This is my attempt at an explainer of what a thermobaric weapon, a vacuum bomb, or a fuel-air explosive is, what their history is, why they are awful and their use should be condemned on a different scale to other warfare, similar to nuclear bombs.
Please consider simply taking my word that these should not exist, and not finding out why I think this.
Through the last years of the cold war, both sides had thoroughly covered their borders with a deep and strong network of bunkers- Both a comprehensive line, and stretching far back along any line of advance.
This made any kind of advance by a tank column untenable- These bunkers stretched deep into the hillside, much like the famous cave networks of Afghanistan, and were essentially impossible to penetrate with conventional bombs, and no-one wanted to push the nuclear button.
So both sides developed the same solution: Thermobaric weapons. These weapons spray fuel or explosive in a mist across a wide area, and then ignite it with a small conventional explosive. The result is a massive detonation for relatively little weight and size in the warhead- A fireball of massive proportions, but more importantly, a shockwave.
If you cause a shockwave in an open field, the shockwave dissipates quite quickly. Most weapons rely on shrapnel or fire to cause damage beyond this radius.
If you cause a shockwave at the entrance to a tunnel, it travels down the tunnel, and down any tunnels that connect to it, and through most doors, without really getting the chance to dissipate- There’s no-where for it to go, compared to an open field.
If you launch a thermobaric weapon against a bunker, the shockwave rips through the bunker. It’s not a loud noise, or a soft ripple of air- it destroys everything in it’s path. It bounces between walls and down corridors and off blast doors.
When the blast clears, the size of the explosion has normally deprived the surrounding area of oxygen, and it takes a long time to return to areas which may have avoided the shockwave through distance or behind blast doors.
Thermobaric weapons partially neutralise bunkers, certainly enough to get close and storm them with minimal resistance.
US and NATO doctrine emphasises air support and precision strikes- This seems like a contradiction in terms with a weapon like this, but dropping it close to a bunker entrance is important.
The US used thermobaric bombs in Afghanistan, when cave systems fortified by fighters were deemed too costly to storm with American troops.
US marines used shoulder launched versions against fortified buildings in Afganistan.
British helicopters also launched similar sized thermobaric missiles in Afghanistan.
Russian doctrine still values precision strikes but places more emphasis on scale and the number of explosions.
The Russians have built several different ways of deploying thermobaric weapons, but the one under discussion in Ukraine is the TOS-1(or TOS-1a- the differences are invisible externally and it doesn’t matter for this post).
The TOS-1, or “heavy flamethrower” is a multiple launch rocket system. It is a set of 30 rockets, loaded on tubes on top of a chassis. The chassis of the TOS-1 is a tank chassis, because it’s designed to travel with the tanks at the spearhead of an invasion force, and target bunkers.
When fired it covers an area 200 by 400 meters in thermobaric explosions. Nothing in it or close to it survives. You don’t need to know where the bunker entrance is too well, or spend too much time worrying. Just point approximately and shoot.
The cold war ended, The bunkers are largely mothballed, and while Russia retains nuclear power it is an economic backwater and cannot muster sufficient logistical support to contest a conventional war against NATO.
This weapon remains.
It were sold to lots of countries who Russia thought had a good chance of hurting the US. Iraq had some- the Iraqi national army fired them at a building filled with ISIS fighters, in the middle of a city.
US planes circled overhead and “advisors” from the remainder of the coalition sat with the troops when they did this.
They launched one rocket at the building, and it destroyed it.
It was a horror, and a crime, and should never have happened.
Syria was sold some, and in the early civil war they used them, along with nerve agents, in cities occupied by rebels, at their full force.
A city, in many ways, resembles a lot of small bunkers with no blast doors. The explosion rips through windows and doors. Frequently the walls are shattered too, and the entire building collapses.
The state of Syria used these weapons and pointed them at areas of cities populated by rebels and civilians, and they fired them.
In 1996, Chechnya was no longer part of the soviet union, and opted not to join the Russian state. Between 1994 and 1996 the Russian state fought a committed and bloody war against a Chechen Guerrilla force. They were defeated by heavy urban fighting and mobile raiding forces harassing their logistics. A ceasefire was signed.
In 1999, Russian backed Chechens began an insurgency against the Chechen state, as a prelude to a full scale invasion by Russia. In Grozny, the capital, where urban fighting had previously stymied the Russian advance and led to their defeat, different tactics were used. Russian rockets constantly attacked the city, including using cluster munitions.
The siege lasted two months.
The TOS-1 was at the forefront of this, and was responsible for levelling massive chunks of the city.
In 2003 the UN described Grozny as the most destroyed city on earth. It was essentially flattened.
More than 5000 civilians died.
The Ukrainian army is currently fighting an effective war harassing Russian supply chains with highly mobile units and the Russian army has so far almost religiously avoided urban close combat, preferring to encircle cities instead.
The Ukrainian state has issued arms to it’s citizenry and encouraged resistance. Fighting for the cities with tanks and infantry would be a basically impossible task.
The TOS-1 has been seen in staging areas all around Ukraine.
Examples were seen leaving staging areas in Belgrood, north of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, earlier today.
The siege of Kharkiv has seen cluster munitions used on civilian areas.
Today the Ukrainian ambassador to the UN stated that thermobaric weapons had been used.
The most vulnerable people of Ukraine are hiding deep in their cities metros- Enclosed, hard walled spaces perfect for sheltering from conventional bombs and rockets.
I have not described what happens to people when they’re hit by the shockwaves. The purpose of this post is to help you understand these weapons, why they were made then, who uses them now, how they use them now, and why this should never happen. I don’t think a description beyond what you can see above is necessary for you to do that.