The conflict in the Lebanon has once again brought up a discussion about the use of fuel-air explosives and thermobaric weapons - this time its Israels use of them thats been questioned. But armies around the world are building up thermobaric arsenals -- a trend that's not likely not stop any time soon.Unlike normal ("condensed") explosives, much of the blast in these fuel air weapons is produced by the fireball. A cloud of exploding material does most of the damage, producing an overpressure wave of longer duration than a point source.Different kinds of injuries are the result. Instead of shrapnel/fragment injuries, you get blast effects. As one study puts it:
Each tissue type, when interacting with a blast wave, is compressed, stretched, sheared or disintegrated by overload according to its material properties. Internal organs that contain air (sinuses, ears, lungs and intestines) are particularly vulnerable to blast.And those wounds have made thermobarics controversial. (Colorful media reports of other effects like 'displaced eyeballs' are dubious, but persistent.). The U.S. Marine Corps, for instance, took exception to my Defense Tech piece about their new thermobaric SMAW-NE, a handy, hand-held device capable of leveling buildings. An article posted shortly afterwards in Marine Corps News insists that the SMAW-NE is not 'brutal' - a term that came from a Human Right Watch report - and that it is not an incendiary weapon. (You may remember the rumpus over reports of white phosphorus being used as a weapon in Fallujah "Lethality... is caused primarily by its concussion with secondary effects from flying debris from the target area," the article claims.This does not quite agree with the analysis by Dr. Anna E Wildegger-Gaissmaier, who concludes that "the primary injury mechanisms are blast and heat," but this is typical of the debate that surrounds these weapons.The controversy does not seem to have slowed down procurement, and the Marines are first in line. One of their latest purchases is the South African M-32 Multiple shot Grenade Launcher the USMC are buying 9,000 of them. The weapon gets an endorsement here
I thought it was pretty bad the first time I saw it, said Cpl. Jason H. Flanery, a 23-year-old mortarman from St. Louis, Mo., assigned to RCT-5s Personnel Security Detachment. You can put six rounds on target in under three seconds, Flanery said. I thought this thing was sick.And here's video of an earlier version in action - if it looks familiar, you probably because you saw it in the movie Predator. One of the big selling points appears to be the Direct Range Air-Consuming Ordnance (DRACO) Grenade, a thermobaric round of supposedly radical destructive power "when you absolutely, positively need to eliminate the enemy," Milcor says. (A full run-down on the M-32 by Military.com is here)The M-32 comes on top of the 40mm thermobaric grenade America already owns -- the XM1060, which was "developed and fielded in record time" for use in Afghanistan, where its powerful blast proved very effective.
An e-mail from Maj. Gen. John Vines, commanding general, Combined Joint Task Force 180, made it all worthwhile."We love it," he wrote. "We want more! The rounds work wonderfully in caves; they are quite effective. We want a boatload."As with the SMAW-NE, the new thermobaric grenade has received very little publicity in spite of its effectiveness. (The Russians also sell a multi-shot grenade launcher with thermobaric rounds for urban combat.)Meanwhile, the British government is spending almost $70 million on a new Anti Structures Munition from Dynamit Nobel Defence. It'll have a very similar capability to the SMAW-NE and Russian Shmel. But, British sensitivities being what they are, this will not be thermobaric:
There are no thermobaric weapons in service with the British Army and we have no plans to procure any.. However, in view of the threat such weapons pose to our own forces (particularly when fighting in built-up areas or in caves), we are examining with industry the scope for technological advances in the area of enhanced blast explosives.An Anti Structures Munition programme, based on enhanced blast explosives technology, has been established, which seeks to offer a precision capability designed to minimise casualties, and will be fully in accordance with our obligations under international humanitarian law.There are more thermobarics out there, including a weapon by Swiss makers RUAG, but the distinction between enhanced blast and thermobaric is a fine one, and as Armada magazine puts it
Because of the amplifying effect of the scandal press, very few warhead manufacturers will admit that they are, or have been, looking into thermobaric techniques.And the debate about who is using what and whether it's thermobaric is set to continue.-- David Hambling