Depleted Uranium Shells Quietly Sent to Ukraine

Depleted Uranium Shells Quietly Sent to Ukraine

( – In January, the UK became the first nation to supply Ukraine with modern tanks, when it announced a company of Challenger 2 tanks would be delivered to the besieged country. Now it’s emerged that Britain is also supplying depleted uranium shells for the tanks’ guns. Russia is complaining that this is an escalation of the war — but what’s the truth about this controversial ammunition?

On January 16, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said 14 Challenger 2 main battle tanks would be at the center of the latest UK military aid package for Ukraine. The tanks have now been delivered, and so has the ammunition for their main guns. On March 20, the British government confirmed that the ammunition included depleted uranium (DU) penetrators. Russia responded furiously to the news, with ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov whining that the west was approaching “a dangerous line,” which could lead to nuclear war.

British and US officials quickly slammed Antonov’s complaints, pointing out that DU has nothing to do with nuclear weapons. The key is in the word depleted; these weapons are made from stable (non-radioactive) isotopes of uranium, mostly U-238, that are filtered out during the enrichment process used to make nuclear fuel or weapons-grade uranium. The uranium in nuclear weapons contains at least 85% of the radioactive U-235; DU contains less than 0.35% U-235. It’s used in anti-tank shells because it’s very hard and dense, meaning it can punch through thick armor — and, while Antonov is complaining about this “escalation,” the standard 125mm 3BM59 shell fired by Russian tanks is also made of DU.

So why is the UK supplying DU shells to Ukraine? The answer is probably simple — because this is what Britain can spare. The current L28A1 round for its 120mm gun uses a tungsten alloy penetrator, but this round isn’t being made anymore. The British Army is planning to upgrade its own Challenger 2s with new guns, so production of ammunition for the old guns has ended. That means Britain wants to keep the most modern ammunition, so Ukraine will get the older, DU-tipped, L26A1 and L27A1 shells.

It’s not an escalation; DU shells have been used in Ukraine since the first day of the war, by Russia. And, as US national security spokesman John Kirby said, if Russia is so worried about the harm DU shells could do to its tanks and their crews, “they could just take them across the border back into Russia.”

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