How Thermobaric Rockets Work and Why They kill Badly

The Russian army has T-72 tanks modified to launch thermobaric rockets, weapons that kill excruciatingly. Here’s how they work.

The T0S-1 system spotted aboard a tank at the Ukrainian border

In the Russian city of Belgorod, near the border with Ukraine, a CNN reporter recently filmed the transit of a truck carrying a special combat vehicle, a modified T-72 tank equipped with a launcher system. multiple rockets called T0S-1, capable of launching rockets loaded with incendiary and thermobaric warheads.

In light of what is happening on Ukrainian territory, the possible deployment of thermobaric weapons has aroused international public outrage, as they are devices that kill in a particularly appalling way. According to what was communicated by Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, Russia has already launched these “vacuum bombs” (one of the alternative names of thermobaric weapon), but for the moment, according to Reuters, there is still no official and independent confirmation.

What is certain is that they are terrifying devices, repeatedly condemned by various international organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Here’s what thermobaric weapons are and what they do to victims.

How a Thermobaric Weapon Works

Also known as a vacuum bomb or aerosol bomb, a thermobaric weapon is a type of “fuel-air explosive” (FAE, acronym for fuel-air explosive) that uses oxygen from an environment to generate a detonation at very high temperature.

The name derives from the fusion of the Greek terms “thermos” (hot) and “baros” (pressure). Simply put, the device releases a cloud of fuel and absorbs all the oxygen present, even that inside the lungs, which remain horribly torn.

Thereafter it explodes generating a ball of fire and a very powerful shock wave, much more energetic and durable than that produced by a conventional bomb of the same “range”. The explosion is so violent that the bodies of people near the device are literally vaporized.

As Human Rights Watch explains, a typical thermobaric device consists of a container containing the fuel – which can be made of powdered metals such as aluminum or magnesium, organic materials or nano-fuels – and two separate explosive charges. The first charge disperses the flammable cloud into the environment causing a reaction with oxygen, the second detonation ‘ignites’ the cloud generating the devastating shock wave.

Due to the working mechanism, they are deadly weapons in closed environments, such as buildings, bunkers, trenches, tunnels and caves. It is no coincidence that they were used by the US military to destroy Taliban strongholds in the heart of the mountains during the long war in Afghanistan following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Although attempts to develop FAE devices began during World War II by the Germans, the first devices were developed and used in the Vietnam War by the United States. They were also used during the war between the former Soviet Union and Afghanistan.

Russia today has third-generation thermobaric weapons which, as Interfax reports, were also used in the recent conflict in Chechnya.

How a thermobaric weapon kills

The chilling explanation for the fatal wounds caused by a thermobaric weapon was reported in a report by Human Rights Watch, which cites a study by the US Defense Intelligence Agency. The kill mechanic against living targets is defined as unique and unpleasant.

“What kills is the pressure wave and, more importantly, the ensuing rarefaction (the vacuum), which shatters the lungs. “If the fuel explodes but does not explode, the victims will be severely burned and will likely also inhale the burning fuel,” the document reads. It is also added that, since the main fuels of thermobaric weapons are highly toxic compounds, such as ethylene oxide and propylene oxide, even inhalation of the cloud released by the device should be fatal by reaction. chemical.

The explosion, as mentioned, generates a very violent shock wave that vaporizes anyone near the bomb; those furthest away can be killed by impact against objects or walls in the affected areas, while those at the margins are considered likely horrific internal injuries. Among those cited by the US agency are ruptured eardrums, severe concussions, crushing of ear organs, rupture of internal organs and blindness.

To make it even more chilling, the fact that “shock and pressure waves cause minimal damage to brain tissue”, so, according to the US agency, “it is possible that AED victims were not rendered unconscious by the explosion, but rather suffer for several seconds or minutes while suffocating”.

In an interview with the Guardian, Dr Marcus Hellyer, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said thermobaric weapons “are not illegal although their effects can be quite horrific”. He fears that with the continuation of the war, the Russians will be able to use them in the urban agglomerations. At the moment, however, as Reuters explains, there is still no independent evidence that these terrifying instruments of death were used in the war in Ukraine.

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