• Sun. May 29th, 2022

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‘A horrible, devastating weapon’: Concerns grow over Russia’s ‘vacuum bombs’

The type of thermobaric weapon that has been spotted with Russian convoys inside Ukraine is known as the TOS-1A multiple rocket launcher. It has a range of around 2.5 miles and a blast radius that extends out approximately 1,000 feet, Johnson said.

“Everything inside that would be vaporized, essentially,” he said.

Have they been used before?

These types of thermobaric weapons have been in development since the 1970s. They were used by Russian troops in Chechnya in the 1990s, and Johnson said there was some evidence that vacuum bombs were deployed in 2016 by Syrian government forces and their Russian allies in Aleppo. U.S. forces also used thermobaric weapons in Afghanistan in 2017 to destroy cave and tunnel complexes, Johnson said.

The weapons are sometimes nicknamed “bunker busters” because they can effectively demolish defensive barriers.

“If you’re approaching from about 4 kilometers out, you can unleash not just one but dozens of them and just melt a hole through the defensive position,” Johnson said.

March 2, 202205:12

While they weren’t originally designed to be used in urban areas, vacuum bombs could be particularly lethal if shot into building complexes and other densely populated regions, he added. 

“You can imagine if this is contained inside an enclosed space — nothing would survive inside that space,” Johnson said. “If you don’t die immediately, the pressure would rupture your internal organs. It’s really horrendous.”

How dangerous are these weapons?

Despite the horrifying destruction that thermobaric munitions can cause, there are no laws that ban their use in warfare, though they are widely condemned by nongovernmental organizations. The use of such weapons against civilians, however, is prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and could constitute war crimes.

“It’s kind of like the neutron bomb: There was no prohibition against it, but everybody just realized how horrible it was and they didn’t want that,” Johnson said.

While it’s not clear if Russian forces have already used vacuum bombs in Ukraine, Johnson said he fears it’s only a matter of time.

“I have no doubt they will use them,” he said. “They have them there because these weapons have operational combat utility. At some point, the Russians are going to bump into something, whether it’s in one of the cities or a defensive position, and that will be their weapon of choice.”

Courtney Kube contributed.