Fuel Air (Thermobaric) Weapons
Fuel Air or Thermobaric weapons have been around since the 1960s and have evolved from the traditional incendiary round into a much more deadly and versatile weapon now in its 3rd generation. Fuel air weapons work by using a small charge within a bomb, rocket or grenade warhead to scatter a the contents of the warhead which are either volatile gases , liquids or finely powdered explosives. These then form an aerosol cloud (often poisonous to inhale) which is then ignited creating a fireball which burns the surrounding area and consumes oxygen in a wider area. This lack of oxygen creates an enormous overpressure in a few micro seconds, which can reach 427lbs per square inch (30kg/cm2) at the centre of the explosion and create temperatures of 2500-3000 centigrade. The pressure is twice that created by traditional explosives, those not incinerated are crushed to death and a powerful blast wave is sent out followed by a vacuum sucking in objects as the cloud rapidly cools. All this creates a weapon as powerful as a low level tactical nuclear weapon without the radiation.
Fortifications, unless hermetically sealed offer little protection as the vapour from the cloud flows into cavities. If used in a confined space such as inside a building the blast is amplified. The weapon is effective vs. people , vehicles , equipment , fortifications and minefields making it very versatile. Thermobaric weapons have been used by the Russians since the 1960's and were combat tested during the Russians campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980's and have been used during the modern Russian campaigns in Chechnya during the late 1990s and early 21st century. The apart from weapons delivered by air the Russians developed the 'Buratino' a 30 barrel 220mm MLRS based on a T-72 Chassis which was first used in the 1980s in Afghanistan with a range of 3.5-5km and a minimum range of 400 meters. The Russians also use the man portable RPO -(A) Bumblebee system which is a shoulder fired single shot rocket(flame thrower) with a range of 1,000 meters, the RPO-(A) is the thermobaric weapon, while the RPO-(Z) and RPO-(D) fire incendiary and smoke rounds respectively. Thermobaric weapons although very effective are not without their critics, the use of them against Chechen rebels by Russians has lead to accusations of indiscrimate use and civilian deaths especially during urban combat. The horrific nature of such weapons has also caused some concern that they maybe classed as an 'inhumane weapon' which would mean their use being condemned by the United Nations.
How to cite this article:
Dugdale-Pointon, TDP. (23 February 2003), Fuel Air (Thermobaric) Weapons, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_thermobaric.html