The Russian army that rolled into Ukraine on the morning of Feb. 24 brought with it some of the world’s most powerful, and indiscriminate, artillery. Now the Ukrainian army has captured at least five of these TOS-1 thermobaric rocket-launchers—and reportedly has fired one of them back at the Russians.
Serhiy Bratchuk, a spokesperson for the administration of Odessa, told Victor Kovalenko, a former Ukrainian soldier and journalist, that Ukrainian troops aimed one of their ex-Russian TOS-1s at Russian positions around Izium, in eastern Ukraine near Kharkiv, on or before April 5.
TOS-1 with its 220-millimeter “flamethrowing” rockets is a uniquely destructive system, but one barrage from one captured launcher isn’t militarily significant. As a statement, however, the purported reversal—Ukraine pointing one of Russia’s most fearsome weapons back at it—is striking.
For troops and civilians on the ground, thermobaric munitions can be terrifying. They burst over their targets, spreading a fuel vapor, before exploding and igniting the fuel, creating a pressure wave that’s twice as powerful as that from a conventional artillery shell.
“A fuel-air explosive can have the effect of a tactical nuclear weapon without residual radiation,” Lester Grau and Timothy Smith explained in a 2000 article in Marine Corps Gazette.
The pre-war Russian army possessed around 100 TOS-1s and deployed a significant number of them in its wider war on Ukraine. We know this because the Kremlin has made a point of showcasing the TOS-1s in its videos—and because Ukrainian missile teams have recorded videos of themselves knocking out several of the launchers and support vehicles.
At least five TOS-1s have fallen into Ukrainian hands, according to the analysts at the Oryx blog, who scour the media for documentation of wartime equipment losses. At least two of the ex-Russian TOS-1s were damaged at the time of their capture. The other three may have been in working condition.
It’s unclear how many rockets the Ukrainians captured alongside the launchers, but there apparently were enough for at least that one barrage. “As a retaliation, Ukraine used the recently captured Russian thermobaric systems TOS-1A … to annihilate the Russian attack formations near Izium city,” Kovalenko tweeted.
The newly Ukrainian TOS systems join nearly 1,100 tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery pieces and other major hardware that Kyiv’s forces have captured from the Russians. To put that into perspective, Ukraine has taken possession of more Russian tanks—more than 200—than the entire British Army soon will have in its entire inventory, around 150.
Many of Ukraine’s bigger repair facilities have come under Russian fire, so a cottage industry of small, improvised workshops has taken up some of the slack. There, mechanics clean up, repair and modify for Ukrainian use a steady stream of captured Russian vehicles. It helps that Ukraine’s pre-war arsenal mostly included ex-Soviet equipment.
The Ukrainians notably did not use the TOS-1 until the Russians started abandoning them in Ukraine. Kyiv’s troops might soon have enough TOS-1s and 220-millimeter rockets to deploy an entire battery, if they don’t already.
Whether the launchers are practical is a separate question. The Ukrainian army over seven weeks of war has refined a new fires system that combines small drones spotting targets for mobile artillery, sometimes firing precise, laser-guided shells.
The TOS-1, for its part, is anything but precise. The Ukrainians might not be keen to lob a lot of thermobaric missiles at Russian positions when there could be civilians nearby.