Ukraine's getting depleted-uranium tank rounds that can punch holes in Russian armor, and Moscow's not happy about it

·5 min read
The Utah Air National Guard Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squadron was tasked to execute an Emergency detonation of several depleted uranium rounds that had been compromised on June 23, 2022 at Tooele Army Depot, UT.
The Utah Air National Guard Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squadron was tasked to execute an Emergency detonation of several depleted uranium rounds that had been compromised on June 23, 2022 at Tooele Army Depot, UT.US Air National Guard Photo by Staff Sgt. Nicholas Perez
  • The UK has indicated that it'll provide Ukraine with tank shells consisting of depleted uranium.

  • These powerful munitions can pierce through Russia's armor as it continues to bleed tanks.

  • Moscow has slammed the move and threatened to escalate, even though it also uses the shells.

Ukraine's military is slated to receive tank shells made using depleted uranium — powerful munitions able to punch holes in Russian armor — and Moscow is pretty upset about it.

The UK indicated this week that it will send Kyiv armor-piercing munitions with depleted-uranium shells for its tank force alongside the Challenger 2 main battle tanks it pledged earlier this year. "Such rounds are highly effective in defeating modern tanks and armored vehicles," said Annabel Goldie, a defense minister in the British government, during a parliamentary response on Monday.

Depleted uranium, a highly dense and radioactive material, is a byproduct of the nuclear enrichment process. This happens when a highly radioactive type of uranium called U-235 — which is used to make nuclear weapons — is extracted from natural uranium ore, giving way to the remaining material: depleted uranium.

Decades ago, the US military began using depleted uranium to make mortar shells, bullets, tank armor, and aircraft weights because of its density, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. When used in tank shells, the material is particularly effective because its bulk allows the munitions to penetrate through enemy armor.

Traditional rounds tend to mushroom when they strike armor, but the depleted-uranium tank rounds sharpen on impact as the shell burns away along the edges, letting them to pierce through armor. They also heat up and may catch fire, giving the round an ability to inflict additional damage inside the wounded tank, potentially causing fuel or ammunition explosions, as fragments are thrown about.

US Air Force National Guard Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technicians safely prepare several contaminated and compromised depleted uranium rounds on June 23, 2022 at Tooele Army Depot, UT.
US Air Force National Guard Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technicians safely prepare several contaminated and compromised depleted uranium rounds on June 23, 2022 at Tooele Army Depot, UT.US Air National Guard Photo by Staff Sgt. Nicholas Perez

The radiation that's released from depleted uranium is relatively low, and it does not pose a significant threat if the material remains outside an individual's body, the Military Health System, which falls under the Department of Defense, wrote in a fact sheet.

But if a large amount is ingested, through dust particles or metal fragments, it could be a "long-term health hazard." There are indications its toxicity could damage the kidneys and cause renal failure, but that is only in high concentrations.

Moscow immediately criticized the UK's announcement, with top Russian officials — including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu — threatening escalation and claiming the West is making use of weapons with a nuclear component. The Kremlin's foreign ministry even referred to the planned transfer of shells as a "Yugoslavia scenario" — a reference a NATO bombing campaign in the late 1990s against the former country.

A United Nations tribunal previously found evidence that NATO aircraft released depleted-uranium projectiles during the deadly bombing campaign, but the material is functions differently in bombs and tank shells.

The Russian complaints ring particularly hollow given its military upgraded some of its tanks to use depleted-uranium shells in 2018, with state media quoting an expert at the time saying that the munitions do not violate any international treaties.

The UK pushed back on Russia's grievances, saying that it's military has used depleted uranium as a standard practice for decades and that it has no nuclear capabilities. London's sentiment was later echoed by the Biden administration.

U.S. Air Force National Guard Master Sgt. Derin Creek and Staff Sgt. Cody Bialcak, Explosive Ordnance Disposal Techinicians, safely remove over 500 depleted uranium rounds on June 23, 2022 at Tooele Army Depot, UT.
U.S. Air Force National Guard Master Sgt. Derin Creek and Staff Sgt. Cody Bialcak, Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technicians, safely remove over 500 depleted uranium rounds on June 23, 2022 at Tooele Army Depot, UT.US Air National Guard Photo by Staff Sgt. Nicholas Perez

"This kind of ammunition is a fairly commonplace, been in use for decades," White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters at a Wednesday press briefing. "I think what's really going on here is Russia just doesn't want Ukraine to continue to take out its tanks and render them inoperative."

"And if that's really the concern, if the Russians are very concerned about their tanks staying fully operational, they can just take them across the border back into Russia and take them out of Ukraine," he added.

Though it is sending M1 Abrams tanks, the US has no plans at this time to send shells with depleted uranium to Ukraine, Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said earlier this week.

Russia's tank force has suffered heavy losses on the battlefield in Ukraine. According to open-source intelligence site Oryx, which tracks military equipment losses in Ukraine, nearly 1,900 Russian tanks have been destroyed, damaged, captured, or abandoned.

US officials have said repeatedly that Russia has likely lost half its tank force in Ukraine, if not more. These staggering losses can be attributed to a whole slew of issues plaguing Russian forces, military experts told Insider, including a failure to provide the necessary fire support in combat, a lack of common sense, and little adaptability. And depleted uranium shells in the hands of Ukrainian tank operators may make life harder for Russia's armor forces.

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