May 3, 2001 -- The U.S. military is trying to go green, andnot just with berets or fatigues.
In a multimillion-dollar project, the Army has come up with anew bullet said to be just as deadly as the old lead-based one butcleaner for the Earth.
"We want to be good stewards of the environment," said Armyspokeswoman Karen Baker.
Less Soil Contamination
The military says using "green ammunition" cuts soilcontamination caused by the millions of slugs fired year after yearat its practice ranges. In the new bullet, a less toxic tungstencomposite replaces the lead.
It's just one of the Pentagon's efforts to keep troops trainedfor combat while protecting the environment on military land.Critics say the armed forces have a long way to go on that score.
In a program it says has cost about $12 million so far, theArmy in 1994 started researching ways to make a moreenvironmentally friendly 5.56mm bullet. It's used in the M-16rifle, a weapon issued to every Army infantry soldier, and anestimated 200 million rounds are shot a year.
Researchers studied different combinations of metal to design aslug that would perform the same as the old one, have the samedensity, ballistic quality and so on, said Michael Dette of theArmy Environmental Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.
They settled on a tungsten composite slug and kept the oldcopper casing to produce a bullet Dette says actually turned out tobe more accurate and causes less barrel corrosion. Soldiers won'tnotice a difference, he said.
Lead-Free by 2005
The Army, which produces ammunition for all the services,started limited use of the new version in 1999 and is producing 50million rounds this year for practice at a new range in Alaska andan old contaminated one in Massachusetts.
Officials hope the switch to lead-free slugs will be complete in2005.
The new bullets cost about 8 cents each compared with a halfcent for the old ones. Dette said they'll cost less in fullproduction and when officials consider the savings of millions ofdollars that would otherwise go for cleaning contaminated ranges.
The 5.56mm bullet accounts for half the small-caliberammunition used annually — troops shoot another 200 million roundsof 7.62mm and 9mm bullets, not to mention mortars, artillery andother large ammunition.
The lead slug is not the only noxious part of the bullet.
Chemicals used for sealing, waterproofing and painting thebullet as well as for propelling the slug also are being studied — and some of their ingredients have been changed, too. But officialsdon't know when ammunition might be completely green.
In 1997, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered theArmy's Massachusetts Military Reservation to stop all live-firetraining after a study showed lead and other toxins seeping intoCape Cod's underground water supply. Troops started using the newammunition there in October 1999.
But critics recently urged an end to training in small weaponsat the reservation's Camp Edwards after a new National Guard studysaid soil had illegally high amounts of an ingredient from theammunition's propellant.