Canada Leads Study to Stop Super Bombs
Powerful thermobaric explosives feared to be in hands of terrorists
July 12, 2003 -- Canadian
defence scientists are leading an international effort to devise protection against new and more powerful terrorist explosives
designed to flatten buildings and rupture people's internal organs.
The weapons, referred to as thermobaric explosives, were developed during
the Cold War in the Soviet Union, but there are concerns the device may have now made their way into the hands of terrorists
or rogue nations. Massive thermobaric bombs kill by the force of their shockwave.
At the same time, some terrorist bombs, such as the one detonated last
year by al-Qaeda operatives on the Indonesian island of Bali, use the same principles that are behind thermobaric explosives,
say scientists with Defence Research and Development Canada. That organization, which is leading the explosives research,
is the Canadian military's science agency.
"We just learned about thermobaric explosives in the late '80s when the
Soviet Union was disintegrating," said Stephen Murray, head of the threat assessment group at the defence agency's Suffield,
Alta., laboratories. "Those weapons (later) started showing up on the open market."
Western militaries have traditionally concentrated their efforts on developing
what are known as fragmentation or penetration weapons. Those use explosives to propel metal at a high velocity, either using
a warhead to disable a vehicle, such as a tank, or creating shrapnel to kill or wound victims.
"It turns out that other countries, the Russians in particular, went in
the other direction," Murray said. "They decided that blast was a very good way of killing things."
For security reasons, he declined to give specifics about how thermobaric
warheads are designed. However, generally they are believed to use highly flammable metal particles mixed with a liquid high
explosive. When ignited in a two-stage process, the device creates a super-high heat and pressure blast capable of flattening
buildings and rupturing organs in people near the detonation point.
The Russians were able to design such weapons for use as bombs to be dropped
by aircraft or as rocket launchers that could be fired by soldiers.
To study the effects of thermobaric explosions, the defence agency will
detonate a series of bombs, some the equivalent of 700 kilograms of TNT, to simulate such blasts at its Suffield installation
over the next several months.
Researchers from US and British government military agencies will be involved
in the Canadian program, which will continue over the next four years. The Dutch and Norwegian governments have also expressed
interest in the research.
Canadian scientists are considered leaders in the field, having spent the
past decade studying thermobaric and similar blast weapons called fuel-air explosives.
Russia used thermobaric bombs against Chechen rebels during its war in
that breakaway republic in the mid-1990s.(1)* In an attempt to dislodge al-Qaeda and Taliban forces from caves in Afghanistan the US also rushed into production thermobaric
weapons. At least 10 were believed to have been used in that war.
Other terrorist explosions, such as Timothy McVeigh's 1995 truck bomb that
killed 168 people in Oklahoma City and the Bali blast, are similar to thermobaric weapons. The Bali explosion killed more
than 200, including two Canadians. "Some of the terrorist explosions out there look a lot like thermobaric mixtures," Murray
The defence agency will test how particular structures hold up under a
thermobaric blast attack. One such test will involve what the Canadian army is calling the "Afghan OP," observation posts
built by other militaries that Canadian troops serving in Afghanistan in the coming months will occupy.
Murray said since western militaries focused on protecting against fragmentation
weapons, their equipment is generally not suited to provide protection against thermobaric blasts.
The defence agency hopes to eventually develop computer software that will
allow military engineers to quickly determine whether the structure of a building might be vulnerable to a thermobaric explosion.
The idea is to have the system capable of rating the blast resistance of a building within 30 minutes.
Similar technology could also help combat engineers and officers determine
how to best build field fortifications or determine the layout of an encampment to resist the blast effects of a thermobaric
warhead or a large truck bomb.
At the same time scientists in Valcartier, Quebec, are trying to come up
with better protective equipment for soldiers to deal with thermobaric blasts.
US agencies are particularly interested in what would happen to buildings
and people if such blast weapons were used by terrorists, as well as developing protective methods. "They're very concerned
about large vehicle bombs," Murray said. -- Edited and excerpted from
the article by David Pugliese in The Ottawa Citizen