For many centuries, the weapons and ammunition used during wars, or abandoned in their aftermath, were arrowheads, spearheads, sword blades, stone or iron cannonballs and various other inert objects that could be easily recycled, were quickly recovered, did not pose storage problems and were harmless for the environment.
The twentieth century wars brought with them quite different problems.
What could be done, in 1918, with the millions of shells filled with mustard gas left in the hands of the warring parties? Firing them was no longer a relevant option. Destroying them was dangerous and costly. Why not sink them offshore?
What could be done with a British warship, sunk off the coast of Cherbourg by a German torpedo during the Second World War, with its load of depth charges onboard? The economic argument advocated leaving the wreck and its ammunition be. This same economic argument advocated abandoning the submarine mines with which Nouméa lagoon had been filled to prevent the Japanese from landing.
Let’s take a closer look. For safety reasons, a bomber is not authorised to land with its bombs onboard, even less so to board an aircraft carrier. So what could be done when thick fog prevented an assault wave from dropping its bombs on the German target during World War II, or the Serbian target during the Yugoslav War? The answer was clear: dump them at sea during their return, in the North Sea in the first case, in the Adriatic Sea in the second.
How many bombs were dumped in this way during the latest wars: as many as on targets or far fewer? The armed forces have the answer. But are not willing to tell.
Worse still: in August 1970, the LeBaron Russel Briggs was scuttled in waters 5,000 m deep, 400 km off the coast of Florida, with 12,000 rockets onboard containing 60 tonnes of Sarin, a highly toxic gas, marking the end of the CHASE (Cut Holes And Sink ’Em) operation, a programme to dispose of unwanted US defence warships and toxic munitions.
According to researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, this programme and others sank over one million tonnes of chemical weapons in the second half of the twentieth century.
Clearly manufacturer recycling programmes do not apply to weapons of war.