A Better Urban MissileThere has been a lot of discussion about the power of thermobaric weapons that are just entering US arsenals. Defense Tech has an article today with some history and political implications of such weapons. However, this power is nothing new. Nearly all types of Soviet- and Russian-source anti-tank guided missiles have variants with thermobaric warheads. Plus, there are thermobaric warheads available for select battlefield rocket systems, including the 9K58 Smersh MLRS:
The 9M55S 300mm rocket projectile with a thermobaric warhead is designed to defeat unsheltered troops, as well as personnel in light field fortifications and in soft-skinned/lightly armored vehicles. The warhead weight is 243 kg with 100 kg of explosives. The diameter of the thermobaric field (with the temperature in excess of 1,000° C) is 25 meters.
The US is fairly late in adopting thermobaric warheads as battlefield weapons. However, the requirements for defeating enemies in urban environments has found many existing weapons wanting. Remember how many TOW missiles they fired into the house where Uday and Qusay were hiding out? The fact is, it is difficult to bring down a structure with existing types of weapons. The thermobaric warhead is just one component in the quest to build a better missile for an urban environment. Here is an excerpt from an article in eDefense Online by Ted McKenna about the thoughts of an Israeli officer on the subject:
An officer with the Israeli Defense Forces who spoke at a July 19-20 conference on urban warfare produced by Marcus Evans Defense said that anyone with the misfortune to have fought in an urban situation knows that missiles available today are not up to the challenge.
Speaking from experience in leading infantry in urban operations, the officer described one situation he encountered in which a group of individuals holed up in a building were targeted with a large number of TOW missiles. "I'm a little ashamed to say just how many," he said, "but let's just say it was a lot." After the smoke had cleared, it was found that the men inside had left by a back door and run off, such was the inability of the missiles to penetrate the building.
Given the interest in finding new technology to confront enemies in urban environments, perhaps something could be made that is effective. Ten basic characteristics must be considered when developing any type of missile, said the officer, who has spent about 15 years developing missiles. These 10 characteristics, in no particular order, are as follows:
1. Price: each missile should cost no more than $15,000 each
2. Firepower: the missiles should be able to penetrate any type of urban structure
3. Lightweight: weigh no more than 10 kg
6. Accuracy: able to hit a window at 600 m
7. Reliability: "I was an infantry commander with personal experience in urban combat, and I can tell you that I would gladly make do with 85%."
8. Low collateral damage
10. Range: loss of 50% accuracy when used at 1,200 meters, say
Firepower may be the most important question, the Israeli officer said. "We want the firepower of a cannon, but how large should the warhead be?" he said. If the warhead weighs 2 kg, then the entire system may weigh around 6-7 kg. What types of payloads, though, are required - just the kind that explode, or perhaps they should include cameras? All these choices involve tradeoffs in weight, capability, and, of course, price.
The latest thermobaric weapons may be considered a partial answer to the problems of weapons in an urban environment, particularly in terms of firepower. It is interesting to note that the US is just now fielding thermobaric warheads for the Hellfire II missile. Here is an excerpt from an article on eDefense Online by Brendan Rivers on the US Army fielding thermobaric Hellfire missiles:
Lockheed Martin (Orlando, FL) announced on Aug. 23 that a thermobaric version of its Hellfire II missile has been cleared for full-rate production for the US Army, particularly for use in ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Following the successful completion of a production-readiness review by a government-industry team of the thermobaric warhead, the US Army awarded Lockheed Martin a $90-million contract for the production of 900 AGM-114N thermobaric Hellfires, along with 180 AGM-114K high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) Hellfires. In addition, the contract calls upon the company to convert 100 existing HEAT missiles to the thermobaric version. Lockheed Martin is responsible for the missile bodies themselves and the integration of the thermobaric warheads, which are produced by Alliant Techsystems (Rocket Center, WV).
According to Mike Dowty, Lockheed Martin's Hellfire business-development manager, the thermobaric warhead works just like the other warhead variants of the semi-active laser-guided Hellfire II, with one difference: the explosive effects. The explosive material in the 27.5-lb. thermobaric warhead consists of a combination of traditional explosive, PBXN-112, and "energetic" material - in this case, a fluorinated-aluminum powder mixture. When the PBXN-112 detonates, the fluorinated-aluminum mixture disperses and burns rapidly, an effect that is extremely effective against enemy personnel.
This recent contract represents the first production buy of the thermobaric variant of the Hellfire, which was designed specifically for use against buildings and structures (whereas the AGM-114K was designed to engage heavy armor targets). According to a spokesman for the US Army Aviation and Missile Command (Redstone Arsenal, AL), experiences during current operations in Afghanistan and Iraq prompted the Army to request additional quantities of the new thermobaric missile to support those operations.
The thermobaric Hellfires can be employed on the Army's AH-64D Apache and OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters, as well as US Marine Corps AH-1 Super Cobras and US Navy SH-60B Seahawks.
The controversy about the use of thermobaric weapons is reminiscent of the white phosphorous flap of a couple of weeks back. The fact is, weapons evolve as lessons learned from previous engagements make their way into requirements and then into new weapons programs. Problem/solution. Old as war itself.