behind after the second war.
The R-60 missiles cannot simply be destroyed because the uranium-laced warheads could pose a health hazard to coalition troops and Iraqi civilians.
Army bomb-disposal experts have gathered up all the R-60 missiles found at the site and quarantined them at a single, heavily guarded location.
The R-60 has a very small 6-kilogram (13.2-pound) explosive warhead. The R-60 missiles supplied to Iraq by Russia contained uranium in their warheads to assist the small explosive charge in destroying targeted aircraft.
Russian weapons designers added the uranium belt to the missile in order to knock-out western aircraft using the dense metal as a way to punch through heavily armored sections of U.S. made jets.
U.S. troops also found a small number of advanced R-60M warheads at the site. The R-60M missiles are equipped with an advanced laser destruct system that detonates the warhead when it passes close to a target aircraft.
More Russian Missiles
In addition, U.S. troops uncovered several large air-to-surface Kh-28 missiles, NATO code-named AS-9 Kyle.
The Kh-28 is a Russian-made, anti-radar, air-to-surface missile with a top speed of more than 2,000 miles an hour.
The missile is approximately 19.5 feet long, 17 inches in diameter, has a wingspan of 5.5 feet and weighs more than 1,500 pounds. It carries a conventional 340-pound high-explosive warhead and has a range of 54 miles.
U.S weapons experts are also handling the Kh-28 missiles carefully, but not because of its electronic radar-seeking warhead.
The Kh-28 is powered by a liquid-propellant propulsion system that consists of a fuel tank and an oxidizer tank. The oxidizer is a dangerous chemical known as “red fuming nitric acid” or IRFNA. Each missile carries approximately 20 gallons of IRFNA.
The oxidizer is considered to be highly dangerous and a possible carcinogen. U.S. Air Force disposal squads dismantled a Kh-28 found after the 1991 Gulf War using full Hazmat suits and special anti-chemical gear.
Again, U.S. forces are taking great care in the disposal of the missiles for fear of exposing coalition troops and local civilians to hazardous chemicals such as the oxidizer found in the Kh-28 missiles.