A U.S. Army Spc. assigned to Task Force Raider loads Sabot rounds onto an M1 Abram Tank during a pre-deployment training exercise at Fort Hood, Texas, August 18. Sabot rounds work like a basic arrow by penetrating armor with momentum of force rather than explosive power. (Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Sarah Kirby) Public domain
I’ve written in the past about the lethality of armor-busting depleted uranium penetrators. And now Ukraine is getting a big shipment.
The Biden Administration announced Wednesday that it is sending Ukraine 120mm tank rounds for American-made M1 Abrams tanks, which are set to arrive in Ukraine in the coming months.
These particular rounds are made of depleted uranium (DU), a waste product from the process of enriching naturally occurring uranium for nuclear fuel or weapons.
Russia immediately decried the news and said this move was an “indicator of inhumanity.” Yet Russia uses the same rounds in its arsenal and, like the U.S., has for decades.
The Russian embassy in Washington went on to claim that firing the weapons results in the “formation of a moving radioactive cloud” that can cause cancer.
This claim is categorically false, and Russia knows it.
There are certainly some environmental considerations, but the reality is that these types of weapons are fairly commonplace.
So, what are the benefits of depleted uranium tank rounds and are there any health considerations?
The main gun on the M1 Abrams tank can fire a variety of ammo types, from canister rounds that fire thousands of small projectiles meant to defeat soft, squishy infantry, to HEAT rounds (High-Explosive Anti-Tank) that use a shape charge to penetrate enemy armor.
But the big daddy is the APFSDS (Armor-Piercing, Fin-Stabilized, Discarding Sabot) which is used to penetrate heavily armored targets.
In the 1970s, the Soviet Union developed tank armor that NATO ammunition could not penetrate. This led U.S. researchers on a quest to develop the ultimate armor-piercing projectile.
After testing various metals, including lead and tungsten, the Pentagon settled on DU.
The core of the APFSDS is essentially just a long dart made of depleted uranium — they chose this metal for its density.
But because the dart is relatively long and skinny, it needs to be housed in a casing so it can be fired out of a tank’s big gun. Once the round leaves the barrel, the casing (called the sabot) falls off like flower petals and the penetrator continues to the target.
Even though they’re discarded, (because the sabot petals are traveling at such a high velocity when they leave the barrel), they can continue for many hundreds of feet at speeds that can be lethal to friendly troops. For this reason, tank crews are trained to be aware of their surroundings.
APFSDS at the point of separation of the sabot. Public domain
The DU penetrator is about two-and-a-half times denser than steel.
It often surprises some new tank recruits that the APFSDS round has no explosives to speak of.
You’re essentially just shooting a very heavy rod of metal at a very high velocity at an enemy tank.
But some interesting physics happens when a DU projectile hits a tank at these velocities, (typically at about 3,500 MPH.)
Once it impacts a target, it penetrates the armor and explodes into a spray of heavy metal fragments.
Also, the heat energy of the impact causes the DU to ignite.
According to the military news site Sofrep, U.S. soldiers who personally used the round in Iraq said:
“When it hits the (target), it liquefies everything inside. You can technically come in with a hose and spray out the enemy tank crew; it annihilates human matter.”
Further, they said that “targets hit with DU have zero chance of survival.”
Yikes. Perhaps that’s why Russia called the U.S. “inhumane.”
Not that Russia particularly cares about recovering the remains of its fallen soldiers… their past actions show they clearly do not. But with DU, there are no bodies to recover.
But what about Russia’s claim of a “moving radioactive cloud that causes cancer?”
In the extreme technical sense, DU is radioactive — after all, it’s uranium. However, the radiation that is emitted is so low that it cannot penetrate human skin.
The real danger comes if it’s ingested through dust particles or metal fragments. But even then, the danger is less radiological, and more toxic metal exposure. For the same reasons you shouldn’t ingest Mercury, you should avoid ingesting DU — Mercury is not radiological, but it can still result in death if ingested in large enough quantities.
Ultimately, it comes down to the solubility of the particles ingested.
The U.S. claims that no human cancer has been recorded from troops exposed to DU, but they still take risk-reduction precautions.
In Iraq, they ordered us, dumb infantrymen, not to climb around in destroyed Iraqi tanks looking for selfie opportunities (because of the possible DU exposure).
Some veterans’ groups in the U.S. claim DU is the culprit for the mysterious “Gulf War Syndrome.” Even the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs now has a special DU section on its website for veterans looking to claim disability.
The biggest issue may end up being environmental: A 2003 study by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in Bosnia and Herzegovina stated that low levels of contaminant were found in drinking water at DU impact points.
These findings give us a glimpse into the post-war Ukrainian landscape. It will take billions of dollars to not only rebuild Ukraine after the war but also a lot of time and money to de-mine and clean up Russia’s mess.
Likely, Ukraine will also have to implement some sort of civil protection measures to prevent needless civilian deaths after the shooting has stopped. This might include limiting the drinking of well water in certain locations, for instance.
As for DU tank shells, they are simply one of the better tools to defeat modern armor on the battlefield. Their effectiveness against Russian armor was on full display during America’s two Iraq wars. The U.S. killed somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,300 Russian tanks used by the Iraqi army. Granted, not all of those losses were caused by DU, but a good majority were.
As for Russia’s hollow complaints about DU, I echo a U.S. official who recently said to Politico: “If Russia has an issue with [DU], they can withdraw their tanks from Ukraine.”
This isn’t the first time Ukraine has received DU shells and it’s not the first time Russia has protested. In March, the UK gifted Ukraine some kinetic penetrators for their newly donated Challenger tanks.
2,082 Russian tanks have been destroyed, damaged, abandoned, or captured since the war began (out of 3,417 that it invaded with), so it’s understandable Russia doesn’t want to lose anymore.
Hopefully, with these new rounds, Ukraine will score even more tank victories against their unwelcome guests.