Trend // Ben FrankelRussia tests world's biggest conventional bomb

Published 12 September 2007

As the war against terrorism and nuclear weapon proliferation escalates, so does the interest in bunker-busting weapon systems; Russia tests the latest version, and rogue nations with nuclear materials produced and stored in deeply dug bunkers, and terrorists hiding in caves and fortified undeground tunnels, should pause to reflect

As the campaigns against terrorism and nuclear weapons proliferation intensify, there is a growing interest in non-nuclear bunker-busting bombs which could be used to destroy deeply dug bunkers in which nuclear materials are produced and stored, and terrorists and their commanders hide. One example was provided by the Israel-Hezbollah war of July-August 2006. The Iranians invested about $1.1 billion between 1996 and 2006 helping Hezbollah create a veritable underground paralel universe: Hundreds of bunkers and miles of fortified tunnels were dug deep below sections of Beirut, and throughout southern Lebanon, to provide Hezbollah fighters and the organization’s leadership secure hideways for the coming war with Israel. Israel used heavy munitions in the effort to destroy this underground system, but the network of tunnels and bunkers proved to be so vast and so well-fortified, that the United States, half-way through the month-long war, had to rush to Israel additional bunker-busting munitions. Another example is the preparations the United States and its allies are making for a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, many of which are buried deep underground. Note that some of the weapons being developed — one example would be the Rods from God system — rely on kinetic energy to achieve bunker-busting effectiveness.

It is in this context that we note that Russia has just tested the world’s most powerful vacuum bomb, which unleashes a destructive shockwave with the power of a nuclear blast. The Russian military described it as the “father of all bombs.” The bomb is but the latest in a series of new military initiatives taken by President Vladimir Putin in effort to reassert Russia’s role on the international stage. “Test results of the new airborne weapon have shown that its efficiency and power is commensurate with a nuclear weapon,” Alexander Rukshin, Russian deputy armed forces chief of staff, told Russia’s state ORT First Channel television. “You will now see it in action, the bomb which has no match in the world is being tested at a military site.” A video shown on Russian television showed a Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bomber dropping the bomb over a testing ground. After an image of a very large explosion, the TV report showed what appeared like a flattened multi-storey block of flats surrounded by scorched soil and boulders. “The soil looks like a lunar landscape,” the report said.

Devices such as a vacuum bomb typically detonate in two stages. First, a small blast disperses a main load of explosive material into a cloud, which then either spontaneously ignites in air or is set off by a second charge. This explosion generates a pressure wave which reaches much further than that from a conventional explosive. The consumption of gases in the blast also generates a partial vacuum — hence, the name of the system — which can compound damage and injuries caused by the explosion itself. “The main destruction is inflicted by an ultrasonic shockwave and an incredibly high temperature,” the TV report said. “All that is alive merely evaporates.” Rukshin himself added: “At the same time, I want to stress that the action of this weapon does not contaminate the environment, in contrast to a nuclear one.”

The report further said that the new bomb was much stronger than the U.S.-built Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, or MOAB, informally called “Mother of All Bombs.” The TV report showed the orange-painted U.S. prototype, then said the Russian bomb was four times more powerful — 44 metric tons of TNT equivalent — and the temperature at the epicenter of its blast was two times higher. In 1999 Russian generals threatened to use vacuum bombs to wipe out rebels from the mountains of Chechinya during the war against separatists in the province. U.S. forces have used a “thermobaric” bomb, which works on similar principles, in the campaign against al Qaeda and Taliban forces in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

It (the bomb) will allow us to safeguard our state’s security and fight international terrorism in any circumstances and in any part of the world,” Rukshin said.