I saw this at Scientific American:

Climate Change May Be Blowing Up Arms Depots
More intense heat waves can destabilize the components of munitions, particularly where explosives are not properly stored

Oh for fuck’s sake.

The author of this piece is Peter Schwartzstein.  According to his bio:

I’m a British-American journalist, consultant, and think-tanker based in Cairo, but am usually on the road elsewhere in the Middle East and North and East Africa.

I write about regional environment and geo-political issues, with a focus on trans-boundary water disputes, the conflict-climate nexus, food security and refugee movements. Though in an effort to cling to my last tatters of sanity, I also contribute occasional history and science stories to Smithsonian Magazine.

He is why I hate science writers.  Science writers are not scientists or engineers, they are journalists or English majors who write about technical topics.  But having little technical knowledge, they do a shit job writing about it.  Furthermore, coming from fields like journalism, which is heavily politically biased, they infuse their technical work with that bias.

Case in point, this article.

It was a little before 4 A.M., on an airless morning in June 2018, when the arms depot in Baharka, Iraqi Kurdistan, blew up. Brightening the dawn sky for kilometers around, the blast sent rockets, bullets and artillery rounds hurtling in every direction. Officials say no one was killed. But were it not for the early hour and reduced garrison, the death toll might well have been horrendous.

A year later, another arsenal exploded just to the southwest of Baharka, reportedly destroying millions of dollars’ worth of ammunition amassed during the fight against ISIS. Two similar blasts around Baghdad followed a few weeks after that, killing and wounding dozens of people between them. Before the end of this past summer, at least six munitions sites had gone up in flames in Iraq alone, according to Iraqi security sources.

While details of the blasts were scarce, investigators agreed that most incidents shared a common theme: hot weather. Each explosion came in the midst of a long, scorching Iraqi summer, when temperatures routinely topped 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). And they all struck just as powerful heat waves ramped up. Explosives experts say such intense heat can weaken munitions’ structural integrity, cause the thermal expansion of explosive chemicals and damage protective shields.

That can happen and this is a real concern for munitions.

Most munitions are designed to withstand severe heat but only in the relatively short term.  If exposed to extreme temperatures and humidity for long enough, a munition can become unstable and may even more or less strip itself apart.  The wood in antipersonnel stake mines rots; rubber and plastic in plastic mines can shatter in the unrelenting sun. Without regular monitoring, heated explosive materials within munitions can force their way through seals and filler plugs, a shell casing’s weakest points. Nitroglycerin becomes so sensitive when it absorbs moisture that even a slight shake can set it off.

Also true.

“The physical effect of abnormally high temperatures is that a high level of stress occurs between components because of the different expansion rates of the individual materials,” says John Montgomery, chief technical adviser for explosive ordnance disposal at the Halo Trust, a land-mine-clearance nonprofit organization.

This can happen.

Higher temperatures also raise the risk of handling errors by fatigued armorers. From chaotic conflict zones to the best-equipped NATO-standard storage facilities, soldiers say summer is when explosive accidents peak because of a combination of foggy decision-making and more sensitive munitions, both caused by extreme heat. “In the military, everything is more difficult when it’s summer,” says an Iraqi artillery officer who gives his name as Ali. “And now summer never ends.”

This is a logistics and training issue.  Use more people on shorter duty rotations to combat fatigue.

But for all those improvements to happen, there is going to have to be a sea change in attitudes, arms experts say. Many militaries do not make stored munitions much of a priority, and they—and environmentalists—are not thrilled at the prospect of having to go through the expensive and sometimes polluting process of destroying and refreshing their stockpiles more frequently. “It can be difficult to get any government to focus on ammunition unless something bad happens, because it’s just not a sexy topic,” says Robin Mossinkoff, head of the support section at the Forum for Security Co-operation at the intergovernmental Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. “But if you can afford to spend $300 million on new weapons, you can afford to do this.

Nothing he said is technically wrong.  My problem is that it is biased by a Brit-Yankee based in Cairo who has clearly gone native.

There is a fantastic article published in Middle East Quarterly 20 years ago that is just as accurate and relevant as ever.  I was first introduced to it in ROTC and it should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to understand the Middle East.

Why Arabs Lose Wars
by Norvell B. De Atkine

I’m not going to go into the whole thing, but there are two parts that are necessary to understand.

Information as power:
In every society information is a means of making a living or wielding power, but Arabs husband information and hold it especially tightly. U.S. trainers have often been surprised over the years by the fact that information provided to key personnel does not get much further than them. Having learned to perform some complicated procedure, an Arab technician knows that he is invaluable so long as he is the only one in a unit to have that knowledge; once he dispenses it to others he no longer is the only font of knowledge and his power dissipates. This explains the commonplace hoarding of manuals, books, training pamphlets, and other training or logistics literature.


Indifference to Safety:
In terms of safety measures, there is a general laxness, a seeming carelessness and indifference to training accidents, many of which could have been prevented by minimal efforts. To the (perhaps overly) safety-conscious Americans, Arab societies appear indifferent to casualties and show a seemingly lackadaisical approach to training safety.

So a large portion of what Schwartzstein is blaming on climate change is actually the result of the terrible culture of Arab armies.  They don’t know how to build proper munitions storage facilities, they don’t handle the munitions safely, and they wouldn’t care about the safety of the depot workers or surrounding civilians if they did.

Notice how the explosions he cites are in Iraq.

But it is his last paragraph that is most annoying.

As the materials scientists for a military contractor, I have personally done environmental testing on munitions.  I’ve frozen it, baked, blasted it with UV radiation, it and sprayed it will all sorts of corrosive or caustic chemicals.

I can’t tell you what our munitions can handle, but I can tell you that MIL-SPEC requires a minimum of 140 degF and -40 degF stability for both long term and cyclic exposure.  That testing is governed by both MIL-SPEC and ASTM standards and that testing facilities are ISO certified.

Global warming isn’t going to cause US military munitions to accidentally go off any time soon.

I don’t know if all NATO countries use exactly the same standards and tests that we do, but I have a feeling they are very close.

So if a bunch of Arab armies and terrorist cells using old Soviet surplus weapons, or Iranian or Egyptian knockoffs, blow themselves to hell with improper storage and handling of munitions that weren’t properly made and tested to begin with… I have no fucks to give about that.

Just make sure our soldiers stay clear of those depots and enjoy the fireworks.

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By J. Kb

12 thoughts on “Scientific American writer can’t read a MIL-SPEC”
  1. Ever see the videos of iraqs crack soldiers tossing rpg rounds and other munitions all over? I dont think 113 degrees is gonna make stuff go boom. If thats the case why dont the rouns in my 16 cook off after 2 or 3 mags??

    1. I’ve always found it morbidly fascinating to watch the videos of Arab guerrillas and irregulars running along paved roads with Soviet-surplus RPGs… That have impact detonators.

      Impact detonators that are meant to be covered by a cap until the moment of firing. Caps that the Arabs will frequently remove… Before running down a paved road.

      Then they trip.

  2. Iraqi munition dumps started blowing up in the middle of their war with ISIS?
    ISIS the guerilla army and terrorist force that recruited Sunni religious extremists and martyrs?

    Hmmmm… I wonder if that may have contributed to the total?

    Looking at the news, The Russians seem to be able to blow up their own ammo dumps regularly too.

  3. J. Kb,

    I hear where you say that MIL-SPEC is 140F long term and cyclic. The magazines I’ve seen and been in, here in the states are nominally cooler than the ambient temperature. But I could easily see where an above ground magazine in Iraq could get much hotter than 140F.

    Would this be a problem or a potential problem?

    1. Like I said, 140 degF is the spec but most stuff is better than that.

      The design of ammo storage is part of the logistics of war. Above ground units need good ventilation and are built to store ammo safely.

      1. Thanks J.Kb. I hear you and agree. I was just thinking of the fires on the Forestall and the Enterprise in the 60’s. If I remember correctly, C4 breaks down when it burns. It is will “safely” burn without exploding but it becomes very sensitive. I think the H8 is pretty temperature stable.

        The gist is, take care of your munitions and they won’t go boom when you don’t want them to and will go boom when you need them too. If you don’t bad things can happen.

        In vietnam, some of the experienced troops would use little pea sizes chunks of c4 as a fuel source for heating coffee/water. The newly in country would imitate the older troops and all was good. Until somebody used too big of a piece and went to stomp out the fire when it was time to move. At which time they would often have to bring in the med-evac because missing or injured foot.

      2. Long before I got to you mentioning “Why Arabs Lose Wars”, I was going to make a comment about Insh’Allah attitudes and drop a link to that article. LOL

        Why, yes, I have worked with both munitions AND trained Arab troops. Why do you ask?

  4. The once-respectable “Scientific American” has been neither scientific nor American for many years, now. The decline started in the 1990s, as “science journalism” replaced research-based content written by scientists (mostly from American universities). The publishers of SciAm were eventually acquired by Nature Publishing of the U.K. This resulted in a complete re-make of SciAm as a Euro-Globo journo-science propaganda rag. SciAm pushes a monthly smörgåsbord of climate change (after global warming failed), multiculturalism, White-Man-Bad, Orange Man Worse, Diversity is Our Strength, and Everyone Hug a Polar Bear Today.

  5. Indifference to Safety:
    In terms of safety measures, there is a general laxness, a seeming carelessness and indifference to training accidents, many of which could have been prevented by minimal efforts.

    ummm, yeah, this. I spent a year in Afghanistan (almost a decade ago), working on construction. We would have guys show up to place concrete wearing flip flops (chemical burns can be a problem with concrete, if you’re not familiar). Regularly not using hard hats or any other safety gear.

    My company would call them on it, and explain why they needed to use the safety equipment and wear steel toed boots, and the response was almost always “enshallah” (not sure of general spelling anymore). Translated to “as allah wills it”. If they lose a hand or foot, allah must have willed it.

    Had one project where they tried to smuggle a dead body off the project. Can’t remember anymore how it happened, but the guy died on site, and the contractor didn’t want to shut the project down, so tried smuggling the body out in the trunk of a workers car.

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