Russia's TOS-1: Moscow's Most Powerful Weapon of War (That Isn't Nuclear)

TOS-1A unit at at Shikhani training ground. Wikimedia Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin

These things have the power to wreak incredible devastation.

The TOS-1 Buratino is a unique Russian self-propelled multiple rocket launcher system (MRLS) that has seen action in global hotspots like Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq and Syria. Like the enormous 240-millimeter 2S4 self-propelled mortar, the TOS-1’s specialty is obliterating heavily fortified positions. Although some of these may be found in rural rebel strongholds and fortified caves, they have often been employed in heavily urbanized environments. It’s gained a uniquely nasty reputation because of the horrifying effects of its fuel-air explosive warheads.

To put it concisely, these are amongst the most devastating explosive weapons short of tactical nuclear weapons.

Fuel-Air Explosives

TOS stands for “heavy flame thrower,” which is only accurate in a literal sense: instead of projecting a stream of jellied gasoline, the TOS-1 launches a rocket carrying a fuel-air explosive (FAE).

These were first employed by the United States in the Vietnam War because napalm wasn’t destructive enough. Napalm munitions disperse a sticky, flaming liquid over a wide area. By contrast, a fuel-air explosive detonates the very air itself: a small explosive inside the FAE munition spreads a chemical cloud in the air through an aerosol effect. The gaseous cloud seeps effortlessly into buildings and caves, and down into slit trenches. A secondary explosive then ignites the cloud, causing a massive and long-lasting explosion.

While the heat generated by FAEs causes lethal burns in a wide radius (roughly two hundred by three hundred meters) the overpressure created by the sudden combustion of the air is even deadlier. The fiery blasts create a partial oxygen vacuum that kills and maims in a variety of grotesque ways and cannot be mitigated with body armor or hard cover.

The pressure generated by a TOS-1 blast amounts to 427 pounds per square-inch—for comparison, most conventional bomb blasts create roughly half that amount, and regular air pressure is fourteen pounds per square inch. Victims near the center of a TOS-1 blast radius are crushed to death. Further out, the overpressure can break bones, dislocate eyes, cause internal hemorrhaging, and rupture eardrums, bowels and other internal organs. It also sucks the air out of victims’ lungs, possibly causing them to collapse, leading to death by suffocation.

The United States was the first to use fuel-air explosives in the Vietnam War, dropping them by air to clear helicopter landing zones and minefields, and later deploying them as offensive weapons. In 2002, attempting to hunt down Osama bin Laden in the rugged mountains of Tora Bora, U.S. aircraft deployed thermobaric warheads on precision-guided missiles. The warheads would suck the oxygen out of the caves that Taliban fighters were hiding in.

The Soviet Union adopted the weapons shortly after the United States did, using them in a border skirmish against the Chinese in 1969, and employing both air-dropped and ground-launched FAEs on a large scale in the war in Chechnya. The proliferation of TOS-1 systems through global conflict zones (detailed below) ensures they will continue to see use in combat.

Rocket-Launching Tanks

Most of Russia’s artillery weapons use a light armored vehicle chassis like that of the MTLB armored carrier. The forty-six-ton TOS-1, on the other hand, uses the much heavier hull of a T-72 tank. There’s a good reason: the original TOS-1 model only had a range of around three kilometers, meaning it would have to withstand hostile fire from all kinds of enemy weapon systems.

The TOS-1 mounts a launch unit with thirty 230-millimeter diameter rocket tubes. The prominence of the launch unit is what earned it the name Buratino, a long-nosed Pinocchio-like character in a children’s story. The rockets can be fired individually or ripple-fired en masse in the space of six to twelve seconds. The vehicle also mounts a targeting computer and a laser-range finder.

Two types of rockets are equipped: ones with conventional incendiary warheads, and the fuel-air explosives discussed above. The sheer size of the rockets means that the TOS-1 requires not one but two TZM-T reloading vehicles—all-terrain trucks equipped with cranes—each carrying a full additional load of rockets.

The TOS-1 vehicle has no real counterpart in use by Western militaries. While there are all kinds of multiple-rocket launch systems in use, such as the M142 HIMARS in use by the U.S. Army to bombard ISIS in Iraq, they are all lightly armored weapons intended for long-range indirect fire.

Furthermore, such rocket artillery typically relies on cluster munitions or conventional high-explosive warheads, not incendiary ammunition. The Russian Army, however, fields long-range Multiple Launch Rocket Systems like the Smerch and Uragan, capable of using incendiary warheads. The United States uses thermobaric warheads in smaller man-portable systems as well as larger air-launched munitions.

Starting in 2001, new TOS-1A Solntsepek (Burning Sun) vehicles began entering service, with a range of six kilometers. This is sufficiently long range to allow it to fire beyond retaliatory fire from the majority of antitank weapons. The new vehicle comes with an improved ballistics computer as well. Because it fires heavier ninety-kilogram rockets, the number of launch tubes was reduced to twenty-four.