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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Inside the Navy August 26, 2002


By Malina Brown

Naval researchers are developing a portable version of the thermobaric bombs employed to clear caves and bunkers in Afghanistan for the Marine Corps to use in urban combat.

Thermobaric weapons are fuel-rich explosives that suck air from its target, creating a lethal combination of heat and pressure that burns longer than conventional explosives. The weapons are effective on hardened, underground facilities, which are among the most difficult targets to eliminate.

Scientists and engineers at Indian Head, MD-based Naval Surface Warfare Center are fabricating a thermobaric warhead that can operate with the shoulder-mounted multipurpose assault weapon. According to a statement from Naval Sea Systems Command, the Marines were so impressed with the success of thermobaric weapons used in Operation Enduring Freedom that they approached the Indian Head researchers and requested a shoulder-mounted version of their own.

The Marines expect to receive the shoulder-mounted thermobaric arms in the near term, according to Maj. Thomas Bowers, the infantry requirements officer in the materials division at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command. In "definitely less than a year" the warheads should be in the hands of some Marines, though it is not slated to go out to every unit, Bowers told Inside the Navy last week.

Thermobaric weapons were rushed into service to destroy the underground targets in the war in Afghanistan. In October, the Pentagon accelerated numerous advanced concept technology demonstrations, including a concept designed by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and NSWC that led to the thermobaric warhead. After a rapid two-month development period, the resulting BLU-118B was proven ready for war when it performed successfully in a Dec. 14 test against a mock tunnel.

The BLU-118B, integrated into a laser-guided missile launched from an F-15 aircraft, was subsequently used in air strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban targets in Afghanistan.

To develop the shoulder-mounted warhead, Indian Head researchers formed a team with NSWC Dahlgren and private industry. The project recently concluded phase one, which included integrating the PBXIH-135 explosive into a shoulder-mounted warhead, redesigning the fuse interfaces, as well as booster and warhead case design.

Phase two will involve completing safety certification and initial weapons production.

The most obvious advantage of the shoulder-mounted version of the thermobaric weapon is its increased potential for accuracy, given that they are launched from a closer range. Man-portable warheads can be used with "greater precision than air-dropped munitions and can provide immediate direct support on the battlefield," according to John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington, DC-based defense policy group.

Pike added that the Marines, which already have several different shoulder-mounted assault weapons, could use this warhead to provide additional "specialized anti-emplacement capabilities."

Aside from using the warheads in such confined spaces as caves, tunnels and bunkers, the Marines plan to use the thermobaric weapons on urban structures, including buildings and sewers, said Bowers. Thermobaric warheads "tend to have more enhanced blast effects," said Bowers, leading to the blast of multiple rooms from one explosion, a decisive advantage over conventional weapons.

While the warhead is being developed particularly for the Marines, Pike said the Army "will almost certainly want to evaluate something like this, assuming that it proves feasible and effective."

Furthermore, the Pentagon is looking into other potential applications for the warhead, including use against chemical and biological weapons sites. Conventional explosives are considered problematic against chem-bio agents because they can inadvertently spread the same dangerous agents the attack is intended to destroy. Thermobaric weapons, on the other hand, could avoid this threat by incinerating the deadly agents on impact.

Despite its tactical advantages, the thermobaric weapons program is not without controversy. There is concern that in making these warheads more portable, they will also be more accessible to terrorists who could obtain the warhead for use against the United States.

Moreover, a similar weapon employed by the Russians during battles in Chechnya resulted in the unintentional deaths of many civilians. Thermobaric weapons have been reported as causing crushing injuries such as concussions, collapsed lungs, internal hemorrhaging and eardrum ruptures. The warhead has "caught the public's imagination," Pike said, leading many to call it inhumane.

"As it stands, these thermobaric weapons have generated a fair amount of public misunderstanding, and have been made out to be a peculiarly horrible means of killing people," Pike told ITN last week. "If it turned out that in practice the primary effect was indeed incendiary, there might be some problems under the international laws of armed conflict."

Flamethrowers and incendiary grenades are currently illegal under the Geneva Conventions when used on civilians, civilian property or on military targets near civilian populations.

Bowers dismissed the comparison of thermobaric arms to flame weapons, saying the media has misrepresented the weapon.

It is "not a fuel-air explosive," he said, which works by igniting a volatile fuel or explosive powder.

Even without controversy, the Marine Corps is not necessarily committed to using thermobaric weapons in the future, said Bowers. The shoulder-mounted thermobaric warhead was a short-term approach to address a November 2001 "urgent universal needs statement," Bowers explained, which required an immediate means to deal with confined spaces, such as those found in Afghanistan. While they had existing munitions that could clear such spaces, Bowers said they "wanted one that could do it better."

As for a long-term solution, Bowers said the Marines are not fixed on thermobaric weapons or even a SMAW warhead. The Marines want to "open up the playing field" and "look at the world beyond thermobaric weapons at whatever types of systems would give the best clearing capability," said Bowers.

Therefore, while the Marines' short-term solution was to have thermobaric weapons "on the shelf," said Bowers, the Marines are definitely "not tied to thermobarics" in the future.

Copyright 2002 Inside the Navy