Undersea Arsenal, Poisoned Oceans Part 9: Undersea Arsenal

Undersea Arsenal, Poisoned Oceans is a 9-part series on the history and consequences of decommissioned unconventional munitions disposed at sea.

Undersea Arsenal, Poisoned Oceans Part 9: Undersea Arsenal. With the changing landscape of technology and politically-motivated terrorism, will any of these lost munitions be recovered and deployed?

20 Mar 1995 --- SARIN GAS ATTACK IN TOKYO METRO --- Image by © CORBIS SYGMAIn this era of terrorism, extremism and stateless warfare, long-forgotten chemical munitions now pose a potent new threat to national security. Extremist groups have a long-documented interest in such weapons of mass destruction, and their sordid fascination has indeed claimed lives. In 1995, five apocalyptic Japanese cult members deployed crude Sarin devices on the world’s busiest rail system, the Tokyo Metro. Though the attack had the potential of killing thousands of rush-hour commuters, improper deployment allowed the low-lying, volatile gas to evaporate quickly, killing just thirteen people and sickening hundreds.

For most extremist groups, there is a steep barrier to entry in the world of chemical munitions. These devices are notoriously difficult to produce, and require educated personnel, laboratories, precursor chemicals and in-depth knowledge of delivery systems. But what if the true barrier to entry is simply $2,000 in SCUBA equipment? After all, advanced SCUBA certifications are inexpensive and readily available in nearly every coastal city in the United States. After all, the chemical munitions themselves are well within reach. Taking into account the rapid advance and declining price of deep-sea robotics, an extremist group salvaging chemical munitions may not be just a matter of capability, but simply a matter of time.

UGA_unexploded_munitions_202172009            Making matters, worse, many devices of this era are well preserved, and still behave largely according to design. One of the best examples of this is the World War 2-era German submarine U-869. Thought by historians to have been sunk off Gibraltar, American divers found her lying at 240 feet off the coast of New Jersey. Over the next several years, divers repeatedly visited the submarine, penetrating her narrow passageways and retrieving artifacts that could be used during their efforts to identify the unknown wreck.

Lead diver John Chatterton discovered an “escape lung”, a type of crude rebreather device used in conjunction with a small bottle of pressurized oxygen. It was designed to allow German crewmen to escape from a stricken submarine. Thinking the device inert, he retrieved it and placed it in his garage shelves. Some time later, an explosion rocked his house, destroying his garage. A quick examination revealed the oxygen bottle, still pressurized and functional, was the source of the explosion.

Another pair of divers inadvertently activated a self-inflating rubber raft in one of the compartments. It blew up without warning, trapping one of them in a narrow passageway. Despite escaping, both divers died shortly after their emergency ascent due to “the bends,” suffering massive cerebral and pulmonary embolisms, having skipped their required decompression stops.

Compared to pressurized-gas devices of that era, the physics of munitions are largely comparable, perhaps even simpler. Added to that truth is the simple fact that extremists are by no means bound to treat a shell as a shell, or a bomb as a bomb. Instead, they most commonly incorporate these munitions into one of the most naggingly challenging weapons of the war on terror, the improvised explosive.

Like so many problems facing the ocean, there can be no call to action on this issue, no grand mission, no solution. In fact, we don’t even know what will happen next as we cannot with any certainty establish what we’ve already done. Though the Pandora’s box is already opened, we refuse to understand what was really in it. One may only hope that the strategic philosophy of parity might encompass more than looking at our enemies who have, could, or might create such terrible weapons of war—that is to say, what happens after we win?

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