MoD accidentally reveals British drones firing thermobaric missiles in Syria

The Ministry of Defence has revealed for the first time – seemingly accidentally – that British drones are firing thermobaric weapons in Syria.  The disclosure comes in an Freedom of Information (FoI) response to Drone Wars detailing the use of Reaper drones over the previous three months.

In the response, officials give a breakdown of the type of Hellfire missiles fired, stating that 19 AGM-114N4 and 44 AGM-114R2 had been used. The ‘N’ version of the missile uses a Metal Augmented Charge (MAC) warhead that contains a thermobaric explosive fill using aluminium with the explosive mixture. When the warhead detonates, the aluminium mixture is dispersed and rapidly burns. The sustained high pressure explosion is extremely damaging, creating a powerful shock wave and vacuum. Anyone in the vicinity is likely to die from internal organ damage.

Thermobaric weapons, sometimes called ‘vacuum’ weapons have been condemned  by human rights groups 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’.


Test of thermobaric missile warhead

In 2010, the MoD specifically refused to answer questions in the House of Commons by then Oxford East MP Andrew Smith on whether British drones were firing the thermobaric version of the Hellfire missile.  Thanks to this diligent answer from an MoD official we now know they are.

However, the answer raises new questions.  Given the extremely harmful nature of the weapon why are so many – roughly a quarter of the weapons fired from British drones in the first three months of the year – being used?  Has the use of this weapon been at the same level since 2014?  Or are they being used more frequently now?

The revelation comes alongside news that UK drone strikes have hugely intensified in Syria since January.  In the first three months of 2018, UK drones fired as many weapons in Syria (92) as they have over the previous 18 months. And, despite the MoD regularly insisting that its Reaper drones are primarily used for surveillance and intelligence gathering, UK Reaper drones have now fired more weapons in Syria than the UK’s dedicated bomber, the Tornado.

5 thoughts on “MoD accidentally reveals British drones firing thermobaric missiles in Syria

  • Weapons are intended to be harmful against the proper targets! This is used against specific ‘enclosed’ targets. It’s actually intended to increase lethality in a closely defined area such as single floor of a target building or a particular building in a compound. So, the intention behind its use is to minimize collateral damage and civcas. Accuracy (hits what you aim at) and precision (with the right intended effect).

    • Whereas you may be correct in the detail, as we know all too well from track record, many ‘targets’ being hit by drone strikes are not always the ‘intended one’. I would hazard a guess that this fact (error of targeting) and hitting civilians instead, is possibly one big reason the use of such weapons is brought into question.

  • Chris, this cannot be accurate:

    “The resultant sustained high pressure is extremely damaging, creating a vacuum which sucks everything in and anyone in the vicinity is likely to die from asphyxiation before the pressure shreds their internal organs.”

    Obviously it takes seconds if not minutes to die from asphyxiation. The pressure wave takes place in milliseconds. It does not create a “vacuum which sucks everything in” although it may be powerful enough to create a wake in which there is an instantaneous, partial vacuum. This would be followed by another shock, so bodies will be kicked in one direction and then the other.The disruption of internal organs by blast shock will be the main mode of lethality.

  • The ‘vacuum’ myth has been around since thermobarics started being used, as Mark Gubrud rightly says its the positive phase does the damage. AFAIK there is only one good study
    Lung damage is the killer.

    We have actually known about the UK use of these weapons for some time…The MoD, by the way, does not believe that there is such a thing as a ‘thermobaric’ weapon — as far as they are concerned it’s purely a marketing term with no real meaning. Which is convenient.

    This is not the only thermobaric weapon being used out there, though these days they are cloaked with terms like ‘enhanced blast’.

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