Following Britain’s Lead, Controversial Munitions Aim to Aid Kyiv’s Push Against Russian Forces
In a move echoing Britain’s earlier decision, the United States recently confirmed its plans to dispatch depleted uranium anti-tank rounds to Ukraine. These munitions, intended to bolster Kyiv’s counteroffensive efforts against Russian forces, will equip the 31 M1A1 Abrams tanks scheduled for delivery in the coming fall.
Depleted uranium rounds, a legacy of the Cold War era, were initially designed by the United States to neutralize Soviet tanks, including the T-72 models, the same tanks the Ukrainian forces are now facing in their counteroffensive efforts. While retaining some radioactive properties, they lack the capacity to trigger a nuclear reaction akin to a nuclear weapon, clarified RAND Corp nuclear expert Edward Geist.
Russia’s previous unfounded assertions, claiming these rounds bear nuclear components, have prompted concerns about potential escalations. President Vladimir Putin has, in the past, hinted at the possibility of using atomic weapons in the conflict.
Understanding Depleted Uranium Ammunition
Composition and Lethality
Depleted uranium emerges as a byproduct of uranium enrichment for nuclear weaponry. It is a heavy, dense, and highly stable metal that, despite its inability to generate atomic reactions, boasts exceptional characteristics that make it highly suitable for use in armor-piercing ammunition and other military applications.
This quality renders it a highly effective projectile, an even better option than lead. When discharged, a depleted uranium munition transforms into a high-speed, dense dart capable of piercing armor. On impact, it promptly incinerates, generating intense heat that ignites surrounding materials.
While not classified as nuclear weapons, depleted uranium munitions do emit low levels of radiation—such as radioactive dust and particles during impact, prompting the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to advocate for cautious handling and protective measures.
The IAEA advises minimizing direct contact and wearing appropriate apparel, especially gloves. Inhaling or ingesting aerosolized particles can lead to potential kidney damage. Though most particles are excreted, some may enter the bloodstream, raising concerns about long-term health effects.
Recent studies suggest potential links between depleted uranium exposure and health issues in regions affected by its use. The World Health Organization calls for vigilant monitoring and recommends remediation in areas where contamination surpasses acceptable levels.
Russian Response and Concerns
Unsurprisingly, Russia’s response to the United States’ announcement of sending depleted uranium anti-tank rounds to Ukraine was swift and sharply critical.
President Vladimir Putin, echoing earlier sentiments, warned that the introduction of munitions with a “nuclear component” was a dangerous precedent. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov went further, characterizing the decision as a perilous step towards escalating the conflict.
Additionally, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov expressed vehement opposition, asserting that prior use of depleted uranium ammunition by the United States had led to a surge in health issues and cancers in affected areas, casting a shadow over the well-being of future generations. Russia’s stance underscores the deep-seated concerns and contentious nature of supplying such munitions in a region already fraught with geopolitical tension.
#Opinion by Maria Zakharova
💬 I would like to remind everyone that the number of cancer cases spiked in the areas where depleted uranium munitions have been used.
— MFA Russia 🇷🇺 (@mfa_russia) September 7, 2023
US Perspective and Controversy
The decision by the United States to provide Ukraine with depleted uranium anti-tank rounds is accompanied by a firm stance defending the use of these munitions. The US military argues that depleted uranium rounds have been an integral component of conventional munitions for several decades, emphasizing their role in safeguarding service members in combat situations. Specifically, these rounds have been instrumental in countering heavily armored targets, such as tanks, a part where their density and piercing capabilities shine.
It’s worth noting that depleted uranium has been incorporated into composite tank armor, which has significantly increased the protection offered to armored vehicles, including tanks. Furthermore, the Air Force’s A-10 close air support attack plane, often referred to as the “tank killer,” also employs depleted uranium munitions to effectively neutralize armored threats on the battlefield.
The United States disclosed its decision to send depleted uranium anti-tank rounds to Ukraine on Wednesday evening, coinciding with a visit to Kyiv by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
FRANCE 24's Foreign Editor Philip Turle tells us more about Blinken's visit 👇 pic.twitter.com/jD6AXrGFHd
— FRANCE 24 English (@France24_en) September 7, 2023
Safety Measures and Future Considerations
Despite their efficacy, the low-level radioactivity of depleted uranium rounds poses concerns. RAND expert Edward Geist notes that if an alternative material with equivalent density were available, it would likely be preferred. The IAEA advocates for rigorous risk assessments, protective measures, and public awareness campaigns to mitigate potential hazards.
In light of ongoing debates and potential health risks associated with these munitions, the decision to provide Ukraine with depleted uranium anti-tank rounds remains a contentious issue, highlighting the complex dynamics of modern warfare.
New Military Package for Ukraine
The Department of Defense (DoD) also announced Wednesday the forty-sixth tranche of equipment assistance offered by the Biden Administration to Ukraine since August 2021. The package includes a wide array of capabilities, valued at up to $175 million, to enhance Ukraine’s defense capabilities.
These capabilities encompass equipment to bolster Ukraine’s air defense systems, additional ammunition for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), various artillery rounds, mortars systems, and rounds, as well as depleted uranium tank ammunition designed for Abrams tanks previously committed to Ukraine. Additionally, it encompasses advanced anti-armor systems such as Tube-Launched, Optically-Tracked, Wire-Guided (TOW) missiles, Javelin systems, AT-4 anti-armor systems, and over 3 million rounds of small arms ammunition.
Full list: pic.twitter.com/PXzVCInrcJ
— 🇺🇦Ukrainian Front (@front_ukrainian) September 6, 2023
The security assistance package goes beyond weaponry and includes critical tactical support systems, such as tactical air navigation systems and tactical secure communications systems. It also provides essential equipment like demolition munitions for obstacle clearing and spare parts, maintenance, and other field equipment to ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of Ukraine’s defense capabilities.
Notably, this assistance package leverages assistance previously authorized under the Presidential Drawdown Authority (PDA) for Ukraine, underscoring the US’s commitment to supporting Ukraine’s defense even after the PDA revaluation process concluded in June.
The United States reaffirms its dedication to working closely with its Allies and partners to equip Ukraine with the necessary capabilities to address immediate battlefield needs and long-term security requirements. This assistance aims to bolster Ukraine’s resilience and capacity to defend itself against ongoing threats, particularly in the face of Russia’s persistent aggression.