Warfare and the use of fire are both nearly as old as the human race, so it was inevitable that sooner or later the two would be combined. The earliest traces of fire being used as a weapon date back to the 9th century BC. Techniques back then were simple, with villages and food supplies being set on fire to cause panic and starve the enemy out. Wooden fortifications could also be attacked with fire by piling fuel against them and igniting it. As weapons developed, this became more difficult. Thrown projectiles became more popular, but a volley of arrows proved to be lethal as it became more difficult to work at the base of an enemy wall. In response, armies developed weapons that could throw fire from a safe distance. The Romans launched pots of flaming tar from their catapults, and later the Byzantines used primitive hand-pumped flamethrowers to spray Greek Fire, a terrifying incendiary mix, onto enemy ships. Fire arrows were also used to attack ships, or shot into walled towns to set fire to the buildings inside.
In the Napoleonic Wars and American Civil War, fire was rarely used deliberately as a weapon, but it was a constant hazard nonetheless. Flaming wads thrown from the muzzles of cannons and muskets frequently set the battlefield on fire, often roasting the dead and wounded where they lay. It was in the First World War that things got really nasty though. Practical flamethrowers were perfected, both backpack models and heavier models like the Livens Gallery Projector. In the Second World War these were joined by flame tanks, with the most famous being the Churchill Crocodile. Flamethrowers proved very useful for clearing out determined Japanese positions later in the war, and continued in use through the Korean and Vietnam wars; napalm was also widely used. Then they began to fade away, finally being severely restricted by the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons in 1980. But by that time, a terrifying new category of flame weapons was being developed.
Fuel air explosive bombs and the later, more powerful, thermobaric weapons use fire to create a uniquely destructive explosive effect. They release a cloud of fuel, either as powder or mist, to mix with the air; then they ignite it. The result is a fireball and a very intense, long-lasting pressure wave that’s very effective against troops, buildings and light vehicles. First deployed by the USA, they were perfected by the Soviet Union in the 1980s and the Russian Army now fields a wide array of them.
Possible threats include aircraft-delivered bombs, thermobaric warheads for guided anti-tank missiles and the TOS-1 Buratino MLRS system, but one of the most common is the RPO series. The original RPO-A was a disposable, shoulder-launched weapon that could launch a thermobaric projectile up to 1,100 yards; it was about as destructive as a 122mm HE shell. The RPO-Z was an incendiary variant that launched a canister of napalm. The latest RPO-M is a similar, but reusable weapon with a range of close to 1,900 yards and an even more effective thermobaric warhead. RPOs are widely issued in the Russian Army and are devastatingly effective against buildings, dug-in troops and unarmoured vehicles.
Because thermobaric weapons produce both a fireball and a huge overpressure effect, they’re difficult to defend against effectively. When preparing buildings for defense, block windows and doors wherever possible to keep RPO rockets out as their effect is massively enhanced if they detonate inside a structure. Enemy troops with shoulder fired weapons should be priority targets, as should engineer vehicles – engineer units are often heavily armed with RPOs. If there’s a thermobaric threat keep as much skin covered as possible, wear eye protection and be ready to deal with lung and blast casualties. Luckily these weapons haven’t proliferated too badly yet, but they’re being used right now in Ukraine and some have leaked out into the terrorist markets. It looks like battlefields will be burning for a while yet.
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