Artillery types

Terrifying TOS-1A thermobaric artillery strike recorded in Ukraine

Videos have surfaced showing the terrifying detonation of what are likely Russian TOS-1A Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) shells during an attack in Ukraine. The clips may be some of the earliest recorded footage of the TOS-1A Solntsepek, or Sunshine, hitting Ukrainian positions.

The explosions reportedly occurred near Novomykhailivka and Lyman, both in the Donetsk region of Donbass. In the footage, the massive shock waves caused by the thermobaric shells are clearly visible, with multiple explosions occurring simultaneously during the attack. The phenomenon you observe, which thermobaric weapons are particularly likely to produce, is called a condensation cloud or Wilson cloud. A large enough explosion in high humidity conditions like the ones we seem to see in the video will cause the air around it to drop in density, which in turn temporarily cools the air and causes a part of the water vapor it contains. This creates the eerie bubble-like clouds seen in the clip.

The TOS-1A system is a variant of the TOS-1 that dates back to the end of the Cold War. The TOS-1A entered service in 2001 with improved range and an improved ballistic computer, among other improvements. First used by the Russian military in Chechnya, the complete system is mounted on a modified T-72 tank chassis and was originally designed for indirect fire support of advancing infantry units and main battle tanks. The vehicle is equipped with a rotary launch system capable of holding up to 24 unguided thermobaric rockets, which can be launched in 6 to 12 seconds. You can find a more detailed description of TOS-1A and its history in a past war zone part by clicking here.

TOS-1A rockets use thermobaric or air-fuel explosive warheads. These use the surrounding oxygen to create a high temperature explosion. Devastating weapons, also sometimes called “vacuum bombs”, include a fuel container with two separate explosive charges.

A Russian 30-barrel TOS-1 multiple rocket launcher based on a T-72 tank chassis. Wikimedia Commons

Once the target is hit, the first explosive charge causes the fuel tank to open and disperse a fuel cloud, and the second charge ignites the incendiary fuel cloud, resulting in the fiery explosion and a vacuum of subsequent oxygen aspiration. The detonation of rockets causes such a rapid and drastic change in atmospheric pressure that taking shelter in a trench or cave, behind a reinforced barrier or, in some cases, even inside an armored vehicle would not protect a human.

As mentioned in The war zoneThe feature linked above, “The main effect… [created by the TOS-1’s rockets] is a long-lasting high-pressure shock wave that creates a vacuum – then precipitates a reverse wave,” according to the 2011 edition of the unclassified World Equipment Guide (WEG) of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). “These pressure/vacuum surges (up to 427 pounds per square inch) cause a tearing effect on soft materials (such as aircraft skin, radar surface, human lung tissue). Walls and surfaces in the affected area do not necessarily protect victims, but rather cause multiple pressure waves, which amplify tearing effects and can topple structures.

“A side effect is high temperature heat – 2,500-3,000°C. An incomplete explosion produces an almost devastating effect, a long-lasting high-temperature flame over a large area,” he continues. “Even those outside the blast zone will be rendered ineffective by debilitating mental and physical trauma.”

The reason Russia would need to employ such a destructive weapon could be because the TOS-1A is generally portrayed as being useful in rooting out entrenched forces. There have been reports of Ukrainian units using structures and trench lines in their defense in the Donbass region, so a weapon like this could prove essential in breaking through such hardened defenses.

However, multiple allegations have emerged as a result of this recent development that consider Russia’s use of the TOS-1A a war crime, but there are no specific international laws that prohibit the use of these rockets in general combat. The politics behind the system’s employment, however, begin to become murky if used in a targeted manner against established civilian populations. If the ethics of this attack were to be called into question later, it would not necessarily be the nature of the weapon that would be in question, but its use.

Russian TOS-1 multiple rocket launcher during the May 2010 parade in Moscow. Wikimedia Commons

Ukrainian groups captured a number of TOS-1As throughout the conflict with Russia, as well as some of the system’s dedicated reload vehicles. But, as recent videos demonstrate, the TOS-1A remains in Russian hands and in significant numbers.

This footage acts as a chilling reminder of what TOS-1A is capable of: creating extreme heat and pressure that can cause incredible damage to nearby humans.

Contact the author: [email protected]