When the M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks (MBTs) roll into action in Ukraine later this month, the tank crews will not only have one of the most advanced and capable armored platforms but they’ll also have an advantage in that they’ll be equipped with ordnance that packs a very serious punch. Washington announced on Wednesday that it will send depleted uranium rounds.
The by-product of uranium enrichment, which is stripped of most – but not all – of its radioactive material, is strong enough to pierce conventional tank armor. Though the rounds retain some radioactive properties, they can’t generate a nuclear reaction like a nuclear weapon. However, the 120mm uranium tank rounds are extremely dense, and when they penetrate armor they can actually catch fire.
Tank Killer Ammo
The ordnance was initially developed by the United States during the Cold War to destroy Soviet tanks, including the T-72 MBTs now employed by the Russian military in large numbers.
The shells are part of a $175 million U.S. aid package that is due to be delivered to Ukraine later this year. The security package was announced as United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kyiv. This is a considerable U-turn for the Biden Administration, as the Pentagon previously ruled out sending the depleted uranium munitions for the Abrams.
The UK had previously pledged to provide similar ammunition to Kyiv.
Not Radioactive But Still Toxic
The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has found no significant poisoning is caused by exposure to depleted uranium but a 2022 UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report said it was concerned about potential health issues arising from its use in Ukraine, per the BBC.
“The chemical toxicity of depleted uranium is considered a more significant issue than the possible impacts of its radioactivity,” the UN report noted.
Yet, war is a messy business!
The UK’s Ministry of Defence has described the ordnance as a standard component and said it “has nothing to do with nuclear weapons,” adding, “The British Army has used depleted uranium in its armour piercing shells for decades,” the statement added.
“Russia knows this, but is deliberately trying to disinform. Independent research by scientists from groups such as the Royal Society has assessed that any impact to personal health and the environment from the use of depleted uranium munitions is likely to be low.”
Kremlin Called It a Criminal Act
A Russian senior diplomat was quick to condemn the sending of the rounds to Ukraine.
“My comment is clear: This does not simply qualify as a step toward escalation, but reflects the shocking disregard for environmental consequences of the use of such weapons in the combat zone on the part of Washington. This, in effect, qualifies as a crime,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told state media outlet Tass.
Ryabokov further suggested that Washington doesn’t care about the consequences as the rounds are being used far away. He added, “Hundreds of materials have been compiled and dozens of discussions have been conducted involving leading experts, environmental activists, medical doctors, and specialists in the chemical interactions in nature between minerals and living beings… But the Americans don’t care at all.”
Russia’s concerns come even as its forces have laid tens of thousands of landmines, which could be a problem in Ukraine for generations to come.
Tanks and Ordnance Coming Soon
As previously reported, the first U.S.-made M1 Abrams main battle tanks could be deployed to Ukraine by the middle of the month, as the initial group of Ukrainian soldiers recently completed training on the platform. The depleted ordnance rounds could be sent to Ukraine in the coming weeks as well.
Author Experience and Expertise
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.