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[infowar.de] DW 19.08.02: Marines Seeking Shoulder-Fired Thermobaric Arms
August 19, 2002
Marines Seeking Shoulder-Fired Thermobaric Arms
By Nathan Hodge
Navy researchers at a laboratory in southern Maryland are developing a
shoulder-mounted thermobaric weapon for use by the Marine Corps in urban
combat, the Navy says.
If successful, their effort will yield a small, portable version of the
powerful thermobaric bombs that were used for clearing caves and bunkers in
Thermobaric weapons?imprecisely described as "fuel-air explosives" or
"vacuum bombs"?have a single extended detonation that consumes oxygen,
creating a scorching blast and lethal pressure. Real fuel-air bombs, by
contrast, work in two stages: first by dispersing an aerosol cloud of fuel
or finely grained explosive powder over an area; then by igniting it to
produce a devastating vapor-cloud explosion.
Researchers at the Naval Surface Weapons Center in Indian Head, Md., have
developed an explosive fill called PBXIH-35 that creates the same,
sustained explosion as a fuel-air bomb. The Marines now want to package it
in a portable warhead.
In urban warfare, adversaries can hide inside bunkers and fortified strong
points that are hard to destroy with conventional munitions. A fuel-air
explosive would sear the inside of a bunker?killing its occupants with a
high-pressure wave that would, quite literally, suck the air out of their
Such a weapons program could prove controversial. Thermobaric weapons cause
crushing injuries such as concussions, collapsed lungs, internal hemorrhage
and eardrum ruptures. These weapons were a public-relations liability for
Russians when they employed their own versions in Chechnya.
Feasibility is another issue. Before the shoulder-mounted thermobaric
weapon can be fielded, naval researchers need to ensure that the explosive
fill can be reliably delivered in a package the size of a rocket-propelled
Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) has already made the program public via
their news service. However, Marine Corps Systems Command, which is
sponsoring the program, declined to answer questions about it.
Rushed to the field
Thermobaric explosives were rushed to the field earlier this year for
Operation Enduring Freedom. The weapons debuted after the Pentagon last
October accelerated several Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrations in
an effort to find weapons that could be used against hardened underground
Researchers at Indian Head developed a thermobaric bomb, the BLU-118/B,
that was packed with PBXIH-135. The BLU-118/B, integrated into a
laser-guided missile launched from an F-15, was subsequently used in air
strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban targets in Afghanistan.
Impressed by the success of the bombs, the Marines asked researchers at
Indian Head for their help developing a thermobaric warhead that could be
launched from the Shoulder Mounted Multi-Purpose Assault Weapon, an
anti-armor rocket launcher used by the Marines, NAVSEA said.
According to the NAVSEA news release, the Marines "realized a need for a
shoulder-mounted thermobaric warhead with penetration capability to defeat
a wide variety of targets in urban environments."
The project recently completed phase one: packaging the PBXIH-135 explosive
fill inside a shoulder-mounted warhead. Work included redesigning the fuse
to improve detonation and enclosing the warhead in a larger casing to
increase the amount of explosive fill.
In phase two, the weapon will undergo certification to ensure that it can
be safely employed. A similar certificate had to be issued before the
BLU-118/B could be mounted on an aircraft in Afghanistan.
In the Gulf War, Marines dropped CBU-72 fuel-air bombs on minefields and
Iraqi entrenchments. In December, the Marines told Defense Week that they
had "demilitarized" their inventory of fuel-air weapons; other services
reported that they, too, had none.
However, the Marines continued to study their use. An article in the Aug.
2000 issue of Marine Corps Gazette was devoted to the Russians' use of
thermobaric weapons in Chechnya.
The authors of the article, Lester Grau and Timothy Smith, found that
fuel-air weapons?including the TOS-1 Buratino, a multiple-rocket launcher
and the RPO-A Shmel' ("Bumblebee"), a shoulder-fired thermobaric
warhead?played a pivotal role in Russia's effort to recapture the Chechen
capital, Grozny, in late 1999 and early 2000.
Such weapons "can have the effect of a tactical nuclear weapon without
residual radiation," wrote Grau and Smith.
In addition to combining fuel-air bombs with massive artillery bombardment,
the Russians found the Shmel' very effective in clearing bunkers. The
Marines' new thermobaric weapon could be the equivalent of the Shmel'.
However, the Russian use of fuel-air weapons-along with their
indiscriminate use against civilians?prompted widespread protest. Human
Rights Watch, an advocacy group, sent a protest to the Russian government.
In opinion pieces, former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew
Brzezinski inveighed against their use in Chechnya.
The Pentagon prefers to call the new PBXIH-135 explosive "thermobaric."
While the difference seems largely semantic?the explosion is as damaging as
the one produced by an aerosolized fuel?it may spare the United States some
of the ugly associations of the Russian use of "fuel-air" bombs.
No overnight success
In fact, research into thermobaric weapons looks set to continue. The
Pentagon is looking for other applications for the weapon?including its use
against chemical and biological agents.
Edward Liszka, director of the Applied Research Laboratory at Penn State
University, recently told attendees at an industry conference that
development of the BLU-118/B was part of a multi-agency effort led by the
Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which is responsible for dealing with
threats from weapons of mass destruction.
Development of the thermobaric warhead fill, he said, "wasn't an overnight
success. What led up to it is not well appreciated."
According to Liszka, it was based on about 30 years of research that
started in the late 1960s as part of an investigation into an explosion and
fire aboard the carrier USS Forrestal (CVA 59) that claimed the lives of
"ONR [the Office of Naval Research] at that time began a very long range
program to get a better understanding of the fundamentals of the chemical
bonds in energetic materials, both for fuels and for warheads, leading to
very ground-breaking research, including Nobel prizes," said Liszka. "And
so the overnight success was based on that."
The next step in the development of fuel air weapons, said Liszka, " is
looking at an agent-defeat warhead?one that if you were to bomb a target
that had chemical/biological agents, then you wouldn't want to just blow
them up, you would want to incinerate them or destroy them."
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