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Environmentally Friendly Fire

London Times | September 18, 2006
By Jon Ungoed-Thomas

BAE SYSTEMS, one of the world’s biggest arms manufacturers, is designing a new generation of “green” munitions, including “lead-free” bullets and rockets with reduced toxins.

It also wants to cut the dangerous compounds in its jets, fighting vehicles and artillery, which it warns “can harm the environment and pose a risk to people”.

The initiative is being backed by the Ministry of Defence, which has proposed quieter warheads to reduce noise pollution and grenades that produce less smoke. There have even been experiments to see if explosives can be turned into manure.

Dr Debbie Allen, director of corporate social responsibility at BAE systems, said that although it might seem strange to have a green policy for munitions, it was important to consider the environmental impact of all products.

“Weapons are going to be used and when they are, we try to make them as safe for the user as possible, to limit the collateral damage and to impact as little as possible on the environment,” she said.

BAE’s policy reflects the eagerness among big companies to trumpet their environmental concerns. The concept of “green munitions” has, however, infuriated campaigners opposed to the arms trade.

“This is laughable,” said Symon Hill of Campaign Against Arms Trade. “BAE is determined to try to make itself look ethical, but they make weapons to kill people and it’s utterly ridiculous to suggest they are environmentally friendly.”

During the Iraq war, Britain dropped more than 900 bombs while the United States has admitted dropping 1,500 cluster bombs, which detonate numerous explosions over a large area, and anti-landmine campaigners have sought to ban them. The exact death toll is unknown.

Both countries say they want to ensure their weapons are in future more sustainable and environmentally friendly. BAE stopped using depleted uranium in its weapons in 2003, but an expert panel now reviews all its products to ensure materials and manufacturing processes are as green as possible. Its arsenal and environmental practices now include:

  • Bullets with lower lead content because, as the company states on its website, “lead used in ammunition can harm the environment and pose a risk to people”. BAE says its plantin Radway Green, near Crewe, has been working on eliminating lead from its bullets altogether.
  • Armoured vehicles with lower carbon emissions. The company is using “hybrid” engines, which can be powered by batteries as well as conventional diesel engines.
  • Weaponry with fewer toxins. BAE is working to reduce Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and other hazardous, and often carcinogenic, chemicals in its products.
  • Safer and sustainable artillery. The company has started manufacturing “insensitive” shell explosives at its plant in Glascoed in south Wales. They do not blow up accidentally and have an unlimited shelf life, reducing the need for disposal.
  • Energy saving measures and recycling, including experimenting with turning waste explosives into compost.

BAE’s policy is endorsed by the MoD, which stresses the importance of environmentally friendly munitions in its Sustainable Development and Environment Manual. It says “ecodesign” should be incorporated into all modern weapons.

It states: “A concept of green munitions is not a contradiction in terms. Any system, whatever its ultimate use, can be designed to minimise its impact [on the] environment.”

Rockets fired in “sensitive marine environments” could have reduced emissions to protect the sea-life, the manual suggests. Also, weapons used for training purposes could be modified. Ideas include biodegradable plastics for missiles, “reduced smoke” grenades and quieter warheads.

The American military has also developed a sustainability strategy. One document on the US Army Sustainability website discusses the possible use of soybean oil in jet fuel, the use of solar panels in the conflict zone and hydrogen-powered miniature aerial vehicles.

 

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