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Wired News March 20, 2003

When a Gun Is More Than a Gun

By Noah Shachtman

PICATINNY ARSENAL, New Jersey -- It is among the most horrific weapons in any army's collection: the thermobaric bomb, a fearsome explosive that sets fire to the air above its target, then sucks the oxygen out of anyone unfortunate enough to have lived through the initial blast.

Last year, the U.S. military used such weapons for the first time in combat, to incinerate suspected underground al-Qaeda hideouts in Afghanistan. In the next few months, the U.S. Army will start putting this sweeping power in the hands of individual soldiers.

"This significantly increases the firepower that can be put in a single person's hands," said Reuben Brigety, an arms researcher at Human Rights Watch. "I'm not aware of any other conventional munitions used by a single person that can have the same destructive power."

Thermobaric grenades and mini-rockets were among dozens of current and future munitions the military demonstrated this week at Picatinny Arsenal, the Army's lone research-and-development center for armaments and ammunition.

According to Picatinny officials, thermobaric ammunition will be tested this spring with the Bunker Defeat rocket launcher -- a shoulder-mounted, disposable system that was first deployed in Afghanistan. It'll also be tried out with the M203, the grenade launcher American grunts have used for decades.

But the Army's ultimate goal is to put these mini-bombs into the XM29, its next-generation rifle. The 33-inch-long weapon is designed to fire two types of rounds: standard bullets and programmable, grenade-like ammunition that explode in the air.

Each of these high-explosive air-bursting rounds comes imbedded with a computer chip, explained Lt. Col. Rob Carpenter, who oversees the XM29 program at Picatinny. These chips allow the soldier to program exactly when and where the ammunition should go off. If there are enemy forces behind a wall 150 feet away, the round can explode at 151 feet, over their heads.

"With the M16 (rifle, the American infantry's longtime standard), it took a considerable amount of ammunition to take out a squad of people," said Patrick Garrett, an analyst with Globalsecurity.org. "With this air-bursting ammunition, the XM29 will be able to put those people on the ground in one shot."

The XM29 -- which won't make it into soldiers' hands until 2006 -- gets even deadlier when thermobaric ammunition is added.

Thermobarics inject a fine, flammable mist into the air, Brigety said. Once ignited, the mist creates a mammoth fireball and pressure wave that's nearly impossible to avoid. The mist can travel around corners and into hidden crannies. And it burns relatively slowly, so jumping out of the way on the bomb's initial impact isn't much of a survival tactic.

Once the fire dies down, the mist sucks all of the oxygen out of the confined space. Those who manage to escape the thermobaric flames and pressure waves quickly expire from asphyxiation.

The fuel that's shot out of a thermobaric weapon is underoxidized, according to Judah Goldwasser, a program officer at the Office of Naval Research. When it mixes with the ambient oxygen in a room, it begins to ignite. It's not hard to imagine why the military used 2,000-pound thermobaric bombs in Afghanistan: They are almost tailor-made for destroying cave-based encampments.

Nor is it difficult to see why soldiers faced with rooting out loyalists to Saddam Hussein in Baghdad would covet a small version of such a weapon. City combat is dangerously unpredictable because any corner could hide an enemy. Soldiers often clear every room of every building they sweep. Thermobaric ammunition can eliminate enemies in several rooms at once.

"For urban warfare (thermobarics) could be very effective," said Andrew Koch, Washington bureau chief of Jane's Defence Weekly. "If you lob a grenade in the entrance of a building, it hits just the people in the entrance. A thermobaric weapon would (go) though the rest of the building."

Koch added, "You might not need to have Marines fighting room to room to room if you have one of these."


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