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Saturday, February 21, 1998 Published at 00:06 GMT


Just how smart are those bombs?
image: [ The new missile has rocket fuel instead of explosive ]
The new missile has rocket fuel instead of explosive

As the prospect of war looms in the Gulf, defence experts are challenging America's claims that it could destroy Iraq's chemical and biological weapons without causing heavy civilian casualties.

The US military says that since the last Gulf War it has developed a new "smart bomb" which produces an explosion so hot it vaporises and neutralises all chemicals in its range.

But analysts who have studied the bomb's development doubt its effectiveness.

[ image: Ivan Eland:
Ivan Eland: "a very risky venture"
They fear that bombing weapons sites will release a deadly fallout of chemical and biological agents into the air.

Defence analyst Ivan Eland said: "The biological agent could be spread over the countryside and small quantities of this are very lethal.

"Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed depending on where the site is and if Saddam put civilians around these sites, as he has done in the past. This could be a big problem."

[ image: The new bomb has been tested once]
The new bomb has been tested once
Washington rejects this scenario and insists its new bomb works.

Unlike previous devices the bomb is packed with rocket fuel instead of high explosive.

On its only test to date it was detonated in a bunker containing chemicals at a military base in Florida.

The US says it produced such a fierce blast that no chemicals escaped.

The head of the test programme, Major Ken Echternacht, says this shows Iraq's weapons facilities could be attacked without causing a chemical disaster.

"Any particular chemical or biological agent that would be vented into an open atmosphere outside a facility would already be neutralised before it escaped a facility," he said.

[ image: A smart bomb's view of an approaching target]
A smart bomb's view of an approaching target
However, in private the military has told BBC correspondents that it cannot guarantee a bomb attack would not release chemicals into the air.

BBC correspondents say there are also potential problems for the US military because its missiles are so accurate.

During the last Gulf War America showed film of how its computer-guided "smart bombs" could be programmed to hit within 12 metres of a target.

But correspondents say the Pentagon does not have up-to-the-minute information of where Saddam Hussein is keeping his weapons. Iraqi forces could move targeted material even just a few hundred metres, as it did in the last Gulf War, and avoid a direct hit.

This makes US pilots fear they might have to make several attacks to achieve their objective, correspondents say.

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