The London Telegraph, 21 September 2003
By Sean Rayment, Defence Correspondent
The army is planning to end the use of depleted uranium tank rounds, the most controversial weapon in its armoury.
The depleted uranium rounds, which were used with great success by British armoured units in both Iraq wars and in the Kosovo campaign, are expected to be removed from service within six years and replaced with a new type of tank shell, which uses a different warhead.
The phasing out of depleted uranium rounds, which are used because of their armour piercing qualities, will please critics of the munition, including veterans of both the 1991 Gulf war and the Kosovo campaign. They have long argued that the shells can be directly linked to leukaemia, kidney damage and lung cancer and is also one of the causes of Gulf war syndrome.
France, Spain and Italy all claim that soldiers from their armies who served in Bosnia and Kosovo, where the rounds were used by Nato forces, have contracted leukaemia and other cancers.
However, medical opinion on the dangers is mixed with very few studies having been conducted. The Government continues to insist that the munition is safe, but is preparing to remove depleted uranium rounds from service under Ministry of Defence plans to improve the fighting capability of the Army's Challenger 2 tank. As part of the enhancement programme, the tank will be fitted with a different gun which can fire a wider variety of more effective, and less controversial, ammunition types. British tanks currently use a rifled gun which can fire only two types of ordnance, high explosive and depleted uranium rounds. This limitation will disappear in the next few years, if, as expected, the MoD decides to have its new tanks built with a smooth bore 120mm gun, which is now used by most Nato armies.
Recent advances in tank ammunition have also led to the development of a new generation of rounds that will no longer be dependent on depleted uranium to achieve the same level of penetration against modern armour. The production of depleted uranium ammunition by the Royal Ordnance, the British arms manufacturer, ceased earlier this year. The number of depleted uranium rounds in the British Army is classified information, but is estimated to be several thousand, sufficient to last for many years. The Government has maintained that the munition does not pose any risk to servicemen and has offered those who fear that they may have been contaminated the opportunity to have independent medical tests.
Despite the Government's insistence that depleted uranium is safe, it is now accepted by many defence chiefs that its use is increasingly politically unacceptable because of its perceived threat to health and the environment.It is estimated that up to 2,000 tonnes of depleted uranium may have been used during the recent war in Iraq.
Towards the end of the war, the United Nations Environment Programme said that there was likely to be a risk of inhaling depleted uranium dust, with large doses of potentially dangerous radiation within 150 metres of buildings and vehicles being hit by American and British munitions.Soldiers returning from Iraq are now being offered tests for the level of depleted uranium in their bodies, which the MoD says it intends to publish.
Depleted uranium ammunition was designed to penetrate the armour of Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks during the Cold War. It is a by-product of making nuclear bombs and fuel for reactors.It is called "depleted" because it is far less reactive than uranium. It is 1.7 times as dense as lead, so only small amounts are needed to be able to punch through armour.
In the Kosovo war in 1999, Nato forces used 31,000 rounds tipped with depleted uranium. About 18,000 rounds were also used in the alliance's previous campaign in Bosnia. British tanks use the munition in a round called the "armour-piercing fin-stabilised discarding sabot". The round is fired at such a speed that against lightly armoured vehicles, such as those used by the Iraqis, it punches a hole straight through the tank. When it hits more modern armour it burns fiercely at very high temperatures, releasing a cloud of radioactive dust. Both Britain and the United States have admitted that this dust can be dangerous if inhaled but they argue that there is more risk of chemical poisoning from the heavy metal than from the radiation, and that both dangers are only short-lived.
An MoD spokesman said: "Research is continuing into the alternatives to depleted uranium. We are considering investigations into the main armament options for tanks and the result of that will effect future equipment decisions but there are no specifics available at the moment."