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German military floats plan to equip its tanks with depleted uranium to a sceptical nation

In an effort to be seen to be responding to Russian military activities in Ukraine and Crimea, the Bundeswehr is floating plans to arm Leopard tanks taken out of storage with DU ammunition, even as its allies look for alternatives in response to the global stigmatisation of the weapons.
27 April 2015 - Doug Weir

In an opinion piece published in Germany’s Die Welt newspaper this weekend, Hans Rühle, who served as chief of the policy planning staff in the German department of defence between 1982-88, argued that it is imperative that Germany arms 100 newly re-commissioned Leopard tanks with DU ammunition. He argued that the Bundeswehr’s in-service tungsten ammunition is incapable of defeating not only Russia’s new T-14 Armata main battle tank – to be deployed by 2020 – but also the T-80 (1976 onwards) and the T-90 (1993 onwards).

The article drew a swift response from the centre-left SPD party, whose defence spokesperson Rainer Arnold said that DU has caused enormous long-term damage in conflicts where it has been used and that Germany should continue to set an example internationally by not using the weapons.

The re-emergence of a perceived threat from Russia has seen Germany announce plans to bring 100 Leopard 2 tanks out of retirement. The tanks will be repurchased from the defence industry at a cost of €22m and upgraded – the budget for the upgrades has not been published. The pro-Russian Sputnik International delighted at the claims from Rühle over the effectiveness of the Leopard’s ammunition.

A 2012 ICBUW analysis of the effectiveness of DU in large calibre ammunition found that penetrator material is just one of a wide range of factors that influence how good they are at piercing armour. Increasing barrel length is one option and one that was pursued by Germany in the 1990s but at issue if the effectiveness of the German DM63 120mm tungsten round, versus that of the US M829 family of DU rounds. As the crucial data on effectiveness is classified – as are the designs of Russian armour – speculation is rife. The manufacturers of the DM63 claim that it is capable of defeating all modern armour.

Cheerleading for an unacceptable weapon

The German government’s position on DU has hardened during the last 12 months. Last December, Germany abstained on a UN General Assembly DU resolution for the first time. No serious justification for the move was provided, with the government resorting to diplomatic pedantry over what it claimed was cherry picked language in the resolution (for more analysis on the German position see the briefing attached at the end of this article).

Such was the concern over the decision to abstain, in January the German parliament’s sub-committee on defence held a special hearing on the matter and invited the defence and foreign ministries to justify their decision. ICBUW was also invited to give evidence and found both the scientific and political arguments unimpressive – a view apparently shared by the parliamentarians present.

Bundestag
Germany's anti-nuclear movement has been a powerful force since the 1970s.

Germany’s decision not to use DU dates back to the 1970s, where it was involved in joint trials with the US and UK over 120mm tank ammunition. Unlike its partners, the German government concluded that the use of DU would be too politically unacceptable for voters to stomach, thanks in part to the strength of its domestic anti-nuclear movement. Since then, and as demonstrated by the widespread condemnation of DU at an international and European level, this view of the fundamental unacceptability of the use of DU in conventional weapons has been proved largely correct.

The political problems associated with the use of DU have seen its effectiveness strategically exaggerated since it was first deployed, but most notably after the 1991 Gulf War. However in recent years growing global opposition, concerns over the health of exposed military personnel and the financial liabilities associated with decontaminating firing ranges have seen the search for alternatives accelerate. This is most advanced in DU’s greatest proponent - the US, where the latest 120mm DU tank round has just entered service and is planned for use only until 2020, after which a non-DU round is expected to replace it.

As a former Cold War warrior, it is understandable that Hans Rühle and others are seeking to revisit the arguments of the 1980s as they advocate for a robust German response to Russia’s activities in Ukraine and Crimea. However in doing so they seem unaware that the world has moved on, as has the debate over the acceptability of DU weapons. Advocates for arming Germany’s Leopard tanks with the radioactive and chemically toxic ammunition will likely find that public opinion is more opposed to the weapons than ever.

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