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Despite their brutal concussive effect on human combatants, thermobaric weapons (TBW) are classed as conventional weapons and are not banned by the Geneva Convention or other specific global treaty. The Russians used thermobaric missiles against the Ukranians in the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and have positioned self-propelled rocket versions known as the TOS-1 and TOS-2 flamethrower tanks for use in their current invasion. The United States also maintains a small arsenal of thermobaric weapons and used them against the cave fortresses of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

TBWs, also designated as Fuel Air Explosives (FAEs) and called “vacuum bombs” by the Russian Federation, can offer extremely large explosions.  These warheads can be produced in a range of volumes to match specific tactical combat requirements.  They can be mounted on gravity bombs dropped by aircraft, missiles, and even mortar shells.

The weapons use a payload of highly flammable liquid fuel with dual blast initiators.  When the bomb or missile descend to a selected height, the first initiator rapidly disperses the fuel into a very large aerosol cloud that mixes with oxygen in the air. The second initiator then ignites the cloud,  producing a mega-blast that sweeps a tremendous shockwave out and downward.  Because the fuel forms a rapidly expanding fog, it can flow into bunkers, buildings and caves before it explodes, extending the damage.

TBWs are an outgrowth of the fact that small particles suspended in the air can be ignited and will rapidly erupt in a massive conflagration enhanced by oxygen.  This principle led to several major explosions in grain silos and facilities that produced baking flour during the 1900’s.  When the grain or flour was poured into a tall holding tank, a significant amount filled the air with a fine powder.  A spark from a machine or conveyor belt could abruptly flash the powdered slurry with devastating results. 

Ethylene Dioxide is a highly toxic liquid fuel used in most modern TBWs.  The United States military discovered that adding metal aluminum particles into the fuel dramatically accelerates the explosion. The Russians call them vacuum bombs because most of the oxygen in the blast radius is almost instantly consumed, creating an expanding shockwave followed by a  contracting shockwave that  “vacuums” or sucks all the oxygen out of the blast zone.

TBWs don’t just pose suffocation effects; the blast wave will rupture soft tissues within the body, including eyeballs, lungs, liver, spleen, pancreas and intestines. Generally speaking TBWs are not especially effective against hardened or heavily armored structures or tanks.  They are extremely lethal for exposed troops and can seriously damage wood structures and lightly armored vehicles. Use of TBWs in civilian zones containing high density apartments could simulate the destructive effect of tactical nuclear warheads.

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