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Thermobaric Bombs

*(1) The Russian military reportedly used FAE bombs against China in a 1969 border conflict, the Dagestani village of Tando, in August 1999, and on December 27, 1999, in the southern mountains of Chechnya. -- Backgrounder on Russian Fuel Air Explosives ("Vacuum Bombs")

*(2) "Ten thermobaric bombs were commissioned for the war in Afghanistan. One is known to have been used, according to The Baltimore Sun. That round missed, proving that even techno-wizard bangs are useless if one can't aim." ~ George Smith in Weapon of the Week: The Thermobaric Bomb, The Village Voice

Thermobaric Weapons

"It is among the most horrific weapons in any army's collection: the thermobaric bomb, a fearsome explosive that sets fire to the air above its target, then sucks the oxygen out of anyone unfortunate enough to have lived through the initial blast." ~ Noah Shachtman

The term "thermobaric" is derived from the effects of temperature (the Greek word "therme" means "heat") and pressure (the Greek word "baros" means "pressure") on the target. Thermobaric weapons were first developed by the US as fuel-air explosives used in Vietnam, and further developed by Russia to be used against China and Chechnya. The most recently developed thermobaric bombs have been used against underground tunnel targets, such as the "Daisy Cutter" used by the US in Afghanistan.

Backgrounder on Russian Fuel Air Explosives (Vacuum Bombs)

February 15, 2000 -- Fuel-air explosives (FAEs), popularly known in Russia as "vacuum bombs," are more powerful than conventional high-explosive munitions of comparable size, are more likely to kill and injure people in bunkers, shelters, and caves, and kill and injure in a particularly brutal manner over a wide area. In urban settings it is very difficult to limit the effect of this weapon to combatants, and the nature of FAE explosions makes it virtually impossible for civilians to take shelter from their destructive effect.

FAE weapons are effective against exposed personnel, combat equipment, fortified areas and individual defensive fortifications, clearing passages in minefields, clearing landing sites for helicopters, destroying communication centers, and neutralizing strongholds in house-to-house fighting in a city. In addition, he stated that "fuel-air explosives are capable…of completely destroying in a given area vegetation and agricultural crops that have been planted." "In its destructive capability, it is comparable to low-yield nuclear munitions."

When multiple FAE warheads are exploded, the different blast waves reinforce each other, increasing their destructive power. The effect of blast weapons is also compounded in buildings and other enclosed spaces, and is twelve to sixteen times more destructive than conventional high explosives against targets with large surface areas, such as frame buildings, bunkers, and vehicle shelters.

A typical fuel air explosive device consists of a container of fuel and two separate explosive charges. After the munition is dropped or fired, the first explosive charge bursts open the container at a predetermined height and disperses the fuel in a cloud that mixes with atmospheric oxygen (the size of the cloud varies with the size of the munition). The cloud of fuel flows around objects and into structures. The second charge then detonates the cloud, creating a massive blast wave.

The blast wave destroys unreinforced buildings and equipment and kills and injures personnel. The antipersonnel effect of the blast wave is more severe in foxholes, on personnel with body armor, and in enclosed spaces such as caves, buildings, and bunkers.

Fuel-air explosives were first developed, and used in Vietnam, by the United States. Soviet scientists, however, quickly developed their own FAE weapons, which were reportedly used against China in a 1969 border conflict and in Afghanistan. Since then research and development has continued and currently Russian forces field a wide array of third-generation FAE warheads.

Blast explosives kill or injure in three ways: with the blast wave; with flying debris or by collapsing buildings; and by the blast wind throwing bodies against the ground, equipment, structures, and other stationary objects.

According to a 1993 study by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, the [blast] kill mechanism against living targets is unique--and unpleasant.... What kills is the pressure wave, and more importantly, the subsequent rarefaction [vacuum], which ruptures the lungs.… If the fuel deflagrates but does not detonate, victims will be severely burned and will probably also inhale the burning fuel. Since the most common FAE fuels, ethylene oxide and propylene oxide, are highly toxic, undetonated FAE should prove as lethal to personnel caught within the cloud as most chemical agents.

According to a separate US Central Intelligence Agency study, "the effect of an FAE explosion within confined spaces is immense. Those near the ignition point are obliterated. Those at the fringe are likely to suffer many internal, and thus invisible injuries, including burst eardrums and crushed inner ear organs, severe concussions, ruptured lungs and internal organs, and possibly blindness." Another Defense Intelligence Agency document speculates that because the "shock and pressure waves cause minimal damage to brain tissue…it is possible that victims of FAEs are not rendered unconscious by the blast, but instead suffer for several seconds or minutes while they suffocate."

Lung injuries are particularly difficult to diagnose and treat. -- Edited and excerpted from Backgrounder on Russian Fuel Air Explosives (Vacuum Bombs)

Thermobaric Weapon Development by the US

The United States and its allies face a growing threat related to critical military targets hidden within and shielded by hardened, deeply buried tunnel complexes. These complexes may house biological/ chemical/ nuclear weapons production or storage facilities; command, control, and communications facilities; and theater ballistic missiles and their transporter- erector- launchers (TELs).

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) is seeking commercial technology solutions to address the Department of Defense's needs for advanced energetics and novel explosives. The targets of interest are those that may generate more energy, larger power, larger impulse or greater lethality than conventional high explosives.

In October 2001 the Department of Defense accelerated a number of programs being pursued that could be used in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The DTRA organized a quick-response team on October 11, 2001, that included Navy, Air Force, Department of Energy and industry experts to identify, test, integrate and field a rapid solution that would enhance weapons options in countering hardened underground targets.

Explosive experts at the Naval Surface Weapons Center, Indian Head, MD, responded with a developmental explosive that provided enhanced internal blast effects. The Air Force Precision Strike Program Office at Eglin AFB, FL, led the team to provide the energetic solution, as a new thermobaric bomb, designated as BLU-118/B, the Bomb Live Unit (BLU)-118/B Thermobaric Warhead, was developed within 67 days and subsequently supported Operation Enduring Freedom. Both static and flight tests were then conducted at full-scale tunnel facilities at the Nevada Test Site.

On 21 December 2001 Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition Edward C. Aldridge officially announced that a small number of the weapons were being deployed to attack tunnels in Afghanistan. On or about 03 March 2002 a single 2,000-pound thermobaric bomb was used for the first time in combat against cave complexes in which al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters had taken refuge in the Gardez region of Afghanistan.

The USAF and USN are actively pursuing conventional weapons technology to destroy Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical (NBC) and support/storage facilities while retaining or destroying the agents within the structure and minimizing collateral damage including fatalities. Thermobaric weapons use high-temperature incendiaries against chemical and biological facilities. The USN is working on an Inter-Halogen Oxidizer weapon while the USAF is pursuing a solid fuel-air explosive using aluminum particles. Both of these weapons use an incineration technique to defeat and destroy the CB agents within the blast area.

It was revealed in mid-May 2003, by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that US forces had for the first time used a new thermobaric variant of the Hellfire missile during the conflict in Iraq. No additional details were revealed as to how and where the weapon had been used. DefSec Rumsfeld cited this weapon as a case of high-speed research and development executed to meet a critical battlefield need, with the project going from development to deployment in less than one year. -- Edited and excerpted from the article BLU-118/B Thermobaric Weapon at

Point Paper for the DTRA Thermobaric (TB) Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD)

The BLU-82B/C-130 weapon system, nicknamed Commando Vault in Vietnam and Daisy Cutter in Afghanistan

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