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[] DW 19.08.02: Marines Seeking Shoulder-Fired Thermobaric Arms,

Defense Week
August 19, 2002
Pg. 1

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 
132 crewmen.

"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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