unique and destructive, thermobaric weapons, a new instrument of Russian military propaganda

In a second, with a disconcerting noise, the great mushrooms of fire sowed death and desolation. fear of the Ukrainian forces, the TOS-1A Solntsepek (“sunshine” in French) systems are considered by Moscow to be the country’s most powerful non-nuclear weapon. Almost five months after the first testimonies about them, they are still used in Ukraine, as franceinfo can see from the video documents.

At the end of June, Moscow for the first time recognized their use in the conflict. The Russian Ministry of Defense then broadcast a video with Hollywood accents *, to ensure the promotion of a frontal armament that is impossible. “take shelter”. This system consisting of a chassis and a launcher is presented from every angle, like a state-of-the-art sedan. With overlays of images of strikes filmed by drones.

A TOS-1A heavy flamethrower system, in a video released on June 24, 2022 by the Russian Defense Ministry.  (RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY)

The principle is terrible. The first load of these 220 mm missiles “evaporates into a highly flammable gas”, explained to franceinfo Stéphane Audrand, consultant specializing in weapons. A millisecond later, a second charge ignited the thermobaric mixture. Temperatures can reach 3,000 degrees and ambient oxygen is depleted “in a split second”which leads to “an event of massive overpressure”. Air is first sucked in, creating a vacuum effect (negative pressure), before being released in a breath of fire that penetrates everywhere (positive pressure).

“There’s no protection. The overpressure seeps into every nook and cranny and cooks the enemies in a pressure cooker. It’s terrifying.”

Stéphane Audrand, consultant specializing in military armament

at franceinfo

These weapons are sometimes incorrectly called “vacuum bombs”. Although their “The fatal effect is not only caused by lack of oxygen but by pulmonary barotrauma” due to the pressure differential, explains the special journal Defense Technology (in English). This cocktail of fire and shock waves did not stand a chance on the target troops, even if they were hiding in shelters.

The video from the Russian Ministry of Defense did not surprise many people, because the use of TOS-1As has been known for a long time. The Zvezda television channel, which depends on the Ministry of Defense, has already mentioned, at the beginning of March *, the achievements of the arms of a Russian sergeant, author. “from accurate shot of TOS-1A” In the region of Chernihiv, north of kyiv. Two weeks later, the press service of the militiamen in Donetsk produced a long video* to demonstrate its extraordinary power. At the end of April, the pro-Kremlin Anna agency also broadcast a report* closest to these weapons.

Excerpt from a video broadcast on March 20, 2022 by militiamen in Donetsk (east Ukraine), presenting a TOS-1A system.  (MEDIA SERVICE OF THE MILITIA OF THE SELF-PROCLAIMED REPUBLIC OF DONETSK)

What are these weapons for? To understand this, franceinfo collected a lot of video documents, and was able to establish the geographical correspondence for about twenty images: in the region of Kharkhiv (North-East), near Kherson (South), and especially on the Donbass front. (East).

At the end of June and beginning of July, for example, many pro-Russian accounts claimed that TOS-1As were activated during the offensive carried out in the Luhansk region, to control the city of Lysychansk. The targets were located on the southern axis of this important city, which was finally lost on July 3 in Ukraine.

Geolocation of three videos that allegedly show a thermobaric strike near Lyssytchansk (east Ukraine), at the end of June.  (FRANCEINFO)

The technique is basically: “If the Russian army stumbles somewhere, it will be wiped outcommented Stéphane Audrand. It is effective in neutralizing enemy infantry in a limited space.” Russia “gives thethe use of TOS-1A by ground troops, within the framework of mechanized maneuvers to accompany the infantry”the weapons specialist continued.

After the capture of Lyssytchansk, the Kremlin-led offensive now continues towards the West, with the main city of Sloviansk as its objective. Aleksander Kots, one of Russia’s most famous war correspondents, recently shared new footage of an alleged TOS-1A strike. Franceinfo found these images in a forest between Lyssytchansk and Siviersk, on the new axis of Russian advance. Again, to support the troops.

A Russian military correspondent published a video showing a bombardment in the forest, where geolocation data places it between Lyssytchansk and Siviersk.  (FRANCEINFO)

Used at the front, these thermobaric weapons are also often promoted on television by the regime’s propagandists, who emphasize their destructive aspect to mark public opinion. In early June, the presenter Olga Skabeeva dedicated an entire sequence to them in her program “60 Minutes” on the state channel Rossiya 1. With emphasis and seriousness, she praised the merits of an armament “capable of firing 24 missiles in seconds” and destroy “an area of ​​4 square km”. On the set, a screen simultaneously revealed images of a crouching soldier, then a flood of fire.

Olga Skabeeva presented a series dedicated to thermobaric weapons in her show

Four years ago, the newspaper Lenta in Moscow was enthusiastic* about it “Deadly Demon Weapon”. The war in Ukraine has revived passionate comments on social networks, especially on “pro-Z” Telegram accounts. The latter snarled videos that supposedly present thermobaric strikes, these images are sometimes difficult to authenticate, due to the lack of field investigation.

The war in Ukraine thus offers an ideal display for the promotion and marketing of these weapons, the management of which is reserved for special units in charge of radioactive, chemical and biological protection (RKhBZ). Belarus should soon end the purchase of these TOS-1A systems from Russia, according to the Military-Political Review*, close to the government, and the Gayoun* collective, which specializes in military operations. Armenia, Syria, Algeria, Saudi Arabia … The TOS-1A is already one of the top five Russian land arms sales abroad, said the state agency Rosoboronexport, which is responsible for arms exports to Russia. (in English)after a demonstration in 2020.

“The TOS-1A heavy flamethrower system is unique in the world arms market. It is not produced anywhere but Russia.”

Alexander Mikheev, General Manager of Rosoboronexport

in July 2020, during a demonstration with foreign customers

The new TOS-2 “Tosochka” has been deployed near Kharkhiv, according to the Russian agency Tass (in English). It took the torch of this “thermobaric tradition” started in the 1980s in Afghanistan, with the TOS-1 “Bouratino” (“Pinocchio”, in French) and its thirty tubes.

TOS-1 says

Future sales are guaranteed, especially since there is no international text banning these weapons. However, the third protocol of the Geneva Conventions prohibits its use in areas where civilians are likely to be present. Their use must also respect the principle of “proportionality” in relation to the expected benefit, and not cause excessive suffering to enemy combatants. “There are some objective conditions that justify their demandexplained Stéphane Audrand, like the destruction of an arms depot that is difficult to access”. Are these norms respected in Ukraine?

“If you destroy a village without making sure there are no civilians there, there is a high possibility of a war crime or a violation of international law.”

Stéphane Audrand, consultant specializing in military armament

at franceinfo

To date, two preliminary investigations have been opened for possible crimes related to the use of thermobaric weapons in Russia, franceinfo has learned from the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office. The first is related to the Russian offensive carried out from March 23 to 26 in the villages of Mala Rohan and Vilkhivka (Kharkhiv region) where a 13-year-old girl died in hospital from her injuries. The second was triggered after a strike in the village of Novi Petrivtsi, near Kyiv. “Debris of a thermobaric projectile collected” and the type of launcher is identified.

* All of these links refer to content in the Russian language

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