The ‘vacuum bomb’, which Ukraine says the Russians have used in the invasion, ignites a fireball that sucks in all surrounding oxygen
The Guardian-Virginia Harrison and agencies
Fears have risen over the use of thermobaric weapons by Russia after the Ukrainian ambassador to the US said a vacuum bomb – another term for the weapon – had been used during the invasion.
The use of such weapons, which suck in oxygen from the surrounding air to generate a high-temperature explosion, has yet to be independently confirmed, though footage from Ukraine has shown thermobaric rocket launchers on Russia’s TOS-1 vehicles.
Dr Marcus Hellyer, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said while it was not clear if they had been deployed yet by Russia in Ukraine, it was only “a matter of time”.
How do they work?
The thermobaric weapon, also known as an aerosol bomb or fuel air explosive, is a two-stage munition.
The first-stage charge distributes an aerosol made up of very fine material – from a carbon-based fuel to tiny metal particles. A second charge ignites that cloud, creating a fireball, a huge shock wave, and a vacuum as it sucks up all surrounding oxygen.
The blast wave can last for significantly longer than a conventional explosive and is capable of vaporising human bodies.
Such weapons are used for a variety of purposes and come in a range of sizes. Hellyer says what we may see in Ukraine is Russia using them in a “bunker-buster” role to destroy defensive positions. Extremely large, air-launched versions are designed to destroy caves and tunnel complexes.
Where have they been used?
The bombs have been used by Russian and western forces since the 1960s. The US relied on them in its attempts to eliminate al-Qaida in the mountains in Afghanistan. Hellyer said Russia had a longer track record with them than the west. “Russia has systems right across the spectrum … from quite small tactical weapons, to huge, air-launched bombs.
“The separatists that Russia was supporting in the Donbas region, they have been using them for a number of years now.”
In 2000, Human Rights Watch condemned Russia’s reported used of the weapons a year earlier in Chechnya as “a dangerous escalation” with “important humanitarian implications”.
How dangerous are they?
Hellyer said thermobaric weapons were effective at their “specific purpose” of “primarily destroying defensive positions”. While they would not be used to penetrate a tank, they could be a ““very destructive weapon” against an apartment complex or other building.
“They are not illegal even though their effects can be pretty horrific, because of that effect of creating a vacuum and sucking the air out of the lungs of defenders,” he said.
Given their use is “pretty standard” in terms of Russian tactics, Hellyer said he expected to see more thermobaric warfare in Ukraine.
“One of the things we know about Russian tactics is that they are willing to destroy everything.
“It’s clear that the Ukrainians are hunkering down in some of the cities … as that continues the Russians are going to resort more and more to using … whatever weapons they have including thermobaric weapons in built-up urban areas.”
Reuters contributed to this report