It has become known that the Administration of US President Joe Biden will send armour-piercing ammunition containing depleted uranium to Ukraine for the first time. What kind of weapon is it, is it dangerous, and what will it do for the Ukrainian Armed Forces?
It should be noted that armour-piercing ammunition containing depleted uranium is already in service with the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The British provided us with 120-mm depleted uranium shells for their Challenger 2 tanks. These tanks successfully destroy the enemy along the entire frontline. However, this weapon raises many rumours and concerns. The very phrase “depleted uranium” makes people fearful and distrustful. In addition, Russian propaganda is doing its best to scare Ukrainians and the world, distorting facts and spreading false rumours about these munitions.
Let’s try to figure it all out.
What is depleted uranium and how is it produced?
Depleted uranium is naturally occurring uranium from which radioactive material has been removed, but not all of it. It is a waste product that is obtained in the process of enriching uranium required for use in nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons.
Uranium is a very interesting chemical element. A small fraction of uranium can catch fire in the air, and uranium particles glow under sharp mechanical impact. In the first half of the 20th century, it was believed that uranium was rarely found in nature, but this is not the case. Soil up to 25 cm deep can contain up to a tonne of uranium per square kilometre of deposit area.
Uranium has fourteen isotopes, of which three can be found in nature. The main characteristic of radioactive materials is their half-life, and different uranium isotopes have different characteristics. The most common uranium isotopes are U-238 and U-235. The former is very abundant in natural uranium (over 99%), while the latter is extremely low (less than 1%). Enriched uranium is defined as uranium with a changed ratio of these two isotopes, i.e. an increased content of U-235.
Depleted uranium is produced as a waste product in the process of manufacturing reactor fuel and nuclear weapons materials. That is, during the enrichment process, natural uranium is separated into enriched uranium and depleted uranium. After the enriched uranium is removed, a substance remains in which the isotopes U-235 and U-234 are present in small amounts, which is called depleted uranium.
Why depleted uranium is used for armour-piercing shells
Since many countries have accumulated large quantities of depleted uranium as a result of enrichment, it is relatively inexpensive, which is one of the reasons why it is used to make munitions.
Another reason for using depleted uranium for munitions is that tungsten, which is also used in munitions, is a very rare metal. The United States imports approximately 50% of its tungsten from other countries, which poses significant risks to the production of sub-calibre shells in the event of a supply disruption. The price of tungsten is also constantly rising. Therefore, as a result of research into the properties of various heavy metals, it was decided to use depleted uranium for the production of ammunition.
The great advantage of using uranium in armour-piercing munitions is its ability to ignite on impact and penetrate armour. There is a peculiarity here: the more different the physical properties of the uranium core and armour protection substances (especially their electronegativity), the stronger the compounds they form, resulting in a large amount of heat. Small fragments catch fire, which can lead to the ignition of the military vehicle’s fuel supply and the explosion of the ammunition.
Currently, depleted uranium armour-piercing ammunition is one of the main ammunition for tank and anti-tank guns in the US army.
Another significant advantage of depleted uranium-based alloys is their ability to self-sharpen, also known as ablative shearing. When penetrating a target under high pressure, the material structure is significantly deformed and heated. As a result, the top of the projectile core takes on a shape that facilitates armour penetration. Previously used tungsten was significantly inferior to depleted uranium under similar conditions. In addition, the price of depleted uranium cores is about three times less than tungsten cores.
Advantages of armour-piercing depleted uranium projectiles
Depleted uranium armour-piercing projectiles have several advantages over other types of armour-piercing projectiles:
- High penetration. Depleted uranium armour-piercing rounds have a very high penetration rate, which allows them to penetrate the thick armour of battle tanks and armoured objects. This makes them effective against well-protected targets.
- Extensive damage. Due to the high density, a projectile of the required size can be as heavy as possible, which contributes to the formation of maximum kinetic energy. The high speed and energy combined with the weight and hardness of such an armour-piercing projectile increase the penetration of various obstacles, including enemy tanks and armoured vehicles. Once they penetrate the target, these rounds explode and cause extensive damage to internal systems and crew. This can destroy a tank or heavy armoured vehicle.
- Reducing the risk of radiation spread. Armour-piercing projectiles contain depleted uranium in small quantities, so they cause a much smaller release of radioactive materials compared to other types of nuclear munitions, such as nuclear bombs. This significantly reduces the risk of radiation contamination of the territory after the use of such projectiles.
- Reduced costs. Depleted uranium projectiles are less expensive to produce than other munitions, such as hypersonic missiles. They can be more affordable for armaments.
However, it is important to bear in mind that the use of depleted uranium munitions also poses certain environmental and geopolitical challenges, as they can leave a radioactive trail at battlefields, which would require appropriate treatment and clean-up. In addition, their use and proliferation may be subject to international agreements and restrictions.
Where depleted uranium munitions were used
Depleted uranium munitions were first used in the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Up to one million 30 mm shells and almost fifteen thousand shells from tank guns were fired. During the war in Kosovo in the Balkans in 1998-1999, Tomahawk missiles were actively used, with a warhead containing approximately three kilograms of depleted uranium, which, when exploded, turns into a cloud of small particles that spreads several tens of metres from the explosion site. Depleted uranium armour-piercing projectiles were also used in US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In addition to the United States and the United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China are known to have depleted uranium munitions in their arsenals, so other countries may also import them.
What armour-piercing ammunition with depleted uranium is already used by our defenders
Of course, we are talking about armour-piercing shells for Challenger 2 tanks, which are already in service with the Ukrainian Armed Forces. We’ve already written about this tank, but let’s take a closer look.
The main weapon of the modern British Challenger 2 tank is the L30A1 gun developed by Royal Ordnance Factory Nottingham. This is a 120 mm rifled gun with a 55 calibre barrel. The breech and bolt are designed to fire split-loading rounds with a propellant charge in a burning cartridge case. The weapon is loaded manually.
The L30A1 cannon’s ammunition includes a dozen shells for various purposes. Despite their similar calibre, they are not compatible with NATO standard weapons. The bulk of the available range is made up of armour-piercing, feathered sub-calibre projectiles (APPS) – six combat types and one training type. There is also a high-explosive armour-piercing projectile with a plastic charge, training and smoke munitions.
Two types of British armour-piercing projectiles have been produced on the basis of depleted uranium – L26A1 and L27A1. They were developed in the eighties and nineties of the last century as part of various stages of the CHARM (Challenger Armament) weapons modernisation programme. The use of a specific material made it possible to optimise the design of the armour-piercing core and improve the main combat characteristics and properties.
The L26A1 is a small-calibre armour-piercing projectile with a heavy and durable core in the form of a kind of arrow with a tail stabiliser and a soft alloy outer shell. The projectile is accelerated in the barrel channel of the weapon as a conventional ammunition, and is stripped of its aluminium shell during flight. Such a projectile can fly at high speeds and release high kinetic energy when it collides with armour. The length of the projectile assembly is 525 mm and the total weight is 8.5 kg.
The newer L27A1 projectile has a similar design and appearance, but is longer and has different proportions and a higher weight.
Depending on the propellant charge used, the L26A1 and L27A1 projectiles have an initial velocity of at least 1550-1600 m/s. The high velocity and uranium core allow the L26A1 projectile to penetrate 443 mm of homogeneous armour at a distance of 2 km. A newer projectile can penetrate a 522 mm barrier under the same conditions. In addition, depleted uranium provides a powerful armour penetrating effect.
What can be transferred to Ukraine?
There seems to be no need to talk about the delivery of M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine anymore – everything became clear last winter, when all the predictions about the delivery of these vehicles came true and were formalised in an official US government decree. M1 Abrams tanks will definitely be delivered, albeit with some delay.
However, while there was a delay with the tanks, the US has finally decided on the uranium munition for them after much debate. At the time of writing, the specific model of uranium sub-calibre projectiles has not yet been announced, but there is no doubt that there is a wide range of them to choose from. Let’s take a look at it – there are plenty of dangerous products there.
The list of depleted uranium rounds for the 120 mm M256 smoothbore gun of the M1 Abrams tank of all modifications younger than the M1A1 and above formally includes five different models, united by the same series index – M829, but very different from each other both in design and in properties. The last one, the M829A4, is basically pointless to consider: it has been in production for a long time, but the Americans themselves have not yet had time to rearm with it.
In fact, many people initially assumed that the M829 series ancestor would be sent to Ukraine – it was put into mass production along with the M1A1 tank in 1984. In general, despite its age, its performance is clearly superior to the Soviet junk that the Ukrainian military is currently using in Soviet tanks.
The initial velocity of 1670 m/s and the armour penetration of 520-540 mm of medium-hard steel armour at a distance of two kilometres is a strong argument. Even against a T-90M, T-72B3 or T-80BVM, there is, of course, a high probability of hitting the target head-on. I’m not talking about the old Rashid tanks, which will be very vulnerable. However, there are most likely no shells of this modification left in the warehouses at all – the shelf life of uranium alloys without losing their original properties is relatively short, and the transition to new models with the subsequent disposal of old ones in the United States has been quite well established.
The fate of American developments of the late 80s and early 90s – the M829A1 and M829A2 projectiles, respectively – is roughly the same. Although the armour penetration of these products is much more serious.
The M829A1, thanks to its elongated uranium core and muzzle velocity of 1575 m/s, is capable of penetrating 650 mm of steel armour from a distance of two kilometres, although most experts say as much as 700 mm. Moreover, both the first and the second figure are undoubtedly dangerous even for the most modern Russian vehicles without dynamic protection.
Its junior counterpart, the M829A2, has significant changes in the design of the driving device and the uranium core itself. With an initial velocity of 100 m/s higher, this projectile pierces a steel plate over 700 mm thick, according to various sources. Therefore, the danger to the invaders’ tanks is, in principle, clear.
Despite their high penetration rate, their withdrawal from US military stockpiles and gradual disposal has been going on for many years. Tens of thousands of complete rounds fired with these uranium projectiles are constantly reported in “demilitarisation” reports. Undoubtedly, some M829A1 and M829A2 may still be in storage, and the likelihood of their transfer to Ukraine is very high.
Based on the above circumstances, the most likely candidate to be sent to the Ukrainian Armed Forces along with M1 Abrams tanks is the M829A3 depleted uranium armour-piercing projectile. It still remains the main (gradually being replaced by the M829A4) armour-piercing projectile for the M1 Abrams and one of the most dangerous sub-calibre projectiles in the world.
Unlike other ammunition of this type on the US Army’s balance sheet, M829A3 is actually in great supply in warehouses. Hundreds of thousands of units, of which a relatively small batch for shipment to Ukraine is much easier to form than searching warehouses for the remains of older models, if they are even left.
Made of an advanced uranium alloy, the core of this projectile is about 800 mm long (the total length, including tail fin and ballistic tip, is 924 mm) and with an initial velocity of 1,555 m/s, it can easily penetrate a steel plate of about 800 mm thickness from a distance of two kilometres.
That is, even the most advanced Russian tanks simply do not stand a chance. In addition, the design of the US projectile’s warhead incorporates technological solutions that neutralise the effect of universal dynamic protection. At the very least, the newest Contact-5 defence is unlikely to work adequately against it.
Of course, Russian propaganda can once again use the mantra that these supplies will not change anything and are useless, but they should not do so. Success in combat operations always consists of many components, so the delivery of tanks with powerful ammunition to Ukraine should be seen as a significant step forward.
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Will these munitions pose a risk to health and the environment?
Numerous studies have attempted to identify the potential health effects of depleted uranium exposure. These include health studies of military personnel hit by depleted uranium shell fragments, as well as biomonitoring – collecting urine, faeces, nail and hair samples from people exposed to these weapons. The investigations included checks on military personnel exposed during and after the battle.
Some studies have found slightly higher uranium concentrations in samples taken from soldiers who participated in the Gulf War, Bosnia and Afghanistan and who had depleted uranium shell fragments in their bodies. In other cases, researchers studying Gulf War illnesses in veterans found no difference in urinary uranium concentrations between exposed and non-exposed groups.
The U.S. Department of Defence and the Veterans Administration monitored military personnel for exposure to depleted uranium shells during the Gulf War, and this programme is still ongoing. So far, the agencies have not observed adverse clinical effects associated with documented exposure.
Fragments and much smaller particles of unexploded ordnance can remain in the soil long after a conflict has ended. This raises concerns about possible radiation or toxicity hazards to people who come into contact with these materials, such as local residents or peacekeeping forces. In general, studies of people accidentally exposed to depleted uranium munition remnants on the battlefield show low radiation doses and low levels of chemical exposure that are virtually indistinguishable from background levels.
In terms of environmental impacts, the scientific literature is largely silent on the extent to which plants or animals can absorb depleted uranium from munitions fragments, although laboratory studies suggest that it is possible. Researchers and medical professionals agree that very high levels of uranium, depleted or otherwise, can cause chemical toxicity to plants, but if this happens, it is likely to occur in the immediate vicinity of the munitions explosion. Scientists continue to study how depleted uranium particles behave in the environment to improve our ability to predict the long-term effects of such contamination.
It is already clear that large parts of Ukraine will contain dangerous contamination, including shell fragments, spilled fuel and explosives, long after the fighting has ended. However, the US and UK governments understand that providing depleted uranium munitions will improve Ukraine’s ability to defeat Russian tanks and help end this conflict.
Now, in the face of fierce fighting with the occupiers, every high-precision projectile, every combat vehicle, every air defence system, every cruise missile, every armour-piercing shell is extremely necessary for us, so I would like to sincerely thank our Western friends and partners for their help and support. The invaders will not escape from retribution. Glory to Ukraine! Death to the enemies! Glory to the Armed Forces of Ukraine!