Thermobaric Weapons
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Thermobaric Weapons

"It is among the most horrific weapons in any army's collection: the thermobaric bomb, a fearsome explosive that sets fire to the air above its target, then sucks the oxygen out of anyone unfortunate enough to have lived through the initial blast." ~ Noah Shachtman

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Canada Leads Study to Stop Super Bombs

Powerful thermobaric explosives feared to be in hands of terrorists

July 12, 2003 -- Canadian defence scientists are leading an international effort to devise protection against new and more powerful terrorist explosives designed to flatten buildings and rupture people's internal organs.

The weapons, referred to as thermobaric explosives, were developed during the Cold War in the Soviet Union, but there are concerns the device may have now made their way into the hands of terrorists or rogue nations. Massive thermobaric bombs kill by the force of their shockwave.

At the same time, some terrorist bombs, such as the one detonated last year by al-Qaeda operatives on the Indonesian island of Bali, use the same principles that are behind thermobaric explosives, say scientists with Defence Research and Development Canada. That organization, which is leading the explosives research, is the Canadian military's science agency.

"We just learned about thermobaric explosives in the late '80s when the Soviet Union was disintegrating," said Stephen Murray, head of the threat assessment group at the defence agency's Suffield, Alta., laboratories. "Those weapons (later) started showing up on the open market."

Western militaries have traditionally concentrated their efforts on developing what are known as fragmentation or penetration weapons. Those use explosives to propel metal at a high velocity, either using a warhead to disable a vehicle, such as a tank, or creating shrapnel to kill or wound victims.

"It turns out that other countries, the Russians in particular, went in the other direction," Murray said. "They decided that blast was a very good way of killing things."

For security reasons, he declined to give specifics about how thermobaric warheads are designed. However, generally they are believed to use highly flammable metal particles mixed with a liquid high explosive. When ignited in a two-stage process, the device creates a super-high heat and pressure blast capable of flattening buildings and rupturing organs in people near the detonation point.

The Russians were able to design such weapons for use as bombs to be dropped by aircraft or as rocket launchers that could be fired by soldiers.

To study the effects of thermobaric explosions, the defence agency will detonate a series of bombs, some the equivalent of 700 kilograms of TNT, to simulate such blasts at its Suffield installation over the next several months.

Researchers from US and British government military agencies will be involved in the Canadian program, which will continue over the next four years. The Dutch and Norwegian governments have also expressed interest in the research.

Canadian scientists are considered leaders in the field, having spent the past decade studying thermobaric and similar blast weapons called fuel-air explosives.

Russia used thermobaric bombs against Chechen rebels during its war in that breakaway republic in the mid-1990s.(1)* In an attempt to dislodge al-Qaeda and Taliban forces from caves in Afghanistan the US also rushed into production thermobaric weapons. At least 10 were believed to have been used in that war.

Other terrorist explosions, such as Timothy McVeigh's 1995 truck bomb that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City and the Bali blast, are similar to thermobaric weapons. The Bali explosion killed more than 200, including two Canadians. "Some of the terrorist explosions out there look a lot like thermobaric mixtures," Murray added.

The defence agency will test how particular structures hold up under a thermobaric blast attack. One such test will involve what the Canadian army is calling the "Afghan OP," observation posts built by other militaries that Canadian troops serving in Afghanistan in the coming months will occupy.

Murray said since western militaries focused on protecting against fragmentation weapons, their equipment is generally not suited to provide protection against thermobaric blasts.

The defence agency hopes to eventually develop computer software that will allow military engineers to quickly determine whether the structure of a building might be vulnerable to a thermobaric explosion. The idea is to have the system capable of rating the blast resistance of a building within 30 minutes.

Similar technology could also help combat engineers and officers determine how to best build field fortifications or determine the layout of an encampment to resist the blast effects of a thermobaric warhead or a large truck bomb.

At the same time scientists in Valcartier, Quebec, are trying to come up with better protective equipment for soldiers to deal with thermobaric blasts.

US agencies are particularly interested in what would happen to buildings and people if such blast weapons were used by terrorists, as well as developing protective methods. "They're very concerned about large vehicle bombs," Murray said. -- Edited and excerpted from the article by David Pugliese in The Ottawa Citizen

Thermobaric Bomb Test

When a Gun is More Than a Gun

The Army's ultimate goal is to put thermobaric mini-bombs into the XM29, its next-generation rifle. The 33-inch-long weapon is designed to fire two types of rounds: standard bullets and programmable, grenade-like ammunition that explode in the air.

Each of these high-explosive air-bursting rounds comes imbedded with a computer chip, explained Lt. Col. Rob Carpenter, who oversees the XM29 program at Picatinny Arsenal, the Army's lone research-and-development center for armaments and ammunition. These chips allow the soldier to program exactly when and where the ammunition should go off. If there are enemy forces behind a wall 150 feet away, the round can explode at 151 feet, over their heads.

"With the M16 (rifle, the American infantry's longtime standard), it took a considerable amount of ammunition to take out a squad of people," said Patrick Garrett, an analyst with "With this air-bursting ammunition, the XM29 will be able to put those people on the ground in one shot."

The XM29 -- which won't make it into soldiers' hands until 2006 -- gets even deadlier when thermobaric ammunition is added.

Thermobarics inject a fine, flammable mist into the air, Brigety said. Once ignited, the mist creates a mammoth fireball and pressure wave that's nearly impossible to avoid. The mist can travel around corners and into hidden crannies. And it burns relatively slowly, so jumping out of the way on the bomb's initial impact isn't much of a survival tactic.

Once the fire dies down, the mist sucks all of the oxygen out of the confined space. Those who manage to escape the thermobaric flames and pressure waves quickly expire from asphyxiation.

The fuel that's shot out of a thermobaric weapon is underoxidized, according to Judah Goldwasser, a program officer at the Office of Naval Research. When it mixes with the ambient oxygen in a room, it begins to ignite. It's not hard to imagine why the military used 2,000-pound thermobaric bombs in Afghanistan*(2): They are almost tailor-made for destroying cave-based encampments.

Nor is it difficult to see why soldiers faced with rooting out loyalists to Saddam Hussein in Baghdad would covet a small version of such a weapon. City combat is dangerously unpredictable because any corner could hide an enemy. Soldiers often clear every room of every building they sweep. Thermobaric ammunition can eliminate enemies in several rooms at once.

"For urban warfare (thermobarics) could be very effective," said Andrew Koch, Washington bureau chief of Jane's Defence Weekly. "If you lob a grenade in the entrance of a building, it hits just the people in the entrance. A thermobaric weapon would (go) though the rest of the building."

Koch added, "You might not need to have Marines fighting room to room to room if you have one of these." -- Excerpted and edited from the article by Noah Schachtman at Wired News

Thermobaric Weapon Development by the US 

The United States and its allies face a growing threat related to critical military targets hidden within and shielded by hardened, deeply buried tunnel complexes. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) is seeking commercial technology solutions to address the Department of Defense's needs for advanced energetics and novel explosives. The targets of interest are those that may generate more energy, larger power, larger impulse or greater lethality than conventional high explosives. -- Archived at 2nd Sight Research

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