The Truth About Russia’s Terrifying TOS-1A Thermobaric Rocket Launchers Now In Ukraine

Of all the numerous and varied weapon systems that Russia has so far introduced to its ongoing invasion of Ukraine — many with admittedly mixed results so far — one has stood out in particular for the media coverage it’s generated. The TOS-1A, which Russia categorizes as a “heavy flamethrower,” is a unique type of multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) based on a T-72 tank chassis. 

The TOS-1A has an infamous reputation based on the characteristics of the thermobaric rockets that it fires. There is also much misunderstanding of how it works and a good deal of speculation on how it’s likely to be used in this conflict, especially with the suggestion that Russia may be about to employ siege tactics in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and even possibly Kyiv, its capital. To first get up to date on our most recent past coverage of the fighting so far, click here.

TOS-1A systems in action during a Russian Army exercise., Vitaly V. Kuzmin/Wikimedia Commons

TOS-1A Rolls Into Ukraine

As early as February 24, the day Russia launched its large-scale invasion of Ukraine, cameras installed on the Belarus-Ukraine border revealed a TOS-1A among other military vehicles entering Ukraine.

Last Saturday, February 26, more footage began to emerge on social media showing TOS-1As, as well as other heavy artillery, heading toward Ukraine, this time moving south from Russia’s Belgorod region.

The same day, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio tweeted that “Russia has now deployed TOS-1A launchers to the outskirts of heavily populated areas.”

Most recently, the TOS-1 was identified near Mariupol, close to the Russian border, where there have also been reports of BM-21 Grad MLRS being used.

Other TOS-1As have also been spotted near Russia’s numerous fronts of its still very young invasion operation and the type was previously spotted in Russian-separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine in the past.

Recently, there were claims on social media that the TOS-1A was being used in the latest artillery strikes, including a massive, sustained barrage centered upon the hotly contested town of Vasylkiv, roughly 15 miles south of Kyiv. An enormous explosion here was the result of a fuel farm at Vasylkiv Air Base taking a direct hit, although some took this to be evidence of the use of the TOS-1A.

It seems unlikely, however, that the TOS-1A was employed on this occasion and, so far, we don’t have definitive evidence that it’s been used in the fighting here, or elsewhere in Ukraine… yet.

The fuel farm at Vasylkiv Air Base taking seen still burning on February 27, 2022., Planet Labs

On the other hand, today the Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, announced that Russia had used a “vacuum bomb” somewhere in Ukraine. This is typical shorthand to describe a thermobaric weapon, although it’s by no means clear what particular munition was being referred to. 

Russia does produce thermobaric bombs, for aircraft use, including the TV-guided KAB-500-OD, although it is rarely seen in service. While “bomb” is not an accurate description of the TOS-1A’s projectiles, it’s possible this was the weapon being referred to. Alternatively, the incident in question may not have involved a thermobaric weapon of any kind, and statements of this nature from Ukrainian officials during the conflict have not always been reliable. 


TOS-1A: Terrifying Fact VS Fiction

The fact that Russian nomenclature describes the TOS-1A — which is nicknamed ‘Buratino’ by the troops, after the Russian equivalent of Pinocchio — as a flamethrower has led to descriptions of the weapon producing “a wall of napalm,” and “vaporizing human bodies.” In fact, the weapon has virtually nothing in common with traditional flamethrowers. Instead, this is a thermobaric, or fuel-air explosive (FAE) weapon, in the same class as certain U.S. weapons, like the AGM-114N Hellfire missile, with a special ‘augmented’ warhead, or the BLU-118/B that was used against cave complexes in Afghanistan. Essentially, this type of weapon uses oxygen from the surrounding air to generate a high-temperature explosion and a much more powerful blast wave over a longer duration than a conventional condensed explosive.

There have also been stories in the media that erroneously conflate the TOS-1A with the so-called “Father of All Bombs,” an enormous air-dropped thermobaric weapon. Despite reports of tests in the past, there is no evidence that such a weapon has ever actually been deployed.

Undoubtedly, however, the TOS-1A is a weapon that can have an enormous physiological effect on the enemy.

A firing exercise by Russian Ground Forces TOS-1A systems within the Southern Military District:

“The primary … effect [created by the TOS-1’ss rockets] is a long-duration high-pressure blast wave which creates a vacuum – then precipitates a reverse wave,” according to the 2011 edition of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s (TRADOC) unclassified World Equipment Guide (WEG). “These pressure/vacuum surges (up to 427 pounds per sq inch) cause a ripping effect on soft materials (such as airplane skin, radar surface, human lung tissue). Walls and surfaces within the affected area do not necessarily shield victims, rather cause multiple pressure waves, which amplify the tearing effects and can topple structures.”

“A secondary effect is high-temperature heat — 2,500-3,000° C. An incomplete explosion renders a near-devastating effect, wide-area long-duration high-temperature flame,” it continues. “Even those outside of the blast area will be rendered ineffective with debilitating mental and physical trauma.”

Each BM-1 launcher vehicle within the TOS-1A system carries 24 rockets of 220-millimeter caliber, which can reach a maximum range of 6 kilometers. 

The 220-millimeter caliber rockets for the TOS-1A, carried on a TZM-T transporter/loader vehicle., Vitaly V. Kuzmin/Wikimedia Commons

“The TOS-1 is designed primarily for use against emplacements, defilade areas (such as terrain folds and tunnels), fighting positions, ships, buildings, as well as personnel and other soft targets. High angles-of-fire and steep impact angles support use in defilade and urban areas,” according to TRADOC’s WEG. “Despite the seeming short range, the weapon was effectively used in Chechnya to disable defenders within a specific sector just prior to an assault, to halt assaults, and to level buildings.”

Clearly, there are now fears about Russia potentially using the TOS-1A in heavily populated areas, where its effect would be indiscriminate, perhaps as part of a psychological terror campaign to flush out the final resistance in a city. 

In Ukraine, the TOS-1A would probably still be quite effective against troops on the battlefield. From the very beginning, the Soviets designed this weapon to provide general fire support alongside infantry and tanks. Its targets here would include enemy manpower in both open and closed firing positions, as well as light armored vehicles and soft-skinned support vehicles. It’s notable that, so far in the conflict, columns of lightly armored and unarmored Russian vehicles have been especially vulnerable to Ukrainian attack, whether by drone or by other means. 

Today’s TOS-1A was preceded by the TOS-1, originally developed beginning in the late 1970s to provide a standoff weapon to be fielded by the Soviet military’s Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Protection Troops, which were also responsible for different types of incendiary weapons. The successors to these forces continue to operate the TOS-1A, as well as being responsible for the deployment of large smokescreens during major combat operations.

It seems only a small batch of the original TOS-1 were ever produced, with a capacity for 30 rockets, which had a maximum range of just 1.7 miles when fitted with a thermobaric warhead. The system was used in combat trials in Afghanistan in around 1987 and again in Chechnya in the 1990s.

Subsequently, production switched to the more numerous TOS-1A, which has been employed by Russia in Syria and also produced for export. Each TOS-1A system normally comprises a single BM-1 launcher vehicle and two TZM-T transporter/loader vehicles. The TZM-T is also mounted on a T-72 tank chassis and each provides 24 rocket reloads.

A BM-1 launcher from a TOS-1A system of the Russian 1st Mobile NBC Protection Brigade at the Shikhany proving ground., Yevgeny Kel/Russian Ministry of Defense
A BM-1 is reloaded by a TZM-T transporter/loader, which has an integral crane., Olga Smolskaya/TASS via Getty Images

While the rockets themselves are unguided, the BM-1’s fire-control system includes an optical sight, a laser rangefinder, and a ballistic computer to provide a firing solution. Normally, all 24 rockets are fired in a salvo, within a space of 6 to 12 seconds, for the greatest destructive effect.

TOS-1A’s Potential Use In Ukraine

Whether or not we see the TOS-1A deployed in an urban environment in Ukraine remains to be seen and will depend heavily on the course of the conflict in the days and weeks to come.

However, it’s clear that Russian forces are now using other MLRS systems in close proximity to civilian population centers, with evidence of rockets from Grad, Uragan, and Smerch systems having been identified already. These rockets do not carry thermobaric warheads but can be armed with submunitions, which are also notorious for their indiscriminate effects.

Earlier today Kharkiv was subjected to a large-scale bombardment by rocket artillery. In a Facebook post, the Ukrainian interior ministry adviser Anton Herashchenko stated: “Kharkiv has just been massively fired upon by Grads. Dozens of dead and hundreds of wounded.”

It has since become clear that this bombard included at least some 300mm rockets with cluster munition warheads fired by BM-30 Smerch launchers. 

There has already been growing evidence that Russian forces have been carrying out indiscriminate attacks across Ukraine since the invasion began. “The Russian military has shown a blatant disregard for civilian lives by using ballistic missiles and other explosive weapons with wide-area effects in densely populated areas,” Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary-general, said in a statement from February 25, after the opening wave of strikes against Kharkiv, and other objectives.

Kharkiv, in particular, has been earmarked by U.S. officials as the potential focus of Russian siege tactics — a type of warfare in which the TOS-1A has been engaged in previous conflicts, notably in Chechnya. In that kind of scenario, the TOS-1A could be used to uproot or otherwise disrupt the plans of the defending force, which would be expected to be holed up in urban areas, and it would clearly be a terrifying siege weapon. Even its use in the battle for Kyiv is quite possible. 

With that in mind, and with continued reports of TOS-1As noted in or near urban areas, it’s certainly a possibility that these devastating weapons might be employed in such scenarios. We can only hope that this will not end up being the case. 

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