Oxford East MP Andrew Smith enquired whether any of the 84 ‘Hellfire AGM114’ missiles that Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox reported had been fired by British Reaper drones had been Hellfire AGM 114N’, the thermobaric version. MoD Minister Andrew Robathan refused to answer saying that the information “would, or would be likely to, prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of our armed forces”.
Thermobaric weapons, sometimes called ‘vacuum’ weapons have been condemned human rights group and, as the Times reported in 2008 , “the weapons are so controversial that MoD weapons and legal experts spent 18 months debating whether British troops could use them without breaking international law.” The ‘debate’ came to an end when a ‘Yes Minister’ solution was offered – they “redefined” the weapon as an ‘enhanced blast missile’.
The Guardian reported in May 2009 that he MoD had admitted that British Apache helicopters had fired 40 Hellfire 114N ‘enhanced blast weapons’ in Afghanistan so why is the MoD being so secretive about drones firing theses weapons?
“As the name implies, it works on a combination of heat and pressure applying lessons that have been widely learnt from coal mine explosions or other industrial accidents. These are often created by clouds of gas or fine particles erupting into flame.
The thermobaric weapon reproduces this situation to order, distributing a very fine cloud of explosive material throughout the target which is then ignited. The heat and pressure effects are formidable – soldiers caught in the blast could have the air sucked from their bodies and even their internal organs catastrophically destroyed.
According to Globalsecurity.org the thermobaric version of Hellfire missiles was developed “to make the Hellfire more suitable for military operations in urban terrain. The number one requirement was that the new warhead increase the probability of personnel lethality or incapacitation.”
Noah Shachtman of Wired.com says “It is among the most horrific weapons in any army’s collection: the thermobaric bomb, a fearsome explosive that sets fire to the air above its target, then sucks the oxygen out of anyone unfortunate enough to have lived through the initial blast.”
More details about development and use of thermobaric (sorry, ‘enhanced blast’) weapons can be found here.
(With thanks to Jo)