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TOS-1A: Putin Has a ‘Vacuum Bomb’ Weapon He Is Using to Fight Ukraine

TOS-1A Ukraine
TOS-1A fighting in Ukraine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The TOS-1A Solntsepyok is a Russian made multiple rocket launcher capable of firing thermobaric warheads, that is mounted on the chassis of a T-72 tank.

The TOS-1 was built to destroy enemy fortified positions, lightly armored vehicles, and transports – especially in the open terrain so often found on the plains of eastern Europe.

The TOS-1 has been in the news lately, for its deployment in the Russo-Ukraine War, where the system’s performance has been questionable.

The Design

The basic premise of the TOS-1A, a tank mounted MLRS with the ability to launch thermobaric warheads, was first conceived in the 1970s. Development began in the early 1980s, although the program was kept secret for years. The TOS-1A is an improved version of the original TOS-1 Buratino; the TOS-1A did not debut until 2003. The 1A variant was named Solntsepyok, which translates to “scorching sunlight,” and featured a 6 kilometer range, as well as a more sophisticated ballistic computer.

In March of 2020, Russia designed a new rocket for the TOS-1A. The new rocket had a 10 kilometer range – an improvement that was gained through weight and size reductions, plus a new fuel air explosive mixture in the warhead.

The Thermobaric Warhead

The TOS-1A’s thermobaric warhead is often referred to as a “vacuum bomb.” The thermobaric warhead is an explosive that uses oxygen from the surrounding air to create a high-temperature explosion. What is distinct about the thermobaric warhead is that the weapon is almost 100 percent fuel; the result is a weapon that is more powerful than conventional explosives of comparable weight.

One of the drawbacks of the thermobaric warhead is its reliance on atmospheric oxygen – which means the weapon cannot be used under water, at high altitude, or in adverse weather conditions in which atmospheric oxygen may be limited. However, in certain environments, say a tunnel, building, foxhole, or trench, the thermobaric weapon is highly lethal, with a blast wave that lasts longer than that of a conventional explosion.

The Combat History

The TOS-1 was debuted during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in the Panjshir valley. The MLRS was also used during the Second Chechen War, which lasted from 1999 to 2009. Foreign entities have also used the Russian-grown system. Iraq used the TOS-1A in combat against ISIS, during the recapture of Jurf Al Sakhar in 2014, and again in 2017 during the recapture of the Old City of Mosul.

The Syrian Army, which operates with Russia support, has used the TOS various times against rebel forces, in places like Hama, the Latakia mountains, and Aleppo.

But the TOS system didn’t really enter the mainstream until being used in the Russo-Ukraine War, when Russian forces illegally invaded Ukraine. Several sightings of the TOS-1A have been verified. The Russian Ministry of Defence confirmed the presence of the TOS-1A in Ukraine. And the system made news when the Ukrainian Army captured multiple TOS-1As – and even used the weapon against the Russians. The incident has served as another source of embarrassment for the Russian forces, who have so far struggled to gain traction against a weaker opponent in Ukraine. Granted, the loss of a few TOS-1As is not going to make or break the Russian war effort, but it’s a bad look for an already struggling effort.

Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, Harrison joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. Harrison listens to Dokken.  

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Written By

Harrison Kass is a Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon School of Law, and New York University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. He lives in Oregon and regularly listens to Dokken.