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Thermobaric ‘Vacuum Bombs’: Ukraine Should Fear Putin’s Most Savage Weapon

Russian Military TOS-1. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Russian TOS-1 firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive is unfolding in the Donbas and south Ukraine. For the time being, the Russian military is holding fast, relying on extensive minefields and in-depth lines of defense to stall the Ukrainian mechanized assaults.  

But the Russian forces can’t really count on one of their most effective and deadly weapon systems: the TOS-1A thermobaric artillery system. Many in the popular press refer to these weapons as ‘vacuum bombs’.

TOS-1A Thermobaric Systems Down 

A week into the counteroffensive, the Ukrainian military has already destroyed at least two TOS-1A thermobaric artillery systems.

One of them was taken out by an M-109 Paladin 155mm self-propelled howitzer with the help of a tactical drone that acted as an air observer in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast. 

Even the Russian military blogger community is acknowledging the shortage of TOS-1A thermobaric artillery systems on the southern front. The Ukrainian military is targeting and prioritizing the destruction of Russian TOS-1A thermobaric weapons. Using drones and electronic warfare means the Ukrainian forces are actively looking for the deadly Russian weapon systems, which are considered high-value targets. And for good reason. 

The TOS-1A thermobaric artillery system combines rockets full of fuel with oxygen from the surrounding environment to create an extremely deadly effect. Though it has a small range of up to six miles, it can destroy anything in its path in just a small amount of time. Russian military officials designate the weapon system as a heavy flamethrower, and the specialist units with a background in chemical, biological, and radiological warfare usually operate it. A single TOS-1A thermobaric artillery system can stop a mechanized assault. 

The TOS-1A thermobaric artillery system is so highly prized by the Russian military that its deployment and use is controlled by a theater-level command rather than tactical commanders. The Russian Ministry of Defense has also paired the TOS-1A thermobaric weapon with elite formations, such as the VDV airborne forces. 

Russian Thermobaric Weapons in Ukraine

In the initial days of the counteroffensive, the Russian military has used its TOS-1A thermobaric artillery systems extensively to stall or stop the attacking Ukrainian forces. But the Russian military’s reliance on weapon systems like the TOS-1A thermobaric artillery system is problematic for the Kremlin’s defense. 

“Russian forces’ apparent reliance on specific artillery assets is noteworthy, as Ukrainian precision strikes on these systems could potentially complicate Russian defensive capabilities, and Russian forces are unlikely to possess enough TOS-1A systems to provide the same level of fire support all along the front line,” the Institute for the Study of War assessed in a recent operational update on the war. 

Thermobaric weapon systems were first seen in Ukraine in the opening phases of the war.  

“We have seen the deployment of thermobaric artillery weapon systems, and we worry how broad those could go,” British Secretary of Defence Ben Wallace had said about the TOS-1A thermobaric artillery system soon after the Russian forces invaded Ukraine. 

The TOS-1A thermobaric artillery system is a highly effective and deadly weapon. But it is highly doubtful that it will be able to stop the Ukrainian counteroffensive

A 19FortyFive Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. He is currently working towards a Master’s Degree in Strategy, Cybersecurity, and Intelligence at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). His work has been featured in Business InsiderSandboxx, and SOFREP.

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1945’s Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist with specialized expertise in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP.