Aiming to continue escalating the artillery fight during the war in Ukraine, the Russian military is ordering more TOS-1A “heavy flamethrowers” that belch out thermobaric and incendiary rockets. This is a surefire way to rain down more death and destruction on enemy targets. In late September, a batch of updated TOS-1A’s was shipped to the Russian Ministry of Defense and transferred to Ukraine.
The ominous-sounding thermobaric rockets are especially frightening as they use fuel explosives and a flame-making aerosol that causes ghastly fires.
Improvements to the TOS-1A
TOS-1A maker Omsktransmash has improved the “Solntesepek” TOS-1A and sent its latest model to the front. The modernized TOS-1A now has a GPS-navigation system, new communications, new tracks for the launcher, and a computerized fire system.
Russian Keep Them on the Move
The Ukrainians are specifically targeting the TOS-1A with counter-battery radar and the Russians are keeping these batteries moving to new locations after they fire their salvoes. The TOS-1A is likely being used against Ukrainian trenches as the flamethrower is effective at blasting dug-in areas.
How Do Thermobaric Weapons Work?
Thermobaric rockets work by setting free an explosive aerosol cloud that makes its way down to the target. The aerosol seeps into cracks and openings if the target is an armored vehicle or tank. It is also used against buildings where it can leak through openings in structures. Then there is a detonation at thousands of degrees Fahrenheit. The oxygen around the target is vacuumed up, resulting in a gargantuan burning cloud. This vaporizes soft targets and any humans who are in the blast zone. Survivors can have critical injuries to internal organs from breathing in the air around the explosions.
They Are Still Not Banned
You can imagine how frightening a salvo from the TOS-1A can be.
Human rights observers consider the use of such weapons a war crime, especially when utilized against civilians. They are not specifically banned under international law and other countries such as Armenia and Azerbaijan have bought the system. They cost around $6.5 million each. Azerbaijan and Armenia used the TOS-1A against each other during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The TOS-1As may have been deployed during the Ukrainian conflict after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Details on the TOS-1A
The earlier TOS-1A systems are mounted on the chassis of a T-72. Later model TOS-1As are mounted on a T-90 chassis. A crew of three soldiers runs the BM-1 launch vehicle. They can set up and fire in minutes. Each 220mm launcher has 24 tubes, and these can also launch incendiary rockets in addition to the ones with thermobaric warheads. All 24 munitions can be fired within six seconds. The rockets weigh 381 pounds with a 29-pound warhead. Their range is 3.7 miles, shorter than other multiple-launch rocket systems that Russia employs.
Strong Psychological Effect to Scare Victims
It is disturbing that the TOS-1A has been used in any conflict. The heavy flamethrower is fearsome, especially in thermobaric mode. Russia has ordered more, and the manufacturer keeps improving them. Moscow has no problem selling them on the export market so additional countries can engage their ghastly flamethrowing characteristics. The use of a TOS-1A has high levels of psychological effects on victims. Also, TOS-1As can be used against fuel depots to devastating consequences.
At Least Ukraine Is Taking Some Off the Battlefield
But Russia has started abandoning the TOS-1A as social media revealed one of the systems being towed by a captured Russian tank on November 9. This will remove one flamethrower from the battlefield but there are many more that can be used against the Ukrainian military. Let’s just hope these will be banned someday and that no other person be subjected to the agony of a vacuum bomb.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.