The Russian Military Loves Its Thermobaric Rocket Tanks

Four new TOS-1A units in a year


In December, Russia created a new heavy weapons regiment based in Nizhniy Novgorod. The regiment has both “TOS-1A Solntsepek flamethrowers and the Shmel-M infantry flamethrowers,” according the Interfax news agency.

The Russian media often refers to the TOS-1A and Shmel-M as flamethrowers, but the term is a bit of a misnomer in English. This hardware has little in common with those rare, flame-spewing weapons.

Instead, these are thermobaric launchers which propel a fuel-air round.

The round disperses a flammable cloud, which then ignites. The main targets are bunkers, caves and buildings—pretty much any enclosed space. These mixtures can burn, but they mainly kill through blast pressure and sucking out the oxygen from confined areas.

In 2014, the Kremlin announced three other new thermobaric units—one based in Volgograd Oblast and another in Ingushetia, according to the military news site VPK. The third unit formed in Sevastopol after the Russian invasion of Crimea.

In total, that makes four new “flamethrower” units created in a year.

The Shmel-M is a shoulder-launched thermobaric weapon. The TOS-1A is a multiple-rocket launcher mounted on a T-72 tank chassis. It can fire 24 220-millimeter rockets each packing a 100-kilogram warhead. The rockets’ range is about six kilometers.

It’s a ludicrously destructive—although comparatively short-range—piece of artillery … and it just looks mean.

But here’s another unusual fact. The regiments in Nizhniy Novgorod, Volgograd, Crimea and Ingushetia are nuclear, chemical and biological defense units. Besides rocket launchers, they have mobile laboratories and specialized vehicles for sniffing out and sanitizing contaminated areas.

Above—Russian TOS-1A in 2010. Wikimedia photo. At top—TOS-1As launch rockets in 2010. Vitaly Kuzkmin/Wikimedia photo

This makes sense, if you think about it. The TOS-1A first appeared in 1988 and saw action in Afghanistan. In the event of a major war with NATO, the TOS-1s would smash prepared defenses, allowing Soviet tank columns to blitz into the enemy’s rear.

The Soviets anticipated operating in a radiation-contaminated environment, hence pairing thermobaric weapons with NBC units.

“From a Russian military perspective, flamethrowers are seen not as weapons simply to be handed out to the rank-and-file for any ad-hoc use, but instead as a mature weapon system that filled specific capability gaps in the Russian Armed Forces force structure,” noted OE Watch, the U.S. Army Foreign Military Studies Office’s monthly newsletter.

OE Watch interpreted Russia’s expansion of thermobaric units as a sign the Kremlin is preparing for urban warfare in the future.

“As Russia experiments with new forms and methods of war, or ‘hybrid war’ as defined in the West, in Eastern Ukraine, urban warfare will likely continue to be a high priority for development, and so will Russia’s flame-wielding NBC defense troops.”

The TOS-1A is also cleared for export. To help push back against Islamic State, Russia flew several TOS-1A to Iraq last July. Videos later circulated online showing Iraqi troops firing the Solntsepeks.

But it’s unclear if these were just exercises or involved shelling Islamic State. But the Iraqis certainly could, and there’s little the jihadi group could do about it.

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