Thermobaric Weapons: A History

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Thermobaric Weapons
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
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Canada Leads Study to Stop Super Bombs
Powerful thermobaric explosives feared to be in hands of terrorists
July 12, 2003 -- Canadian defence scientists are leading an international effort to devise protection against new and more powerful terrorist explosives designed to flatten buildings and rupture people's internal organs.
The weapons, referred to as thermobaric explosives, were developed during the Cold War in the Soviet Union, but there are concerns the device may have now made their way into the hands of terrorists or rogue nations. Massive thermobaric bombs kill by the force of their shockwave.
At the same time, some terrorist bombs, such as the one detonated last year by al-Qaeda operatives on the Indonesian island of Bali, use the same principles that are behind thermobaric explosives, say scientists with Defence Research and Development Canada. That organization, which is leading the explosives research, is the Canadian military's science agency.
"We just learned about thermobaric explosives in the late '80s when the Soviet Union was disintegrating," said Stephen Murray, head of the threat assessment group at the defence agency's Suffield, Alta., laboratories. "Those weapons (later) started showing up on the open market."
Western militaries have traditionally concentrated their efforts on developing what are known as fragmentation or penetration weapons. Those use explosives to propel metal at a high velocity, either using a warhead to disable a vehicle, such as a tank, or creating shrapnel to kill or wound victims.
"It turns out that other countries, the Russians in particular, went in the other direction," Murray said. "They decided that blast was a very good way of killing things."
For security reasons, he declined to give specifics about how thermobaric warheads are designed. However, generally they are believed to use highly flammable metal particles mixed with a liquid high explosive. When ignited in a two-stage process, the device creates a super-high heat and pressure blast capable of flattening buildings and rupturing organs in people near the detonation point.
The Russians were able to design such weapons for use as bombs to be dropped by aircraft or as rocket launchers that could be fired by soldiers.
To study the effects of thermobaric explosions, the defence agency will detonate a series of bombs, some the equivalent of 700 kilograms of TNT, to simulate such blasts at its Suffield installation over the next several months.
Researchers from US and British government military agencies will be involved in the Canadian program, which will continue over the next four years. The Dutch and Norwegian governments have also expressed interest in the research.
Canadian scientists are considered leaders in the field, having spent the past decade studying thermobaric and similar blast weapons called fuel-air explosives.
Russia used thermobaric bombs against Chechen rebels during its war in that breakaway republic in the mid-1990s.(1)* In an attempt to dislodge al-Qaeda and Taliban forces from caves in Afghanistan the US also rushed into production thermobaric weapons. At least 10 were believed to have been used in that war.
Other terrorist explosions, such as Timothy McVeigh's 1995 truck bomb that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City and the Bali blast, are similar to thermobaric weapons. The Bali explosion killed more than 200, including two Canadians. "Some of the terrorist explosions out there look a lot like thermobaric mixtures," Murray added.
The defence agency will test how particular structures hold up under a thermobaric blast attack. One such test will involve what the Canadian army is calling the "Afghan OP," observation posts built by other militaries that Canadian troops serving in Afghanistan in the coming months will occupy.
Murray said since western militaries focused on protecting against fragmentation weapons, their equipment is generally not suited to provide protection against thermobaric blasts.
The defence agency hopes to eventually develop computer software that will allow military engineers to quickly determine whether the structure of a building might be vulnerable to a thermobaric explosion. The idea is to have the system capable of rating the blast resistance of a building within 30 minutes.
Similar technology could also help combat engineers and officers determine how to best build field fortifications or determine the layout of an encampment to resist the blast effects of a thermobaric warhead or a large truck bomb.
At the same time scientists in Valcartier, Quebec, are trying to come up with better protective equipment for soldiers to deal with thermobaric blasts.
US agencies are particularly interested in what would happen to buildings and people if such blast weapons were used by terrorists, as well as developing protective methods. "They're very concerned about large vehicle bombs," Murray said. -- Edited and excerpted from the article by David Pugliese in The Ottawa Citizen

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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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