Russia’s TOS-1, a 3 Minute Explainer: Burn Baby Burn. And I don’t mean that in a good way. Russian TOS-1 Buratino and TOS-1A Solntsepek rockets are so destructive they should be banned, according to some security watchdogs. The projectiles work as a flame thrower that creates a wall of fire like napalm when they strike a target. The Americans are not innocent either, having used Hellfire missiles with incendiary warheads against tunnel complexes in Afghanistan.
Here is a quick rundown on everything you need to know about the TOS-1:
Hiding in a Cave Doesn’t Help
The TOS-1 rockets are thermobaric multiple-launch weapons, also called “fuel-air explosives,” made to create intense heat and pressure using a deadly vapor and plasma cloud. Then an explosion ignites the aerosol in the cloud.
The resulting scorched earth fireball can bend its way around corners and obstacles in a way that penetrating bomb fragments cannot.
The System is Mobile
The Russians deploy the TOS-1 on a tracked vehicle like a T-72 tank with a crew of three, so they are meant to be part of armored maneuver warfare. There are 24 tubes for 220mm rockets on a TOS-1 that can be set to thermobaric or incendiary modes. The maximum range of the system is 3-miles. TOS-1As have a longer range out to 3.7-miles.
The Soviets first used the Buratino in 1988 against militants in Afghanistan hiding in caves, buildings, and bunkers. The Buratino was also deployed in Chechnya. The TOS-1A came out in 2001 and was later used in Syria. The Russians have reportedly sent the deadly system to the Ukrainian border in 2015.
It is a Quick-Launch Weapon
The TOS-1 has a laser range-finder that sends a ballistic guidance launch solution into the fire control system. The rockets can be launched 90 seconds after stopping the vehicle. A full fire mission can take place in an additional 12 seconds.
More and More Countries Use It
The system is proliferating. At a cost of $6.5 million each, Russia has exported the TOS-1A to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Syria, and Kazakhstan. The Armenians and Azerbaijanis used them against each other in 2020.
No-one Is Safe From the TOS-1
Obviously, people in the blast range never make it, but even victims outside the radius are affected by the bone-crushing overpressure too, while others asphyxiate due to the vacuum effect of the detonation.
The Russians used the TOS-1 in Chechnya and it created collateral damage that killed 37 and wounded at least 200 in the attempt to destroy entire city blocks during bombardment of Grozny in 1994 and 1995.
Can the International Community Stop Their Use?
In 1980, there was a protocol developed called the Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons (Protocol III). Human Rights Watch, working with the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, aims to get more countries in compliance with banning incendiary munitions under Protocol III.
The resulting report from Human Rights Watch and Harvard points out that Protocol III is over 40 years old and is too narrowly written. Thermobaric weapons are not specifically covered under Protocol III as the guidance is more for general incendiary, napalm, and white phosphorous munitions.
It’s time that human rights groups take a closer look at thermobaric weapons and provide a means to regulate them. However, their use is probably too widespread to make a difference when attempting to ban them. So, this may be a bridge too far. Every country would likely formulate a response that describes the legitimate military necessities for their use and deny efforts to banish the nightmarish weapons.
Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry office.