US to supply depleted uranium shells with Abrams tanks prepared for Ukrainian army


According to a report by the Wall Street Journal on June 13, after weeks of discussions, the White House has agreed to supply 31 refurbished M1A1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine equipped with a stockpile of depleted uranium shells. The decision was made after considering various factors, including the potential for increased tensions with Russia and concerns related to the environment and health.
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The 31 refurbished M1A1 Abrams MBTs that will be delivered to the Ukrainian army in the autumn will be supplied namely with depleted uranium shells (Picture source: U.S. DoD)


However, a Biden administration official stated that there were no significant obstacles remaining to provide the ammunition containing depleted uranium. The Pentagon had specifically requested that the Abrams tanks supplied to Ukraine be armed with depleted uranium rounds, which are commonly used by the United States military and known for their effectiveness against Russian tanks. These high-speed projectiles have the capability to penetrate the frontal armor of Russian tanks at long distances. Indeed, the purpose of the transfer of depleted uranium shells is “to allow Ukraine to make as much progress as possible on the battlefield, to put Kyiv in a position of solid negotiation if the peace talks were finally held,” said a senior official of the Biden administration.

The purpose of transferring depleted uranium shells is to enable Ukraine to make substantial progress on the battlefield, putting Kyiv in a stronger negotiating position if peace talks were eventually held. This approach was highlighted by a senior official within the administration.

Over several weeks, a prolonged debate ensued regarding the type of ammunition to be supplied for the 31 refurbished M1A1 Abrams tanks, which Washington had agreed to provide Kyiv in January 2023. Although the tanks were scheduled to arrive in the autumn, the issue surrounding the ammunition selection continued to be a point of contention.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) defines depleted uranium as uranium with a percentage of the U235 isotope that is less than 0.711% by weight (see 10 CFR 40.4). The military specifications designate that the DU used by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) contains less than 0.3% U235. Actually, the DoD uses only DU which contains approximately 0.2% U235. Depleted uranium is further produced by recycling spent nuclear fuel, in which case it contains traces of neptunium and plutonium. Quantities are so small that they are considered to be not of serious radiological significance.

Most military use of depleted uranium has been as 30 mm ordnance, primarily the 30 mm PGU-14/B armor-piercing incendiary round from the GAU-8 Avenger cannon of the A-10 Thunderbolt II used by the U.S. Air Force. 25 mm DU rounds have been used in the M242 gun mounted on the U.S. Army's Bradley Fighting Vehicles.

The U.S. Marine Corps uses DU in the 25 mm PGU-20 round fired by the GAU-12 Equalizer cannon of the AV-8B Harrier, and also in the 20 mm M197 gun mounted on AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships. The U.S. Navy's Phalanx CIWS's M61 Vulcan Gatling gun used 20 mm armor-piercing penetrator rounds with discarding plastic sabots and a core made using depleted uranium, later changed to tungsten.

Another use of depleted uranium is in kinetic energy penetrators, anti-armor rounds such as the 120 mm sabot rounds fired from the British Challenger 1, Challenger 2, M1A1 and M1A2 Abrams. Kinetic energy penetrator rounds consist of a long, relatively thin penetrator surrounded by a discarding sabot. Staballoys are metal alloys of depleted uranium with a very small proportion of other metals, usually titanium or molybdenum. One formulation has a composition of 99.25% by mass of depleted uranium and 0.75% by mass of titanium. Staballoys are approximately 1.67 times as dense as lead and are designed for use in kinetic energy penetrator armor-piercing ammunition. The US Army uses DU in an alloy with around 3.5% titanium.

Depleted uranium is favored for the penetrator because it is self-sharpening and flammable. On impact with a hard target, such as an armored vehicle, the nose of the rod fractures in such a way that it becomes sharper, preventing the dispersal that takes place with tungsten penetrators. DU penetrators are 20% more effective than tungsten rounds. The impact and subsequent release of heat energy causes it to ignite when in contact with oxygen. When a DU penetrator reaches the interior of an armored vehicle, it catches fire, often igniting ammunition and fuel and possibly causing the vehicle to explode. DU is used by the U.S. Army in 120 mm or 105 mm cannons mounted on the M1 Abrams tank.

Depleted uranium (DU; also referred to in the past as Q-metal, depletalloy or D-38) is uranium with a lower content of the fissile isotope U235 than natural uranium. Natural uranium contains about 0.72% U235, while the DU used by the U.S. Department of Defense contains 0.3% U235 or less. The less radioactive and non-fissile U238 constitutes the main component of depleted uranium. Uses of DU take advantage of its very high density of 19.1 grams per cm³ (0.69 lb/cu in), 68.4% denser than lead.

The DU content in various ammunition is 180 g in 20 mm projectiles, 200 g in 25 mm ones, 280 g in 30 mm, 3.5 kg in 105 mm, and 4.5 kg in 120 mm penetrators. DU was used during the mid-1990s in the U.S. to make hand grenades, and land mines, but those applications have been discontinued, according to Alliant Techsystems. The US Navy used DU in its 20 mm Phalanx CIWS guns, but switched in the late 1990s to armor-piercing tungsten.

In January 2023, Washington agreed to provide Kyiv with 31 refurbished M1A1 Abrams tanks, and it was later announced they would arrive in the autumn. But the debate about what kind of ammunition should be supplied for the tanks has lasted many weeks.

The use of DU (depleted uranium) in munitions is controversial because of concerns about potential long-term health effects. Depleted uranium is not radioactive enough for the radiation to penetrate human skin. However, it may cause serious health problems if its particles are inhaled or ingested. Normal functioning of the kidney, brain, liver, heart, and numerous other systems can be affected by exposure to uranium, a toxic metal. It is only weakly radioactive. The biological half-life (the average time it takes for the human body to eliminate half the amount in the body) for uranium is about 15 days.

Only the US and the UK have acknowledged using DU weapons. The Soviet Union and then Russia have used DU weaponry since the 3BM-32 Vant, designed for the 125 mm tank cannons. In 2018, TASS news agency reported that Russia was arming some of its T-80 models with 3BM60 Svinets-2 DU rounds. 782,414 DU rounds were fired during the 1991 war in Iraq, mostly by US forces. In a three-week period of conflict in Iraq in 2003, it was estimated that between 1,000 and 2,000 tonnes of depleted uranium munitions were used. More than 300,000 DU rounds were fired during the 2003 war, the vast majority by US troops.

Other concerns were that the move to provide Ukraine with depleted uranium shells might be seen by Russia as escalatory. Indeed, when in March the U.K. announced it will transfer some Challenger 2 tanks along with a supply of depleted uranium shells, Vladimir Putin declared that “the collective West is already beginning to use weapons with a nuclear component”. The U.K. Defense Ministry responded that depleted uranium is a standard component of armor-piercing shells and has nothing to do with nuclear weapons or capabilities. The U.K. Defense Ministry’s position was seconded by U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.

In March 2023, the UK government confirmed that they are sending DU rounds to Ukraine along with its Challenger 2 tanks with its 120mm ammunition during the Russian invasion. The US is now following the move.


Defense News June 2023