(Published IndraStra Global 12 Sep 2017)
“These are fuel-air explosives, designed to generate intense blast pressure over a large area. It is reported that the Russian bomb is a so-called thermobaric bomb that produces both blast and heat. The Russian military has been a pioneer in the development and use of these thermobaric weapons. This would have to be one of the largest deliverable, droppable bombs in military history[i].”
It is understood that Russia has deployed the Father of all Bombs, the FOAB, on 07 Sep 2017 at Deir ez-Zor in Syria killing several ISIS leaders[ii]. Deir ez-Zor is located 450 km northeast of Damascus on the banks of the Euphrates River. It is the largest city in eastern Syria. It is reported that thousands of ISIS terrorists had moved to Deir ez-Zor area as a result of the advances made by the Syrian Arab Army[iii].
The technical name of the FOAB is The Aviation Thermobaric Bomb of Increased Power (ATBIP). It is supposed that the Russians dropped the FOAB using the Tu-160 (NATO designation Blackjack) which is considered to be the largest operational bomber in the world. It can carry out low-level penetration at transonic speeds as well as high-level penetration at ~Mach 2 [iv].Tu-160 can carry 12 Kh-55 and up to 24 Kh-15 nuclear capable missiles. It can also be used to deploy up to 40 t of bombs.
The US had dropped its Mother of All Bombs, MOAB or the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, on 13th April 2017 on the tunnel complexes in Achin district, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan[v].
Thermobaric weapons have been designed to overcome the short comings of conventional weapons when used against fortified structures/buildings. The blast wave generated by thermobaric weapons are not designed for penetration and it is effective in causing blast damage in a large radius. Fuels are chosen on the basis of the exothermicity of their oxidation, ranging from powdered metals, such as aluminium or magnesium, to organic materials, possibly with a self-contained partial oxidant. During detonation of a high explosive bomb, rapid formation of a blast wave, thermal radiation, break-up of the munition casing, and acceleration of the fragments takes place. In the case of conventional blast/fragmentation warheads, a large part of the energy is consumed by the breaking-up of the shell and acceleration of the fragments. In a thermobaric bomb, the high pressure blast pulse and the low pressure pulse are enhanced by addition of various oxygen rich chemicals and fuels. This results in much larger combustion zones and pressure pulse of much longer duration which debilitates the target effectively[vi]. Thermobaric weapons have thin casings and maximum energy is released in a couple of microseconds as a blast/shock wave. In the initial detonation only a small part of energy gets released, the products of detonation thereafter suck oxygen from the air and burn in what is termed as after-burning[vii]. This increases the blast pressure wave as well as the fire envelope.
Guidance of Air to Surface Bombs
Air to surface bombs today have either laser guidance kits or Global Positioning System, GPS guidance kits. The laser guided bombs were found to be difficult to deploy in bad weather/visibility conditions or when the targets could not be safely illuminated by the designator, and this led to the preference for GPS guided munitions. Munitions with integrated Inertial Navigation System, INS coupled to a GPS receiver like the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) of Boeing are all weather deployable. The GPS/INS coupled with a tail control system provide the guidance. The Aircraft provides the initializing position and velocity, the target coordinates are also fed/updated by the aircraft through a data link. With GPS, the bomb gives a circular error probable (CEP) of five meters and without the GPS (signal lost/not available/jammed) for flight times up to 100 seconds the CEP is 30 meters. Thus, the GPS/INS kits have enabled the bombs to have the following advantages[viii]:
- Deployable in all weather conditions.
- Fire and forget capability, the aircraft can proceed to its next task after launch.
- Enhanced Launch Acceptance Region or LAR because these kits enable the weapon to adjust the flight trajectory at the time of launch to hit the target.
- GPS provides an accurate common time code for all systems.
- Flight trajectory can be programmed to hit the target at desired angle of impact.
As a further improvement Laser JDAM is now operational which has an add on laser kit in addition to the GPS/INS to take care of manoeuvring targets and midcourse alterations. A new wing kit (extended range- ER) can also be added to extend the range of the bomb up to 38 nm.
The MOAB – ‘Mother of All Bombs’
A bit about the MOAB of the US. The GBU-43/B (MOAB) is a large, powerful and accurately delivered conventional bomb. It has KMU-593/B GPS-guidance with fins and inertial gyro for pitch and roll control. The KMU-593/B kits have been further upgraded with SAASM (Selective Availability/Anti-Spoofing Module) technology in the GPS receivers. In a further improvement, the KMU-xxx/C kits are additionally fitted with Anti-Jam technology. The MOAB is a satellite guided improved version of the 15000-pound BLU-82 Daisy Cutter bomb. It is 30 feet in length with a diameter of 40.5 inches. The warhead is a BLU 120-B aluminium casing weighing 3000 pounds with an explosive weight of 18,700 pounds. The warhead is designed for blast effect. It was designed to be delivered by a C-130 and originally used the explosive Tritonal, a mixture of 80% Tri nitro toluene, TNT and 20% aluminium powder. It was first tested in March 2003 at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, when it produced a mushroom cloud that could be seen up to 20 miles away[ix]. The current explosive filling is 18,700 pounds of H6. H6 is a type of HBX explosive composition, which is a cast able military explosive mixture composed of 44.0% RDX (Cyclotrimethylene trinitramine), 29.5% TNT and 21.0% powdered aluminium by weight. The MOAB delivers a massive explosive blast (over pressure), with lesser fragmentation effects due to a thin-walled aluminium casing. MOAB is a good choice against caves and earthen tunnels since the pressure waves on entering the complex can severely injure personnel and collapse the structures. The MOAB provides a capability to perform psychological operations, attack large area targets, or hold at-risk threats hidden within tunnels or caves. It is not designed for deep penetration and is an area impact weapon.
The MOAB is cradle launched from C-130 Hercules or MC-130 Talon II aircraft by means of a drogue extraction parachute. [x] Thereafter, the MOAB is guided for approximately 3 nautical miles through a GPS system (with inertial gyros for pitch and roll control), JDAM actuators, and is stabilized by series of fixed wings and grid fins. The MOAB does not use a retarding parachute, thus permitting the aircraft to fly at higher altitudes, and making it safer for US pilots.
FOAB vs MOAB
The details about the FOAB are at best sketchy. Similar to other Thermobaric weapons it probably utilises a high explosive filler boosted with a mixture of aluminium powder and ethylene oxide for the high-intensity blast and associated shockwave[xi]. Some reports speculate that a new Nano-energetic material is utilised currently which results in supersonic velocity “shock front” and higher temperatures. A high explosive burster is likely to be surrounded by a liquid fuel mixture of ethylene oxide and Nano-aluminium [xii],[xiii]. It is supposed that nanofiltration techniques have been used to refine the fuel mixture to achieve very high purity levels which in turn have resulted in a much higher TNT equivalent yield. This has also provided a higher destructive area and temperature[xiv].Thus it would be appropriate to classify FOAB as a thermobaric bomb with fuel air explosive.
A comparison of MOAB and FOAB as sourced from Wikipedia is shown below :-
Bomb MОАВ FОАВ
Mass: 10.3 tonnes 7.1 tonnes
TNT equivalent: 11 tons (22,000 lb) ≈44 tons (≈88,000 lb)
Blast radius: 150 meters (492 ft) 300 meters (984 ft)
Guidance: INS/GPS GLONASS
Many times, the destructive capacity of both the bombs is compared with that of the nuclear bombs, however neither of the bombs come anywhere near the yield of the nuclear bombs. They lie at the lowest end of the Tactical nuclear bombs as far as TNT equivalent yield is concerned. What unambiguously differentiates them from a nuclear bomb are the latent effects of the deployment. The radiation effects of atomic/nuclear weapons last across generations in humans and require decades for remediation of the environment.
Recent Developments in Thermobaric Bombs
The research in the area of new explosive material is classified and only some idea can be gathered from patents which are filed. Nano energetic materials and techniques are being increasingly used in the manufacture of explosive mixtures and supporting constituents. For instance, US Patent 8,250,986 B1 talks of ‘Wrapping a high explosive core with an energetically and physically dense reactive material in a pressure vessel. The ‘reactive material’ is triggered prior to detonation of the high explosive. The triggering of the ‘reactive material’ prior to detonation of the explosive charge allows the slower reacting surround to completely release its stored chemical energy. Subsequent detonation of the explosive will rupture the pressure vessel and disperse the super-heated reactive material in a multi-phase flow field. The reaction products of the ‘reactive material’ surround will interact with the blast wind and will also after burn when exposed to additional ambient oxygen creating a significant enhancement in impulse. ‘Reactive material’ is any of the new class of thermite-like pyrotechnic compositions of two or more nonexplosive solid materials, which stay inert and do not react with each other until subjected to a strong mechanical stimulus, after which they undergo fast burning or explosion with release of high amount of chemical energy in addition to their kinetic energy. Mixtures that are potentially suitable include one or more finely powdered (down to nanoparticle size) metalloids or metals like aluminium, magnesium, zirconium, titanium, tungsten, tantalum, or hafnium, with one or more oxidizers like Teflon or other fluoropolymer, compacted to a high-density mass. To achieve a suitable reaction rate and insensitivity to impact, friction, and electrostatic discharge, fuel particles have sizes usually between 1-250 pm. One such composition is aluminium-Teflon (Al-PTFE). [xv]’
“All that is alive merely evaporates, [xvi].”
Alexander Rukshin, 2007.
A Facebook post by the Russian Defence Ministry stated, “As a result of a precision air strike of the Russian air forces in the vicinity of Deir ez-Zor city, a command post, communication centre and some 40 ISIS fighters have been killed [xvii].” Those killed are said to include important leaders of ISIS like Gulmurod Khalimov, their Minister of War and Abu-Muhammad al-Shimali.
In the coming days if it is conclusively proved that FOAB was indeed deployed, it would imply that it is no longer in the realm of speculation. The MOAB and the FOAB would both be battle ready to be used against rogue states or organisations which threaten international peace. They both present a far better choice than the nuclear or the tactical nuclear weapon option.
[i] Joris Nieuwint. Russia’s Father Of All Bombs: “All That Is Alive Merely Evaporates”. War History Online,17 Nov 2015. https://www.warhistoryonline.com/war-articles/russias-father-of-all-bombs-all-that-is-alive-merely-evaporates.html (Accessed 11 Sep 2017)
[ii] Jane Lavender. Russia drops ‘father of all bombs’ on ISIS. The Mirror,09 Sep 2017. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/russia-drops-father-bombs-isis-11142677 (Accessed 11 Sep 2017)
[iii] Leith Fadel. ISIL mass retreating to Deir Ezzor for epic battle. Al Masdar News, 01 Sep 2017.
[iv] Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack, Long-range strategic bomber. Military Today.com.
[v] U.S. Bombs, Destroys Khorasan Group Stronghold in Afghanistan. U.S. Department of Defense. 13 April 2017. https://www.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/1151139/us-bombs-destroys-khorasan-group-stronghold-in-afghanistan/ (Accessed 11 Sep 2017)
[vi] Kenneth Cross, Ove Dullum etal. Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas: Technical considerations relevant to their use and effects. A report Prepared by Armament Research Services (ARES) for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), May 2016.
[vii] Dr Anna E Wildegger-Gaissmaier. Aspects of thermobaric weaponry. ADF Health Vol 4 April 2003.
http://www.defence.gov.au/health/infocentre/journals/ADFHJ_apr03/ADFHealth_4_1_03-06.pdf (Accessed 11 Sep 2017)
[viii] Attariwala, Joetey. Dumb Bombs with Graduate Degrees, Armada International. 27April 2017.
https://armadainternational.com/2017/04/dumb-bombs-with-graduate-degrees/ (Accessed 11 Sep 2017)
[ix] Mizokami, Kyle. U.S. Air Force Drops the Largest Conventional Bomb Ever Used in Combat.
13Apr 2017.http://www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/news/a26055/us-air-force-drops-moab-isis/ (Accessed 11 Sep 2017)
[x] GBU-43/B “Mother of All Bombs”, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/munitions/moab.htm (Accessed 11 Sep 2017)
[xi] Joseph Trevithick. Rumors Fly That Russia Has Dropped “The Father of All Bombs” in Syria. The War Zone. 7 September, 2017.
[xiii] Father of All Bombs. High Technology Zone, August 17, 2010. http://hightechnologyzone.blogspot.in/2010/08/father-of-all-bombs_17.html(Accessed 11 Sep 2017)
[xiv] Father of All Bombs. Aviation Thermobaric Bomb of Increased Power (ATBIP). Global Security.
[xv] US Patent 8,250,986 B1
[xvi] Joris Nieuwint. Russia’s Father Of All Bombs: “All That Is Alive Merely Evaporate. War History Online,17 Nov 2015. https://www.warhistoryonline.com/war-articles/russias-father-of-all-bombs-all-that-is-alive-merely-evaporates.html(Accessed 10 Sep 2017)
[xvii] Jane Lavender. Russia drops ‘father of all bombs’ on ISIS. The Mirror,09 Sep 2017. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/russia-drops-father-bombs-isis-11142677 (Accessed 11 Sep 2017)