26 February 2022

The introduction of thermobaric weapons in Ukraine is a devastating addition. CNN was the first to observe the introduction of these weapons into Ukraine. Thermobaric weapons are usually associated with American GBU-43/B MOAB, Massive Ordnance Air Blast…or more colloquially the Mother of All Bombs. These fuel-air explosives were first utilized in the Vietnam war as napalm was not enough. The notion behind a thermobaric weapon is that it uses the oxygen around it in such ferocity that it sucks oxygen in to feed the explosion. It is a two-tiered weapon, first spread a chemical cloud that seeps into an area and the second detonates that chemical cloud and creates a catalyst where oxygen is sucked into the reaction. It creates a vacuum where the air is vacuumed into the reaction and out of the lungs of those in the area. Also, most larger calibre munitions will do that if you are in a confined space.*

But there is a more sinister Soviet/Russian variant that is mobile and the dispersion is less than the massive US airborne ordinance. It is not deployed in a massive air ordnance bomb but has a self-propelled version. The TOS-1 Heavy Flamethrower System is a 220 mm 30-barrel missile launcher that is built on a T-72 chassis. There is also the 24-barrel (Object 634B or TOS-1A) variant. They have been utilized by the Russian Army twice – in the Panshir Valley during the Afghan war and during the Second Chechen War. It was also used by the Iraqi Army against ISIS targets in October 2014. Azerbaijan used it in the  Nagorno-Karabakh war on 4 April 2016 against Armenian forces.

In 2020, the Russian Ministry of Defence stated that the new thermobaric projectiles have been enhanced by 1.5 times, meaning that the new shells mean that the range is 9 kilometres in diameter instead of 6 kilometres and the air blast radius is about 300 meters. They are also designed to set ablaze and destroy buildings – optimal use – urban warfare. Kyiv has stood its ground valiantly so far and other urbanized areas have only been encircled by Russian forces.

The tactical/strategic magnitude of these weapons should not be underestimated. The Russians can easily create a hole in any frontline in a rural front and create a highway for armour and infantry to push through with ease without having to worry about a chemical or biological agent (and the increased international condemnation) or suck the life force from an urban resistance force.

It is all and well that Germany and other countries are assisting with new weapons deployments in the form of stinger missiles, RPGs, machine guns etc. But we are all hoping for is that a Ukrainian insurgency will continue the fight and make Russian forces bleed. As Russia begins to deploy assets like the TOS-1, what is the appropriate countermeasure that NATO members can deploy to Ukraine?

Featured Photo: TOS-1, Russian Military Parade 2010, Wikimedia Commons, 2022

* An eloquent, knowledgable veteran put succinctly it as “The idea they suck the air out of your lungs and the rapid pressure change turns you inside to mush and, if the pressure is high enough-cause the space in confined enough, it turns the rest of you … to complete mush.”

By Stewart Webb

The editor of DefenceReport and Senior Analyst, Stewart Webb holds a MScEcon in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and a BA in Political Science from Acadia University. A frequent guest on defence issues for CTV National News, and other Canadian media outlets, his specialities include commentary on terrorist/insurgent activity and Canadian defence issues. Stewart can be contacted at: [email protected]