Come, friendly bombs

Can a bullet, bomb or rocket ever be "environmentally friendly"? Arms manufacturers in America and B

Can a bullet, bomb or rocket ever be "friendly"? Arms manufacturers in America and Britain seem to think so. On both sides of the Atlantic the hunt is on for "environmentally friendly" munitions: lead-free bullets, reduced-toxin rockets and smoke-free hand grenades.

The new generation of weapons will care as well as kill, apparently. Yes, they will still blow brains out and limbs off, leaving men, women and children dead or degraded. But they will cause less harm to nature than conventional weapons did.

If you thought "green Tories" was a contradiction in terms, what about "green warfare", or "eco-aware human obliteration"?

The Pentagon is pumping millions of dollars into developing environmentally friendly lead-free bullets, for use both in training and on the battlefield. Every year an estimated 17 million rounds of small arms ammunition are expended on training ranges in the US, leaving behind more than 300,000lb of lead that can seep into the soil and even infect local water supplies.

The new green bullet will be used in the white heat of war, too. According to Bob DiMichele, a spokesman for the US Army Environmental Centre, it is about moving on from outdated "fire-and-forget" attitudes.

"[With lead bullets] there is a cost in health, human safety and clean-up," he says, without a whiff of irony - not seeming to realise that the reason the US army makes bullets in the first place, puts them in guns, and then fires them at people, is in order to have an impact on health and human safety. Under contract from the Pentagon, American arms manufacturers are making bullets with an "environmentally benign core": they will consist of a tungsten composite of tin or nylon rather than lead.

It will be a new kind of bullet "that can kill you or that you can shoot a target with, and which is not an environmental hazard", says DiMichele. In practice, this means that an Iraqi family can still be wiped out and have their home destroyed, but - hey - at least the trees and river outside will have a fighting chance for survival. It is barbarism painted green.

Over here, BAE Systems, with the support of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), is developing a whole raft of green bullets and rockets. The company wants to move away from old lead-based, potentially toxic munitions that can "harm the environment and pose a risk to people", towards munitions that are less harmful and risky (but which can still kill people, you understand).

BAE is also looking to make lead-free bullets, and has developed armoured vehicles with lower carbon emissions; weaponry with fewer volatile organic compounds and other hazardous chemicals in them; safer and sustainable artillery; and explosives that can be turned into compost once they have been used (that is, once they have already turned people into compost).

The MoD has published a Sustainable Development and Environment Manual, which advises that "ecodesign" should be incorporated into all modern weapons manufacturing. "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," says the MoD manual. So even dropping a bomb into a heavily populated area could be considered a "green" act these days.

Meanwhile, the US navy is working towards making the rockets fired from its ships "less offensive". There are new rules dictating what can and cannot be written on rockets fired into conflict zones. They stem from an unfortunate incident during the Afghan war in October 2001, when crew on the USS Enterprise wrote "Hijack this, fags" on a rocket destined for a Taliban target. Following complaints from groups representing gays and lesbians in the military, navy Rear Admiral Stephen Pietropaoli condemned the "offensive" scrawled message and promised to edit more thoroughly "the spontaneous acts of penmanship by our sailors".

"We want to keep the messages positive," he said. So, a rocket may kill people, but it certainly must not offend them.

There is something disturbing about putting the environmental impact of weapons above their human impact - as if it would be acceptable to kill people so long as plants and wildlife were spared. War is destructive, however green the garb in which it is dressed.

If the Pentagon, MoD, BAE and the rest want to reduce the impact of weapons on the environment, they are going to have to think twice about developing munitions in the first place, let alone deploying them where people live.