A TOS-1A captured by the Ukrainians last year.
Via social media
The Russian army deployed to breach the Ukrainian defenses around Vuhledar, a key base in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region at least one its prized TOS-1A thermobaric rocket launcher.
The Ukrainians blew it up. dramatic. A TOS-1A is a 24-pack of 220mm “flamethrower” missiles mounted on a tank chassis. If you hit a TOS-1A, it’s likely to explode in a billowing fireball, scattering flames and missile fragments in all directions.
That is exactly what happened on or before Valentine’s Day, when the Ukrainian Army’s 72nd Mechanized Brigade attacked a TOS-1A outside of Vuhledar. How Ukrainian cameras captured the sky and the floorthe Russian launcher exploded like a gigantic firework display.
The 72nd Mechanized Brigade’s destruction of the TOS-1A may have thwarted another Russian attack on Vuhledar, a town with a pre-war population of just 14,000 located a few miles north of Russian-held Pavlivka, 40 km southwest of Donetsk Donbass region.
Along with Bakhmut and the free cities near Russian-held Kreminna, Vuhledar is one of the main targets of Russia’s ongoing winter offensive. Neither Russian attack makes much headway, but the attack on Vuhledar may be the most disastrous for the Russians.
In just one bloody, chaotic day two weeks ago, the Russians lost 30 or more armored vehicles around Vuhledar. Their losses only deepened in the days that followed. The Russians have deployed at least three brigades around Vuhledar and it appears that two of them – the 40th and 155th Marines Brigades – are on the brink of incapacity.
Ukrainian mines – buried along the main approaches to Vuhledar and also scattered from above by special US-made artillery shells – claimed many of the victims.
But crossing the minefield is not enough for the Russians. On the other side of the mines, the Ukrainians dug earthen walls and built bunkers. If the Russians are acting rationally, it was these fortifications that TOS-1A targeted on or before Valentine’s Day.
Thermobaric munitions like the TOS-1A fires are uniquely destructive. They burst over their targets, spreading a vapor of fuel before exploding. The explosion ignites the fuel and creates a blast twice as powerful as that of a conventional artillery shell.
“A fuel-air explosive can have the effect of a tactical nuclear weapon with no residual radiation,” explained Lester Grau and Timothy Smith in a 2000 article in the Marine Corps Gazette.
Thermobarics are uniquely suited to breaking fasteners. “Because a fuel-air mixture readily flows into all cavities, neither natural terrain features nor non-hermetic field fortifications (emplacements, covered trenches, bunkers) protect against the effects of fuel-air explosives,” Grau and Smith added.
“When a fuel-air charge is fired into a building or bunker, the plume becomes trapped and this increases the destruction of the structure’s load-bearing components.”
The Russians deployed the basic TOS-1 – a less heavily armored precursor to the current TOS-1A with 30 missiles instead of 24 – in Afghanistan’s defiant Panjshir Valley in the 1980s and reportedly again in Chechnya in 2000, both times with devastating effect.
Later, the Russian, Syrian and Iraqi armies used TOS-1As against rebels and militants. Azerbaijan appears to have used TOS-1As in its brief, bloody campaign against Armenia in 2020.
For the ongoing war, the Russians seem to have moved most of their 50 or so TOS-1As to Ukraine. The Ukrainians destroyed at least one of the 45-ton launchers and captured four others – and fired at least one captured carrier back at the Russians.
How many TOS-1As the Russians still have is unclear. Regardless, they were willing to risk at least one of the valuable vehicles, which can cost up to $7 million to build, escalating their attack on Vuhledar.
After the loss of dozens of tanks and combat vehicles, and possibly hundreds of troops trying to cross this minefield and breach the Ukrainian defenses around Vuhledar, the Russians are clearly in despair. And maybe a little sloppy.
The TOS-1A is a powerful weapon, but a vulnerable one. Its unwieldy missiles have a range of just two miles, meaning a launcher must get within range of enemy tank guns before it can open fire. It’s a dangerous proposition for the three-man crew of the launch vehicle.
In Soviet doctrine, a TOS-1 is used with tanks as escorts. “The lore has it that the TOS-1 should decimate a large area by charging ahead under the cover of tanks and firing its missiles in rapid succession (all [24 or] 30 missiles in 7.5 seconds) and then return to rearm for rearmament and redeployment,” explained Grau and Charles Bartles in their definitive book, The Russian Way of War.
It is not clear that the Russians adhere to this doctrine. It seems there were no escort tanks in sight when the Ukrainians blew up this TOS-1A outside of Vuhledar. Which, of course, could be the reason why the Ukrainians were able to hit the thermobaric launcher.
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