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Russia is using a new variant of thermobaric weapon in Ukraine based on one developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s. The Soviet TOS-1 is a 220m, 30 or 24-barrel, multiple rocket launcher capable of firing thermobaric warheads. It is mounted on a T-72 tank chassis.
Russian forces have used the new TOS-1A system to bombard Ukraine, though questions remain as to whether it has used the system to launch thermobaric weapons.
However, Britain’s defence ministry alleged in March that Russia confirmed it is using the highly destructive weapons in Ukraine.
Thermobaric warheads can contain two explosive charges which when detonated suck the oxygen out of the air to create a high temperature explosion. Flames can reach temperatures between 2,000 to 3,000 degrees centigrade.
They destroy buildings and everything within range, including people. There may be survivors at the edge of the blast radius, but that would be highly unlikely.
The MoD say Putin’s forces have used thermobaric weapons in Ukraine
A Russian Army TOS-1A Solntsepyok (Blazing Sun) multiple rocket launcher and thermobaric weapon
Dr Marina Miron, a researcher at King’s College, London’s Defence Studies Department, told Express.co.uk: “The whole thing is to obliterate everything within the blast radius.
“The effect is not just physical. It is terrifying. When a blast like that takes place there is no place to hide for civilians.
“Those surviving would have physical and mental trauma.”
Dr Miron explained thermobaric weapons have been likened to nuclear weapons in terms of the psychological harm they cause.
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Syrians inspect a school destroyed by the vacuum bomb attacks carried out by the Syrian regime
Syrians inspect debris after an Assad regime fighter jet hit a residential area with a vacuum bomb
Russia has thermobaric weapons, also known as vacuum bombs, capable of carrying 44 tonnes of TNT up to just under a mile and a half (2km).
So far in the war in Ukraine, there has only been speculation Russia has used them.
Dr Miron said: “We don’t know for sure. One accusation was Russia might be willing to use them against civilian targets.
“In a tactical sense, it makes sense to use them against hardened, enemy positions. We have seen their use by the US in Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda hideouts.”
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Russia versus Ukraine in numbers
The UK also used thermobaric weapons in Syria using reaper drones. They were used to target ISIS fighters hiding out in underground tunnels.
Britain’s variant – the AGM-114N Metal Augmented Charge Thermobaric Hellfire – is capable of being fired from drones.
But unlike Russia, which likes to advertise its weapons in parades, Britain’s variant is not widely recognised for being thermobaric, according to Dr Miron.
She continued: “I’ve not seen anything so far that would suggest the use of TOS-1A [thermobaric weapons] in Ukraine, despite reports Ukrainian forces have taken hold of some of them.”
Thermobaric rocket launchers drive during the Victory Day military parade in Red Square
On such report was of a Russian TOS-1A thermobaric rocket launcher reportedly captured by the Ukrainian army in March. An image posted on Twitter showed the launcher in an unspecified location.
Dr Miron said for Russia, thermobaric weapons would make sense given Ukrainian troops have targeted the enemy from positions inside buildings.
She added while using thermobaric weapons might not necessarily be illegal, they are indiscriminate.
Dr Miron explained: “You can’t say for sure who is in a building. Russia says [Ukrainian] troops are hiding in schools, hospitals and so forth, so from a Russian perspective, it would make sense to use them, without needing to storm a building. [Troops] can keep a certain distance.
“For Russia, they have more equipment than manpower to operate the equipment so it would make tactical sense to use such systems.”
She speculated Russian troops may have used the TOS-1A to fire thermobaric weapons at Mariupol, the formerly besieged port city where Ukrainian troops were holed up in the Azovstal steelworks.
However, she said thermobaric weapons, while destructive, are not very useful in long-range attacks, with a blast range limit of about 3.7 miles (6km), meaning troops using them need to be relatively close to the enemy.
Dr Miron said thermobaric weapons need not give Russia an advantage nor help turn the tide of the war in Ukraine’s favour, should its forces have them.
She explained: “I don’t think it’s a weapon that would give [Russia] an advantage. The war is on TV. [Russia] is already being criticised for using cluster bombs, which are illegal under international law.
“[Ukraine] could potentially use them but the question is where. Where would they use such weapons with such a short-range? They would have to be accompanied by infantry and tanks.
“Ukraine’s army is on the defensive right now. If they were to use those weapons against the territories occupied right now by Russian forces, perhaps tactically [they] would kill enemy troops, but also civilians. They are very indiscriminate weapons.
“I cannot imagine what criticism [their use by either side] would cause.”
However, she cautioned that while there would be condemnation if thermobaric weapons were used in the war in Ukraine, it would be difficult for the US and UK to criticise, given both countries have used them.