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What is a thermobaric weapon? Putin accused of using devastating ‘vacuum bomb’ in Ukraine

A Soviet TOS-1A heavy flamethrower unit taking part in a live firing exercise at Russia’s Tarskoye firing range. (Credits: Getty)

As Russia continues its horrific actions in Ukraine, Putin stands accused of using a devastating weapon known as a thermobaric bomb.

These devastating weapons are capable of vaporising human bodies and reducing buildings to rubble.

They work by sucking in oxygen from the surrounding air to create a more powerful high-temperature explosion.

As well as an increased blast, a so-called ‘vacuum bomb’ produces a large pressure wave.

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Because of their destructive power, they are rarely used. But it’s been alleged that Putin has used them against Ukraine.

Russian TOS-1 launchers have been seen in Ukraine (Credit: Reuters)

Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, told reporters after meeting with White House lawmakers on Monday that they have been deployed during the ongoing incursion.

She said: ‘They used the vacuum bomb today. The devastation that Russia is trying to inflict on Ukraine is large.’

How does a vacuum bomb work?

CRIMEA, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 9, 2016: A thermobaric bomb explosion during the Caucasus 2016 strategic drills at Opuk range of Russia's Southern Military District. Sergei Savostyanov/TASS (Photo by Sergei Savostyanov\TASS via Getty Images)

A thermobaric bomb explosion during the Caucasus 2016 strategic drills at Opuk range of Russia’s Southern Military District. (Credits: TASS)

Both the United States and the Soviet Union developed thermobaric bombs in the 1960s.

A regular explosive uses a process called oxidation in a confined region to create an explosion. The weapon mixes the explosive fuel with an oxidizer to create the blast. However, a thermobaric bomb consists of almost 100% fuel.

It uses the oxygen in the surrounding air as an oxident that results in a far larger explosion.

However, because it relies on the air around it – the kind of yield from a vacuum bomb can vary.

The explosion will depend on how well the fuel is dispersed, how rapidly it mixes with the surrounding atmosphere and the initiation of the igniter and its position relative to the container of fuel.

401989 02: A Completed Thermobaric Bomb Stands Ready For Shipping At The Naval Surface Warfare Center (Nswc) March 5, 2002 In Indian Head, Md. Engineers At Nswc Developed The Thermobaric Explosives, Which Were Used For The First Time Against Al Qaeda And Taliban Forces March 2, 2002 During Combat Missions In Support Of Operation Anaconda In Eastern Afghanistan. (Photo By U.S. Navy/Getty Images)

A Completed Thermobaric bomb ready for shipping at The Naval Surface Warfare Center in March 2002 in the United States (Credit: Getty)

Similarly, thermobaric bombs can’t be used in certain weather conditions, at high altitutes or underwater.

But they can be exceptionally deadly in urban or battlefield warfare.

They can also be fitted to both vehicular and hand-held rocket launchers.

Are thermobaric bombs illegal?

KIEV, UKRAINE, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 26: Firefighters try to extinguish a fire from a bombed civilian building in a residential area on February 26, 2022, in Kiev, Ukraine. A missile has hit this residential building in the capital. The Ukrainian Ministry of Health reported today, Saturday, February 26, the death of 198 people, including three children, since the beginning of the Russian invasion in the early morning of February 24. Several explosions have rocked Ukraine's capital, Kiev, in the early hours of Saturday morning, and clashes are taking place in the Beresteiska area, just short of the well-known Maidan Square, and at a thermal power station in Troieschyna, at the other end of the city. Ukrainian President Zelenski remains in the country, and has declared a curfew in Kiev, so that its citizens do not go out on the streets until Monday. (Photo By Diego Herrera/Europa Press via Getty Images)

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire from a bombed civilian building in a residential area in Kyiv. (Credits: Getty)

Although not specifically illegal, the use of vacuum bombs and cluster munitions (which release smaller amounts of schrapnel over a wider area) is widely condemned.

Amnesty International say international humanitarian law prohibits the use of inherently indiscriminate weapons – such as cluster munitions.

The organisation saus launching any indiscriminate attacks that kill or injure civilians constitutes a war crime.

More than 100 countries have committed never to use the weapons under the Convention on Cluster Munitions, including the UK – but neither Russia nor Ukraine have signed the agreement.

Agnes Callamard, secretary-general of Amnesty International, said: ‘It is stomach-turning to see an indiscriminate attack on a nursery and kindergarten where civilians are seeking safe haven.

Is Russia using thermobaric bombs against Ukraine?

Russia accused of using devastating vacuum bombs during Ukraine invasion

Russian TOS-1 rocket launchers (L) have been accused of using vacuum bombs in Ukraine (Credits: Getty)

Reports claim TOS-1 rocket launchers capable of firing thermobaric weapons have been spotted among Russian troops.

One Western official said their presence is a cause for ‘considerable concern’, the Independent reports.

The official added: ‘Certainly, if it is used in any built-up area, there is no way you can eradicate the risk of significant civilian casualties.’

There has been no official confirmation that thermobaric weapons have been used in the conflict in Ukraine and Ms Markarova did not reveal where the bomb she referred to was used.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said she had also seen reports of them being unleashed, adding: ‘If that were true, it would potentially be a war crime.’

Pavel Kuzmenko, the mayor of Akhtyrka, a small city northwest of Kharkhiv, claimed a vacuum bomb had been dropped on an oil depot there.

He said: ‘A vacuum bomb has been dropped on an oil storage depot, containers with oil have been torn off. The enemy vilely uses vacuum bombs banned by the Geneva Convention.’


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