What Are the Thermobaric Weapons Russia Is Accused of Using in Ukraine?

March 7, 2022Joshua Skovlund
Thermobaric Weapons

TOS-1A thermobaric rocket launchers are displayed during a military parade in Red Square June 24, 2020, in Moscow, Russia. Photo by Ramil Sitdikov/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images.

Accusations that Russian forces have deployed thermobaric weapons are mounting as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nears its third week, stoking fears of the potential destruction the powerful munitions could wreak if used in densely populated civilian areas.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, claimed on Feb. 28 that a thermobaric weapon had killed 70 soldiers at an army base in the northeastern town of Okhtyrka. On March 3, British officials also accused Russia of using the munitions.

“How far [Russian President Vladimir Putin] will go, what weapons he will authorize to achieve his ultimate aim, is unknown but we’ve seen the use of massive amounts of artillery. We’ve seen the deployment of thermobaric artillery weapon systems and we worry how broad those could go,” said Ben Wallace, Britain’s defense secretary, as reported by Radio Free Europe.

A US senior defense official speaking anonymously to reporters last week could not confirm whether Russia had deployed a thermobaric weapon, but in late February a CNN team reported seeing Russian military vehicles carrying thermobaric rocket launchers near the Ukrainian border. Unconfirmed reports online also allege that the Ukrainian army captured a Russian TOS-1A thermobaric multiple rocket launcher.

“We do assess that [Russia has] launcher systems that could be used for a thermobaric weapon, but we cannot confirm the presence of a thermobaric weapon,” the US defense official said.

Thermobaric weapons detonate in two phases. When such a device is launched, the first charge releases a cloud of combustible material such as fuel or small metal particles. The second phase ignites the material to create a powerful, high-temperature explosion. Such weapons make it “virtually impossible for civilians to take shelter from their destructive effect,” according to a Human Rights Watch report.

Coffee or Die Magazine reached out to Jared “Peaches” Pietras, a US Air Force combat controller, or CCT, to learn more about thermobaric munitions. CCTs can change the tide of battle at a moment’s notice by calling in multiple attacks from various planes and helicopters. Pietras has completed extensive training in calling in close air support and has deployed 11 times. He has studied thermobaric munitions and utilized them in Afghanistan to rout out terrorists hiding in cave systems.

“[Thermobaric weapons are] intended for mass casualty and mass destruction,” Pietras said. 

Thermobaric weapons are also frequently referred to as “vacuum bombs” because the explosion sucks up the surrounding oxygen. Pietras, however, says “vacuum bomb” isn’t the most accurate term for the weapons.

“It’s kind of a misnomer, in a way. It’s not like in the movies where it explodes, and then all the oxygen in that area gets sucked up, and nobody can breathe,” he said.

Victims can’t breathe because of the massive amount of overpressure created by the detonation of the bomb itself, Pietras said. When the overpressure reaches someone, it can cause internal organs to collapse because of the sharp increase of pressure within the body cavities, like the pleural cavity that contains the lungs.

“You get a lot of invisible wounds,” he said. “You get the typical traumatic brain injury, and you get busted eardrums, you get some lung damage, and organ damage.”

Russia used thermobaric bombs in Chechnya in the 1990s, and vacuum bombs were reportedly used by Syrian forces and their Russian allies in 2016 and 2017. But Russia isn’t the only country to utilize the devastating munitions. Pietras said he called in thermobaric bombs in Afghanistan, but in those instances the attacks targeted caves, not major metropolitan areas like in Ukraine. A thermobaric-type bomb was also suspected in the 2020 Nashville Christmas bombing.

Conventional thermobaric bombs can be far reaching, which is dangerous because they don’t just knock out an enemy position — they can destroy whole city blocks. Thermobaric bombs generate a longer, more sustained blast wave with more heat and overpressure than conventional explosives. They range in size significantly, from grenades to more than 20,000-pound bombs. Russia’s “Father of All Bombs” reportedly yields the equivalent of 44 tons of TNT.

While the damage caused varies based on the size of the bomb itself, thermobaric weapons can produce a massive fireball and a blast wave that can travel a significant distance, Pietras said. Broken windows, doors, and even crumbling bricks on the outside of buildings can indicate that a thermobaric munition has been used, he said.

Despite their wide-reaching effects, thermobaric munitions are not banned in warfare. However, using such weapons in areas where civilians may be present is prohibited by the Geneva Conventions. White House spokesperson Jen Psaki has said that if Russia is confirmed to have deployed thermobaric weapons, it could “potentially be a war crime.”

Read Next: Ukrainian Army Gets a Batch of New Thermobaric ‘Rocket Flamethrowers’

Joshua Skovlund
Joshua Skovlund

Joshua Skovlund has covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis that followed the death of George Floyd. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he earned his CrossFit Level 1 certificate and worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. he went on to work in paramedicine for more than five years, much of that time in the North Minneapolis area, before transitioning to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children. His creative outlets include Skovlund Photography and Concentrated Emotion, where he publishes poetry focused on his life experiences.

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