You're Nuked: Russian Tanks Are Now Sporting Depleted Uranium Shells

Michael Peck

Key point: The rounds offer better penetration on thick armor.

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 “The 3BM-42 Mango relies on an outdated pentrator design, using two relatively short tungsten rods inside a steel body,” according to Below the Ring.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.”

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