Here's What You Need to Know: The U.S. military says depleted uranium ammunition is safe, for the most part.
Russia is arming its tanks with controversial depleted uranium shells.
While depleted uranium, or DU, is extremely dense and can punch through thick tank armor, many believe that these shells release small doses of radiation, like miniature neutron bombs. The U.S. has used DU shells in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
A Russian Defense Ministry bulletin said Russian T-80BV tanks would be armed with these powerful munitions, according to Russia’s TASS news agency. The bulletin noted that “the T-80BVM (the letter M stands for ‘modernized’) features ‘the improved weapons stabilizer and the loading mechanism for the 3BM59 Svinets-1 and 3BM60 Svinets-2 munitions.’”
The Svinets-1 has a tungsten carbide core, while the Svinets-2 uses depleted uranium. according to the Below the Ring armor site, published by a pair of Dutch defense experts. A 2016 post speculated that Russia might have been producing these special rounds for several years as replacements for existing tank ammunition.
The shells “utilize an aluminum sabot with three points of contact - this is rather unique, as most other types of APFSDS sabot use only two points of contacts,” Below the Ring said. “If and how this affects accuracy and barrel wear is currently not known.”
The Svinets-2 is not the first Russian shell to use depleted uranium. The 3BM-32 Vant, designed for Soviet 125-millimeter tank cannon, also contained a DU core. But the new rounds are longer.
“Compared to the 3BM-32 Vant APFSDS with a 380-mm-long [14.7-inch] DU penetrator, the two types of new ammunition have an approximately 79 to 84 percent longer projectile, which should lead to a significant increase in penetration power,” Below the Ring estimated.
The problem is that older Russian tank ammunition has difficult piercing advanced tank armor such as that found on the U.S. M-1 Abrams or Israeli Merkava. “The 3BM-42 Mango relies on an outdated pentrator design, using two relatively short tungsten rods inside a steel body,” according to Below the Ring. “...Steel penetrates armor less efficiently than a high-density heavy metal alloy.”
Thus, the appeal of DU shells as tank killers (you can find a concise scientific explanation of depleted uranium ammunition here). There are 120-millimeter DU shells for the M-1 Abrams and 30-millimeter shell for the A-10 Warthog. Ironically, the Abrams tank uses depleted uranium in its armor plating to stop anti-tank shells.
The U.S. military says depleted uranium ammunition is safe, for the most part. “When fired, or after ‘cooking off’ in fires or explosions, the exposed depleted uranium rod poses an extremely low radiological threat as long as it remains outside the body,” says a U.S. Air Force fact sheet. “Taken into the body via metal fragments or dust-like particles, depleted uranium may pose a long-term health hazard to personnel if the amount is large. However, the amount which remains in the body depends on a number of factors, including the amount inhaled or ingested, the particle size and the ability of the particles to dissolve in body fluids.”
However, even the Veterans Administration acknowledges that depleted uranium poses health risks to soldiers, such as those who fought in Operation Desert Storm, where DU rounds were used to destroy Iraqi tanks. There are also complaints that depleted uranium contaminates the environment, such as in Iraq. The Pentagon promised that it wouldn’t use DU ammunition in Syria, though it later admitted that it fired thousands of rounds in 2015.
There are several international organizations campaigning to ban depleted uranium shells. Whether the Russian government will heed them is another matter.
This article first appeared in 2018.