October 28, 2004

Al-Qa'qa' Explosives - Some Perspectives

Over the past few days, there has been almost non-stop reporting on the "missing" 377 tons of RDX and HMX from the Al-Qa'qa' facility south of Baghdad. It has been the topic of attacks and counterattacks for the two presidential candidates. Some perspective on the facts might be in order.

First of all, what are RDX and HMX?

RDX (Rapid Detonation Explosive) and HMX (High Melting Explosive) are military "high-speed" high explosive materials. The term "high-speed" refers to the extremely short time between ignition and full combustion of the material - the shorter the time, the more powerful the blast.

RDX has been around since the late 19th century. It was used in World War II, and today is probably the most common component of blast weapons. I have some personal experience with RDX - a improvised explosive device (IED) composed of about 175 pounds of RDX was detonated 90 meters from a house I was using in northern Iraq. Thanks to the fact that I happened to be in the only sandbagged room in the house, I am writing this.

More on RDX:

  • also called hexogen
  • white crystalline solid
  • powerful high-speed military high explosive
  • forms the base for a number of common military explosives, including plastic
  • very stable in storage/transport
  • only detonates with a detonator, unaffected by small arms fire
  • used with TNT in Iraqi-produced landmines (good for IEDs)
  • used by the Iraqis in artillery shell, mine and Scud warhead production
HMX, also known as octogen, is a further development of RDX. The molecular weight is heavier, making it even more high-speed than RDX - it is the most powerful non-nuclear explosive material yet developed. Because of its power, it has applications in nuclear weapons design. HMX can be used to initiate a nuclear blast. It is also used in the manufacture of solid rocket fuel. For these reasons, the 214 tons of HMX were of greater interest to the IAEA.

As best I can piece the limited information together, here is what happened:

January 2003: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gathers 377 tons of Iraqi RDX and HMX at the Al-Qa'qa' facility. At that time, 32 tons of known stocks of HMX were still unaccounted for; Iraq claimed the HMX had been used for industrial purposes. The HMX was placed under seal; the RDX was not.

March 2003: Prior to their departure, IAEA inspectors noted that there was RDX present at Al-Qa'qa', but that they did not note the presence of the HMX. It is unclear if or why they did not search for the HMX.

April 4, 2003: A battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division moved in to the area to secure a bridge over the Euphrates River. The Al-Qa'qa' facility was defended by Fida'in Saddam, Special Republican Guard and Iraqi Army units. After engaging the defenders, the battalion secured the bridge and made a quick search of the area for immediate chemical weapons threats.

April 6, 2003: The battalion departed the area, rejoining the main body of the 3rd Division for the push to Baghdad.

April 10, 2004: A brigade of the 101st Airborne Division overnighted in the area on their way to Baghdad. Again, the unit made a quick search of the area for immediate chemical weapons threats, did note the presence of conventional munitions, as they had encountered all the way north from Kuwait. The brigade departed the next morning.

April 18, 2004: A news crew embedded with the 101st accompanies some soldiers into a bunker . The soldiers broke an IAEA seal, indicating that on that date, at least some of the HMX was there.

May 8, 11 and 27, 2003: The 75th Exploitation Task Force (the unit charges with locating WMD) inspected the Al-Qa'qa' facility. No materials (HMX) under IAEA seal were found, and the facility appeared to be vandalized.

Where is the RDX and HMX?

There is no definitive answer, despite claims and counter-claims. After the battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division moved into the area on April 4, 2003, all roads in the area were under the control (or surveillance) of coalition forces. The undetected, unauthorized movement of 377 tons of material, requiring approximately 40 heavy transport vehicles, on roads literally choked with Army and Marine vehicles, would be virtually impossible.

Although theft by Iraqi insurgents has been listed as a possibility, RDX and HMX are raw materials used to construct weapons. Insurgents would first likely take existing weapons, such as mortar rounds, artillery shells, RPG's, mines - all of which were plentiful all over the country, including at Al-Qa'qa'.

Recently released DOD satellite imagery shows some truck activity at the facility prior to the coalition invasion of the country. Footage obtained by a news crew embedded with the 101st Airborne Division shows at least one IAEA seal on a bunker door when elements of the division passed through the facility in April. However, the IAEA admits that there were other entrances to the bunkers that would allow the material to be removed without breaking the seals. Also, any decent intelligence service, including Iraq's Mukhabarat (Intelligence Service) and Directorate of Military Intelligence, can replicate IAEA seals.

In perspective, the 377 tons of high explosives represent less than 1/10th of one percent of the 400,000 tons of munitions coalition forces have destroyed or have gathered to be destroyed. The real issue is not 377 tons of explosives - it's the thousands of insurgents.