For five years, controversy has raged over research by two engineering professors into "fuel-air explosives" (FAEs). Throughout, Professors Roman Knystautas and John H. Lee of McGill University's Mechanical Engineering Department have maintained that their research was pure scientific enquiry, though it was funded by the Department of National Defence (DND).
But U.S. government documents now show that the two scientists specifically carried out research on FAEs for the U.S. Air Force between 1977 and 1983. They specify FAE weapons as the focus of their research. Knystautas and Lee also reported having conducted large scale tests for this research in 1982 at the DND's Defence Research Establishment in Suffield, Alberta (DRES).1 However, a spokesperson for DRES denies this and insists: "We did no tests related to the U.S. Air Force."2
The United States was the first nation to use FAEs, during the Vietnam War. When the U.S.-allied South Vietnamese Air Force dropped FAEs on North Vietnamese troops in 1975, the Times of London cited military reports describing "'hundreds and perhaps thousands' of enemy corpses seen spread over zones of several acres-. The bodies bore no wounds, according to the reports. The dead troops had their mouths wide open and had died clutching their throats as though gasping for breath." 3
Since then, the U.S. has worked to improve the FAEs' detonation systems, developing the third generation of FAE weapons (FAE III). The U.S. Air Force was involved in FAE development with the Navy in the late 1970s, but currently has no FAEs in its inventory.
McGill's Knystautas and Lee received at least $148,000 from the U.S. Air Force between 1977 and 1980 and $373,000 from the DND between 1982 and 1985. As far back as 1977, the professors submitted a report to the U.S. Air Force stating that in their research emphasizes "problems pertaining to feasibility of FAE III weapons."4 In 1979, they wrote: "A significant milestone towards the realization of an FAE III device has been reached at McGill in that detonation in a premixed fuel-air system solely by injecting a chemical agent has been achieved on a laboratory scale." In a 1979 report they explained that because FAEs produce a vapor cloud which settles in the atmosphere before exploding, they produce a blast three times greater than conventional, non-nuclear weapons.
Last year, Knystautas and Lee wrote in a letter to the Montréal Gazette that they were not doing "anything special that we don't normally do" in their military contracts.6 Lee dismisses apparently damning statements to the U.S. Air Force as "grantsmanship."
"The work has nothing to do with bombs," insists Lee, who maintains that the fact his results are published in scientific journals proves that his work is fundamental research into chemical processes, which can be applied to a vast number of fields. "If you don't understand the basics of grantsmanship and how money for research is dished out in this society, then of course you take these things at face value," Lee says. "But the bottom line is that if it were of military value it would certainly be classified."
Peter Caines, a professor of Electrical Engineering who does not believe universities should do weapons research, comments: "This illustrates the ill effects of the coopting of campus scientific research by the military. It traps you in a web of half-truth. You're either lying that this research will help kill people, or else it will. It's deplorable from every angle."
The two professors wrote in 1980 that their research for the U.S. Air Force needed "large feasibility experiments," and reported in June 1983 that their U.S. Air Force research benefitted from tests they were conducting at DRES in Alberta, Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and at the Norwegian Defence Construction Services in Oslo. DRES spokesperson Brian Laidlaw, after checking the report - available publicly through the U.S. Government's National Technical Information Service, denied such tests took place, but cannot explain why Knystautas and Lee reported using DRES.
According to Laidlaw, FAE tests at DRES have all been related to the DND's development of a minefield clearance system and protection of installations from FAE attacks. He admits research done at McGill helped find a fuel for the FAE-based system, but insists the DND device "had nothing to do with what the Americans might be developing."
However, in a heavily-censored document obtained under the Access to Information Act, the DND refers to an "explosive minefield breaching device" to be used in combat - not a minefield clearance system.
Official Canadian policy is that its research into chemical and biological weapons - mostly carried out at the DRES -Suffield - must be for purely defensive purposes, but it shares information on their effects with countries that produce them, such as the United States. But Canada's use of FAEs does have an offensive purpose: The U.S. Army recently began trials for the use of CATFAE, a catapult-launched FAE mine clearance system mounted onto an amphibious assault vehicle. An FAE can be used to clear minefields or create landing strips, according to Tom Gervasi's Arsenal of Democracy, because: "Producing blast overpressures in excess of 1,000 pounds per square inch, it literally shears off trees and other obstructions at ground level."
The DND has given Knystautas and Lee four contracts to study FAEs, two of which are still going on. Laidlaw says one of those, which ends this year, is for "basic research" and the other is to help develop a new laboratory. He admits research done at McGill in the early 1980s helped find a fuel for a FAE-based minefield clearance system by determining the detonability of air mixtures.
In 1987, a group of former McGill students occupied the office of the Vice-Principal Research to protest the FAE research contracts with the DND. In response to pressure, the university implemented new regulations requiring faculty to file formal statements of beneficial and harmful effects of military research, but did not apply the regulations to existing contracts.
1 R. Knystautas and J.H. Lee, "Requirements for Initiating and Sustained propagation of Fuel-Air Explosives," Final rept. 1 May 1982 - 30 April 1983, Nat. Technical Information Service Report No. AD-A 162-301, pp. 1-2.
2 R. Knystautas, John H.S. Lee, Ingar O. Moen, "A Proposal to Defense Research Establishment Suffield to Investigate Fuel-Air Explosives," April, 1980.
3 Times of London, 24 April 1975.
Fuel air explosives are based on the principle that certain gases will become explosive when mixed with air. The advantage of FAEs in combat is that the fuel-air mix follows the shape of the ground and seeps into any space not hermetically sealed - e.g. foxholes, building ventilation systems, and air intakes of engines - after which it is detonated.
Current research, according to Jane's Defence Weekly, aims to develop a fuel-air mixture that cannot be ignited accidentally by explosives or sparks, but could be detonated once it has seeped into every part of an area.1 FAEs have been classified as inhumane weapons by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The U. S. is currently developing an FAE consisting of an aerosol cloud which can be ignited instantly and violently with a laser. "This would rival the effects of a small nuclear device," Jane's Defence Weekly wrote. FAEs perfectly fit the emerging American strategy of "low-intensity conflicts."2
1 Stefan Geisenheyner, "FAE Development: Disturbing Trends," Jane's Defence Weekly, 21 February 1987, pp. 280-82.
2 United States, Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy, Discriminate Deterrence, January, 1988, p. 2.