The Tungsten M-1—How Ukraine’s Tanks Will Differ From America’s

There’s a good reason it’s taking months, even the better part of a year, for Ukraine to get the first 31 M-1A2 Abrams tanks from the United States.

Vehicle manufacturer General Dynamics Land Systems is to remove uranium from tanks and then replace it with tungsten. Both metals can be problematic.

GDLS takes six months to build an M-1A2 at the government-owned tank factory in Lima, Ohio. The company manufactures just three “new” tanks a week, using each of the thousands of surplus M-1s in the US military’s arsenals as a base. They all have depleted uranium mesh in their armor mix.

Depleted uranium is a by-product of the nuclear industry. In the United States, it falls under the jurisdiction of the US Department of Energy and is subject to DOE regulations that prohibit its export.

Not everyone agrees that the export ban is necessary. As early as 1986, the US General Accounting Office, now the Government Accountability Office, questioned the regulation. “DOE should be able to develop more objective criteria that allow for flexibility while better meeting established nonproliferation goals,” the GAO stated.

Unless the rules change, an M-1 has to lose its depleted uranium and get it something to replace it, before the US government sells or gives the tank abroad.

That thing is tungsten. A very hard metal that is the key to American tank exports. When the US sells M-1s to its allies (Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Taiwan and Poland are all recent customers), it pays GDLS and not more GDLS, to insert tungsten into the steel “pockets” in the front of the M-1 turret and also, on some models, in the front of the hull.

Work takes time. It doesn’t help that General Dynamics Land Systems has a monopoly on the trade. “GDLS is currently the only known contractor with the required safe armoring facilities and the necessary production equipment capable of supporting the installation of classified armor on the Abrams main battle tank,” noted the government of the United States in a recent justification of a sole source contract to the company.

It is not clear that tungsten-armored M-1s are significantly more vulnerable to enemy fire than uranium-armored M-1s.

Both metals are a lot dense, after all. Steel has a density of about eight grams per cubic centimeter. Uranium and tungsten tip the scales strongly 19 grams per cubic centimeter.

Which is not to say that you would cover an entire tank with any of the silver colored metals. For starters, both metals are hard to come by. Depleted uranium is a nuclear byproduct. Meanwhile, tungsten comes from a very small number of mines, many of which are located in China.

Also, depleted uranium tends to burn under certain conditions, and is only radioactive and toxic enough to pose a safety risk when burned.

Tungsten, on the other hand, is dense but fragile. It tends to break on impact. When the US Department of Defense investigated tungsten outer armor in 1960, it came away disappointed. “The use of a hard [tungsten] the matchup doesn’t seem worth it to improve the armor’s ballistic performance,” the testers reported.

It is not for nothing that armor manufacturers tend to fold depleted uranium and tungsten into cake-like armor mixes that too they include ceramic and steel, and tend to have the steel on the outside. The Ukrainian M-1s, com all Non-US M-1s will feature this mixture of tungsten armor internally.

They will have company. At least some of the German-made Leopard 2 tanks that Germany, Poland, Norway, Canada and other countries have committed to Ukraine too they have tungsten in their armor.

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