Why Russia is Mad About Depleted Uranium Tank Rounds

Wes O'Donnell
5 min readSep 8
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…

Wes O'Donnell

Army & Air Force Veteran | Global Security Wonk for War is Boring, GEN, OneZero, Soldier of Fortune | Law Student | TEDx Speaker | Founder of Warrior Lodge