Monday, August 31, 2015

A New Kind of Bomb Is Being Used in Syria and It's a Humanitarian Nightmare

At Vice:
Syrian government jets struck a market in Douma, a suburb northeast of Damascus, on August 16, killing almost 100 people. Some reports attribute the lethal strike to a volumetric weapon, also known as a vacuum bomb.

In his condemnation of the attack, Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, alluded to the possibility that the Syrian air force used a vacuum bomb, saying that "[a]ttacks on civilian areas with aerial indiscriminate bombs, such as vacuum bombs, are prohibited under international law."

However, researchers and human rights advocates, observing from a distance, are unable to confirm or properly investigate whether this is the case.

"We suspect they may have been used," Mary Wareham, the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch's Arms Division, told VICE News.

In conflicts like Syria, investigators and human rights groups face an uphill battle in making determinations about the particulars of such an attack. Lacking solid video evidence and unable to access the blast site, investigators have little to go on. These obstructions to research and investigative capability leave clear information on the use of volumetric weapons in Syria out of reach.

Related: Syrian Regime Bombs Kill Dozens in Damascus Suburb for Second Week in a Row

Volumetric weapons are a family of munitions that includes such better-known subtypes as thermobaric and fuel-air explosive (FAE) weapons, and are variously referred to as vacuum bombs or enhanced blast weapons. The differences between thermobaric weapons and fuel-air explosives are fairly arcane, but the fundamental effects on the people injured and killed by these weapons are pretty much the same.

"If you're a civilian on the ground in a marketplace and the bomb goes off, the effects are going to be very similar," Robert Perkins, a weapons researcher at Action on Armed Violence, told VICE News. "It's going to achieve an incredibly destructive shockwave, which is the thing that unites these weapons."

Volumetric weapons work by dispersing an explosive element or fuel, which creates an aerosolized cloud on impact. The weapon's explosive then ignites the aerosolized cloud, producing a powerful shockwave and high temperatures.

The shockwave produced by volumetric weapons lasts longer than the blast of conventional high explosives; a little like the difference between a bellowing explosion and a sharp bang. Conventional high explosives typically explode and create most of their effect by propelling shrapnel out in a cloud of deadly high-speed projectiles, or from the short, sharp blast. By contrast, volumetric weapons generate effects through heat and extreme pressure over relatively long periods of time, and are very effective against certain kinds of soft targets, such as minefields and aircraft parked in the open.

Related: 'This Instrument Can Kill': Tasers Are Not as Harmless as Previously Thought

Alternately, volumetric weapons work well against certain kinds of concealed targets, such as those hiding in caves or bunkers; the twists and turns of the tunnel or building would normally protect people from flying shrapnel, but the cloud of explosive can penetrate some distance before detonating, while the walls themselves channel and focus the blast.

A Human Rights Watch background report on volumetric weapons used by Russia in 2000 describes the weaponry as "prone to indiscriminate use" and likely to cause high rates of civilian casualty when deployed in urban environments.

"The fuel-air explosive is just another way of killing people in ways that leave bodies that are horrifying to look at," Dr. Theodore Postol, MIT physicist and missile expert, told VICE News. "So it increases the terror in regard to these attacks on innocent civilians."

Like barrel bombs or sarin gas, the point of using vacuum bombs goes beyond the destruction of city blocks and the unfortunate civilian inhabitants. The ultimate purpose of such weaponry is to terrify, to sow fear amid chaos...
Yeah, well, that's not going to set off any red lines, or anything.

But keep reading.