Why are the Iranian bombs marked in English?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 15 2007 5:13 PM

Markings for Munitions

Why do Iranian bombs have English labels?

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer's free daily podcast on iTunes.

Bombs. Click image to expand.
Bombs at an air base

Last week, U.S. military officials accused Iran of arming Iraqi insurgents with bombs, missiles, and rockets for attacks on American troops. Apparently, serial numbers and markings on seized munitions indicate they came from Iran. (Click here for a PDF of the U.S. military intelligence report.) Why do bombs need serial numbers?

For inventory and quality control. When a bullet, explosive, or any kind of ammunition is manufactured, it may be marked with a unique serial number and the date of manufacture. (A bomb may also include information indicating which factory produced it.) This information simplifies the process of tracking missing or damaged munitions. For example, if a bullet misfires, the military can use its markings to identify and scrap the entire lot it came from. The date of manufacture is important because the components in ammunition begin to degrade and become unreliable after about 15 years.

Advertisement

Military intelligence analysts have to learn to identify the manufacturer markings and serial numbers of each country's munitions, since there are no international guidelines for labeling. The exact markings on grenades, bombs, and bullets will vary depending on the country and sometimes on the specific company that does the manufacturing.

Why does the Iranian TNT have markings in Farsi, while the other rounds seem to be labeled in English? Since Iran sells munitions on the international market, it makes more sense to use a language that is spoken far and wide. (You don't have to use English, though; China and Russia sell arms marked with Chinese and Cyrillic characters.) In recent years, U.S. manufacturers have begun to augment their markings with bar codes that can be tracked by computer.

Surveying the serial numbers on bullets and projectiles can be an effective way to measure the flow of arms into conflict zones. Last year, Oxfam reported that bullets manufactured in the United States, Greece, Russia, and China had ended up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in spite of a U.N. arms embargo. Last summer, Israel examined the serial numbers on rockets fired by Hezbollah and concluded they came from Russia by way of Syria. * Serial numbers are also used by national and international police to track down illegal sales of ammunition. Meanwhile, the United Nations is now attempting to create an international standard for the tracing and marking of ammunition.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks: Guy Ben-Ari of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Philip Coyle of the Center for Defense Information, Pablo Dreyfus of Viva Rio, Colby Goodman of Amnesty International USA, and John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org.

* Correction, Feb. 20, 2007: The original version of this article said the Hezbollah rockets came from Syria, by way of Russia. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.