White phosphorus (WP) is a flare- and smoke-producing incendiary weapon, or smoke-screening agent, made from a common allotrope of the chemical element phosphorus. White phosphorus bombs and shells are incendiary devices, but can also be used as an offensive anti-personnel flame compound capable of causing serious burns or death. The agent is used in bombs, artillery shells, and mortar shells which burst into burning flakes of phosphorus upon impact. White phosphorus is commonly referred to in military jargon as "WP". The slang term "Willy(ie) Pete" or "Willy(ie) Peter", dating from the First World War and common at least through the Vietnam era, is still occasionally heard.
White phosphorus weapons are controversial today because of their potential use against civilians. While the Chemical Weapons Convention does not designate WP as a chemical weapon, various unofficial groups consider it to be one. In recent years, the United States, Israel, Russia, and Argentina have used white phosphorus in combat.
Its use by the US has resulted in considerable controversy (see white phosphorus use in Iraq). Initial field reports from Iraq referred to white phosphorus use against insurgents, but its use was officially denied until November, 2005, when the Pentagon admitted to the use of white phosphorus while stating that its use for producing obscuring smoke is legal and does not violate the Chemical Weapons Convention. A Pentagon spokesman has also admitted that WP "was used as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants," though not against civilians.
WP is believed to have been first used by Fenian arsonists in the 19th century in the form of a solution of WP in carbon disulfide. When the carbon disulfide evaporated, the WP would burst into flames, and probably also ignite the highly flammable carbon disulfide fumes. This mixture was known as "Fenian fire" and allegedly was used by disgruntled itinerant workers in Australia to cause delayed destruction of shabby sleeping quarters.
In 1916, during an intense ideological struggle over conscription for the First World War, twelve members of the I.W.W., a radical union of workers who openly opposed conscription, were arrested and convicted for using or plotting to use incendiary materials, including phosphorus. It is believed that eight or nine men in this group, known as the Sydney Twelve, had been victims of a police frameup. Most were released in 1920 after an inquiry.
It was generally regarded as overly dangerous to its own operators.
At the start of the Normandy campaign, 20% of American 81 mm mortar rounds were WP. At least five American Medal of Honor citations mention their recipients using white phosphorus grenades to clear enemy positions. In the 1944 liberation of Cherbourg alone, a single U.S. mortar battalion, the 87th, fired 11,899 white phosphorus rounds into the city.
The U.S. Army and Marines used WP shells in 4.2-inch chemical mortars. WP was widely credited by Allied soldiers for breaking up German infantry attacks and creating havoc among enemy troop concentrations during the latter part of the war. American servicemen in the Pacific and otherwise (to this day) were known to call the thrown bottles "Woolly Pete" or "Willie Pete" grenades, using the same WP initials as White Phosphorus.
Incendiary bombs were used extensively by the German, British and US air forces against civilian populations and targets of military significance in civilian areas (London, Hamburg, Dresden, Area bombing etc). Late in the war, some of these bombs used white phosphorus (about 1-200 grams) in place of magnesium as the igniter for their flammable mixtures. The use of incendiary weapons against civilians was banned (by signatory countries) in the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons Protocol III. The USA has signed Articles I and II, but not Protocols III, IV, and V.
WP munitions were used extensively in Korea, Vietnam and later by Russian forces in Chechnya. According to GlobalSecurity.org, "In the December 1994 battle for Grozny in Chechnya, every fourth or fifth Russian artillery or mortar round fired was a smoke or white phosphorus round."
WP was used by the Argentine Army during the 1989 attack on La Tablada Regiment, in a violation of the Geneva Convention (according to a document presented by the human rights commission of the United Nations on January 12, 2001).
In Iraq, the Saddam Hussein regime used white phosphorus, as well as chemical weapons that are scheduled in the Chemical Weapons Convention, in the Halabja poison gas attack during the Iran–Iraq War in 1988, according to the ANSA news agency.
Another news report said "US intelligence" called WP a chemical weapon in a declassified Pentagon report from February 1991:
Use of WP against enemy areas in Fallujah were reported as early as April 2004:
The specific aspect of use against humans was highlighted after the documentary film Fallujah, The Hidden Massacre by Sigfrido Ranucci was aired on Italy's RaiNews24 and released on the internet. In the film, Giuliana Sgrena quotes city refugees testimonies from Fallujah about the reported danger of weapons effects:
The film also shows U.S. soldiers on film admitting to WP use against insurgents. U.S. officials continued to deny the use of white phosphorus for antipersonnel purposes; U.S. ambassador to UK Robert Holmes Tuttle stated in November 2005, that U.S. forces "do not use napalm or white phosphorus as weapons".
However, within a week of ambassador Tuttle's statement, on November 15, Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Barry Venable confirmed to the BBC that WP had been used as an antipersonnel weapon, and was quoted as stating: "It has been used as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants". In particular,
WP use is legal for purposes such as illumination and obscuring smoke, and the Chemical Weapons Convention does not list WP in its schedules of chemical weapons.
The March 2005 edition of the U.S. Army magazine Field Artillery, contained an article on using white phosphorus as an "effective munition" for flushing out insurgents during the Fallujah attack of November 2004:
On November 30, 2005, General Peter Pace defended use of WP, declaring that WP munitions were a "legitimate tool of the military", used to illuminate targets and create smokescreens, and that there were better weapons for killing people:
On June 22, 2007 New York Times correspondent Michael R. Gordon was interviewed on National Public Radio in a story called "Baquba Residents Displaced by Insurgents" by Melissa Block and Michele Norris. In this interview, Gordon was asked about civilian casualties in Baquba, Iraq. He responded by saying "Yeah, there have been civilian casualties. I was just talking to our photographer and he had seen people who are hurt by phosphorus shells. The photographer was not identified in the interview and the report was not corroborated.
During the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict, Israel stated that it had used phosphorus shells "against military targets in open ground" in south Lebanon. Israel stated that its use of the white phosphorus bombs was permitted under international conventions. According to a Haaretz article, President of Lebanon Émile Lahoud claimed that phosphorus shells were used against civilians in Lebanon. The first Lebanese official complaint about the use of phosphorus came from Information Minister Ghazi Aridi. .
Burning WP produces a hot, dense white smoke. Most forms of smoke are not hazardous in the kinds of concentrations produced by a battlefield smoke shell. Exposure to heavy smoke concentrations of any kind for an extended period (particularly if near the source of emission) does have the potential to cause illness or even death.
WP smoke irritates the eyes and nose in moderate concentrations. With intense exposures, a very explosive cough may occur. However, no recorded casualties from the effects of WP smoke alone have occurred in combat operations and to date there are no confirmed deaths resulting from exposure to phosphorus smoke.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has set an acute inhalation Minimum Risk Level (MRL) for white phosphorus smoke of 0.02 mg/m³, the same as fuel oil fumes. By contrast, the chemical weapon mustard gas is 30 times more potent: 0.0007 mg/m³.
Article 1 of Protocol III of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons defines an incendiary weapon as 'any weapon or munition which is primarily designed to set fire to objects or to cause burn injury to persons through the action of flame, heat, or combination thereof, produced by a chemical reaction of a substance delivered on the target'. The same protocol also prohibits the use of incendiary weapons against civilians or in civilian areas.
However, the use against military targets outside civilian areas is not explicitly banned by any treaty. There is a debate on whether white phosphorus should be considered a chemical weapon and thus be outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) which went into effect in April 1997. The convention is meant to prohibit weapons that are "dependent on the use of the toxic properties of chemicals as a method of warfare" (Article II, Definitions, 9, "Purposes not Prohibited" c.).
The convention defines a "toxic chemical" as a chemical "which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals".(CWC, II). An annex lists chemicals that fall under this definitionm and WP is not listed in the Schedules of chemical weapons or precursors.
In an 2005 interview with RAI, Peter Kaiser, spokesman for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (an organization overseeing the CWC and reporting directly to the UN General Assembly), questioned whether the weapon should fall under the convention's provisions:
The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, not the Chemical Weapons Convention, goes on, in its Protocol III, to prohibit the use of all air-delivered incendiary weapons against civilian populations, or for indiscriminate incendiary attacks against military forces co-located with civilians. However, that protocol also specifically excludes weapons whose incendiary effects are secondary, such as smoke grenades. This has often been read as excluding white phosphorus munitions from this protocol, as well. Several countries, including the United States and Israel, are not signatories to Protocol III.
The legal position however, is not the only consideration in any war. For instance, concerning the U.S. use of WP in Iraq, the British Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Sir Menzies Campbell, said
Within the US Army, there appears to be conflicting advice on the use of WP against humans. According to the field manual on the Rule of Land Warfare, "The use of weapons which employ fire, such as tracer ammunition, flamethrowers, napalm and other incendiary agents, against targets requiring their use is not violative of international law." However, the ST 100-3 Battle Book, a student text published by the US Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth states that "It is against the law of land warfare to employ WP against personnel targets." At the same time, other field manuals discuss the use of white phosphorus against personnel.