The Thermobaric Edition
The most destructive weapons you've probably never heard of
Be advised: This WITI deals with violence and weapons currently being used by Russia. There are disturbing descriptions detailing how they work, but we feel this is important subject matter for public comprehension. -Colin (CJN)
Chris Erickson (CE) is a United States Army Special Forces combat veteran.
Todd Osborn (TO) is a United States Air Force Weapons Systems veteran.
Chris and Todd here. Imagine you’re deep asleep in your apartment building. You can’t say you’ve been sleeping soundly since the latest conflict has come back to your urban home, but exhaustion always kicks in eventually and you pass out hard. You’ve been very careful, following all of the advice the local radio station has been broadcasting to the people who couldn’t evacuate. You’ve been paying attention and your entire family has tried their best to maintain awareness of the rapidly changing situations. But unfortunately, you could not have prepared yourself for what is about to occur.A missile has been fired from such a great distance that even if you were awake, you would never have heard the sound of it launching. The building in which you and your neighbors have built your lives is the target. It does not take long for the weapon to reach you.Now, if this had been a conventional munition, it would have struck your building and exploded a single time a split second after impact. The blast would have turned the missile itself into a cloud of shrapnel that shreds and destroys everything in its path. That’s known as a fragmentation munition. However, the device hitting your home is what’s known as a fuel-air explosive. And those are a whole lot worse.
First, the fuel element: upon the initial deployment, it disperses like an aerosol and combines with the oxygen in the target area (your home). Then, a second explosion occurs. It is important to remember that this is all happening at a speed that would be too fast for you to comprehend if you were awake. However, you are not awake. You are fast asleep, as is the rest of your family. This is something of a blessing, given what happens next. The secondary explosion ignites the air-fuel mix that has now expanded to fill every inch of the missile’s target (your home). Still, it’s not just the chemicals and oxygen that are being ignited, the missile’s payload was also packed with tiny particles of various metals that burn at extremely high temperatures. It isn’t just a regular fireball that is now rapidly expanding outwards from the cloud of death created by the first stage: this fireball is also full of fine grains of superheated burning metals. Unless you are vaporized at the initial ignition point, it likely isn’t the flames that kill you. Rather, it is the blast wave that races ahead of the deadly star being born inside your apartment building. You are crushed to death. Your bones shatter and your organs explode inside your body—your eyes pop and your eardrums burst. If the device doesn’t detonate properly, this is the moment that the flames of the ignited gasses hit you and incinerate you. If you were still breathing, your last breath would be pulling a swirling firestorm into your lungs. This is only going to happen if the weapon fails to work in the way it was designed and doesn’t kill you with the shockwave. After that blast finishes its outward expansion, the vacuum created in its wake becomes a blast wind that refills the void left by the explosion. Shrapnel comes rushing back in at the same time the air is sucked out of your lungs. Your lungs rupture. If you had somehow survived all of the previous traumas, there is a very good chance that your brain didn’t suffer enough damage to be unconscious. This means you spend your final seconds blind, deaf, terrified, and in pain as you suffocate.
Why is this interesting?
While thermobaric weapons are not new to the battlefield, recent research and developments have made them capable of generating massive explosions on a previously unheard-of scale. These munitions were designed to create such blast pressure as to get to areas behind cover (barricades, trenches, etc) that fragmentation munitions could not—obstacles such as walls that would normally shield you now only amplify deadly pressure waves. The nightmarish incendiary effects are considered secondary, but as this is not their primary purpose, they are not banned by the international Law of Armed Conflict.The weapon described above is not imaginary, nor are its effects exaggerated. And yet, there are no international laws that prohibit them from being used by one nation against another. We mustn’t ignore that countries like the United States have been using these weapons of pure horror since Vietnam and continue to use them today. Thermobarics fall in a murky zone when it comes to the international Law of Armed Conflict. They can be deployed against legitimate military targets but cannot be used when civilians may be killed or injured, or when non-military targets may be destroyed or damaged. However, with weapons designed to be this deadly, it is impossible to avoid “collateral damage” when they’re being deployed in populated areas like Ukraine.
While the International Criminal Court has launched an investigation into possible war crimes committed by Russia during their invasion, unfortunately specific charges for the use of thermobarics falls into the gray area of the Law of Armed Conflict. Thermobarics make for attention-grabbing headlines because of their devastating effect, but it is important to keep our eyes on the big picture: there is an unspeakable human cost when weapons like these aren’t removed from the arsenals of so-called civilized nations. We have to stop referring to bodies as “collateral damage from authorized munitions.” Because it doesn’t matter if you’re firing thermobaric rockets or conventional weapons when the target area is filled with civilians who are going to be killed. That is a war crime, every single time. And if thermobarics make it impossible to be precise with the death a nation is dealing, then those weapons have no place, even amid the timeless horrors of war. (CE) (TO)
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Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Chris (CE) & Todd (TO)
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