US to send Abrams tanks to Ukraine - minus secret uranium armour

US Abrams tank in action during a NATO exercise in Latvia - INTS KALNINS/REUTERS
US Abrams tank in action during a NATO exercise in Latvia - INTS KALNINS/REUTERS

The US is to send a modified version of its Abrams tank to Ukraine that is missing its “secret” uranium armour, likely out of fears they could end up in Russian hands.

President Joe Biden’s administration is planning to offer 31 of its main battle tanks in their more advanced M1A2 configuration to Kyiv, rather than the older A1 version that the military has in storage, but will strip it of its secret armour mix that makes the US army’s newest version so lethal.

Instead, the ones going to Ukraine will be fitted with Chobham armour, the composite ceramic and steel protective material developed in Britain in the 1960s.

According to Politico, US federal policy forbids the export of Abrams with classified armour packages used by the military, which includes depleted uranium - a highly dense and sometimes volatile metal.

The US’s depleted uranium composite armour packages are highly classified. The development of the original version, often referred to simply as “heavy armour” or “special armour”, was conducted under a top-secret Special Access Program (SAP) nicknamed Green Grape. SAPs have extra layers of heavily compartmented security protocols to protect the disclosure of especially sensitive national security information.

A now-declassified operational security guide stipulates that “if the Special Armor, including skirts and gunshields, is breached and the interior is exposed, a properly cleared [secret] responsible individual will immediately cover the exposed area…”.

The Pentagon may be concerned about the prospect of the tanks being seized by Russia and reverse engineered.

A1 variants are now in service in Australia, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia, but none of which feature armour with depleted uranium.

The A2 version, however, does have more sophisticated controls than the older A1 version, with improved optics for targeting and an independent thermal viewer that allows the commander to independently scan for targets in all weather and battlefield conditions.

The control mechanisms in the A2 have also been upgraded and digitised, most notably a new “inter-vehicle information system” that helps commanders “more rapidly track the location of friendly vehicles, identify enemy positions and process artillery requests,” according to Politico.

The development raises questions about how quickly the US will be able to manufacture the promised tanks for Ukraine, which has expressed an urgent need for them as Russia advances in the east of the country.

The tanks are assembled in one place only - a government-owned, General Dynamics-operated plant in Ohio. That facility can produce 12 tanks per month, but the line is reportedly now full of new orders for Taiwan and Poland.