December 22, 2001



(Part 1 -- Part 2). A couple other reports: the generally more skeptical Guardian's got the Matt Kelley AP story in full. In this one the "this is not a fuel-air explosive" comes through perfectly: and in one of the main "opposition" news sources, too. Good old Matt:

The United States had a similar kind of weapon, called a fuel-air explosive, during the Vietnam War. That weapon detonated a mist of liquid fuel, rather than the cloud of solid explosives used in the new version.

That sentence makes no sense, of course. What is a "cloud of solid explosives", exactly? It's true the current generation is likely using something other than actual gasoline as their vapor element (probably an aluminum compound of some kind), but that doesn't matter: as any grain silo owner can tell you, you can get a vapor (ie, a thermobaric) explosion from wheat dust, if the conditions are right (Just like whatever's being used in the new bombs could also be adapted to be rocket fuel, if the conditions were right.) Whether that vapor can also be liquefied and used to run your car makes no difference to the nature of the explosion. But the sentence is right on-message for the air force. "These are NOT fuel-air explosives. We don't use fuel-air explosives, because those are inhumane. We use thermobaric munitions."

Even better for the air force: The New York Post version, which injects yet another term to add to the confusion:

Capt. Joe Della Vedova, a spokesman for the Air Force at the Pentagon, told The Post the bomb - a new explosive that belongs to a class of "fuel-rich compositions" - is especially effective against caves.

Now you know how "collateral damage" and "military intelligence" got started...

PS: Don't overlook this info was released on the Friday before a holiday week, either. It's classic dead air. The Air Force would have known it would be very difficult for reporters to find either fuel-air explosive experts or opponents possibly for days after the initial release. But the reduced-staff at newspapers and wire services also have a lot of dead air to fill at the same time. It's the perfect time of year to get your organization's potentially controversial revelation a couple days of unchallenged airtime.

Posted by BruceR at 11:54 PM



(See the first part of this story, below). The real story here, the one that armed forces are doing the best to hide, is the reintroduction of air-dropped fuel-air explosives to the American arsenal, reversing the 1990s decision to remove them because of the operational pressures in Afghanistan. Part of this justification for that decision no doubt had been the fact that the Gulf War versions of these weapons were dumb bombs, inaccurate and not wildly effective: in that war they were mostly used for minefield clearance. (There can be little doubt that the new-model "thermobaric" bomb has incorporated three decades of advances in explosive power and accuracy over those earlier weapons, perhaps mirroring or borrowing from the continued Russian research into them over the last 20 years.) But part of the reason was also lobbying pressure by peace groups, which have successfully characterized fuel-air explosives in many people's minds as inhumane.

Reversing a ban, even a self-imposed one, on a weapon whose use some consider unconscionable can never be easy. This is exactly the scenario that has prevented U.S. cooperation with the landmine treaty, or restrictions on DU munitions... sometimes, there is no other effective way to win the war you're in, but you're taking a big PR hit if you go back on your word, sooner or later (the current "thermobaric" bait-and-switch is likely only meant to confuse people long enough to stretch the negative hit out over a couple weeks).

The armed forces's plan has to be to defuse the inevitable Congressional hearings and United Nations inquiries into these bombs, which could result in them being effectively taken off the shelves again before they kill a single Afghan, by aggressively countering the negatives... "rebranding" them, in other words, as a model of problem-solving ingenuity that Americans can be proud of, rather than a bomb that suffocates you by collapsing your lungs. Armed forces PR's fondest hope tonight is that a major columnist or TV news program somewhere is going to coin this a "T-Bomb" in the next couple days, and give it the same kind of cachet the "daisy cutters" have had recently -- maybe marvelling at the lives it will save, or making favourable comparisons with the tactical nukes we would have been considering using if we'd been facing a Bin Laden situation 30 years ago.

For an example of what they're hoping for, recapping many of the arguments that are just as likely to be repeated in this context, read Scott Shuger's piece on bringing back flamethrowers in Slate. Shuger's clincher works for T-bombs, too:

The test of whether a weapon should be used (at all or in a given circumstance) isn’t its horribleness—they’re all horrible—it’s how well it can help attain a military objective while not producing political or human-rights problems.

With weapons bans, it's all in the spin. Bans on chemical weapons and exploding bullets in warfare are more the result of successful lobbying than any battlefield reality. In the 70s, the air force didn't mind giving up napalm, actually: it was a flashy, largely psychological weapon, that like the daisy cutter, could only be used against an opponent with no anti-aircraft capability whatsoever because of the way it had to be dropped. But all the signs around its reintroduction indicates they're getting ready to fight a lot harder for the T-Bomb.

UPDATE: CNN's military analyst, former Air Force general Don Sheppard is batting for the home team already. Tonight according to CNN, "Shepperd, a CNN military analyst, said the new weapon is not a fuel-air explosive but works on a similar principle." That's an intentional distinction: he's repeated what PR lingo calls the "key message" on this story, but in the apparently non-biased guise of a "retired expert." It's very good product placement.* John Pike and, however, can't afford to dissemble the same way with their more savvy clientele. In a new webpage just posted in the last couple hours, they tell the insider audience that it's really "a new class of solid fuel-air explosive thermobarics."

*In case you're wondering how I can presume to say what's really going on, I've spent the last six years doing PR, with experience in crisis communications, for both Canada's largest university and its army reserve. And this, so far, is a textbook case of good, subtle "rebranding" PR. Don't take your eyes off it.

Posted by BruceR at 08:17 PM



Is anyone else seeing some surprising good sense in the words of the Goldfinger/Drax character when they inevitably say, "No, I want him taken alive?" (The picayune demand made of his underlings, which, in the movies, inevitably allows the Bond character such an easy entrance to the secret HQ?) We'd like some closure, please. Time to start DNA-sampling Tora Bora?

Posted by BruceR at 07:00 PM



Napster: it was fun and all. But I'm outta here. Ta.

Posted by BruceR at 06:56 PM



Fuel-air explosives have gotten a rough ride recently. Many people consider them inhumane weapons of war. At least one UN commission and the International Red Cross have lumped them in with cluster bombs, napalm, and depleted uranium weapons as needing to be banned by international treaty. The Americans withdrew their entire FAE inventory from service after the Gulf War, as they did with napalm after Vietnam, in part due to peace group lobbying. On the other hand, there's no doubt they're extremely effective against dug-in troops: military experts consider the Russians' cakewalk in Grozny in 2000 almost entirely due to their liberal use of FAE rockets, most fired by their new direct-fire support vehicle, the apparently Japanese-anime inspired Buratino.

Accordingly, when the American air force started dropping their own BLU-82 "daisy cutters" in Afghanistan, they were at pains to distinguish these "good" munitions from those "bad" fuel-air bombs. Most people (including CNN and Time) were calling them fuel-air bombs anyway. But as John Pike and others rightly pointed out at the time, that's not true. The daisy cutter is more akin to a really really big conventional bomb. Fuel-air explosives, on the other hand, detonate in stages, first spreading a flammable vapor through the air, then igniting it, producing a massive blast effect. Because the vapor can invade anywhere where there's air in the microseconds before the second detonation, traditional trenches and the like are not useful against it. (Why this is obviously more inhumane than regular high explosive has always been a mystery to me, I'm afraid, but maybe I'm just dense.) But no, the reporters were mistaken, the Americans certainly were not using fuel-air explosives in this war... oh, no. Only the Russians use those anymore.

So it was amusing to read the USAF admission today that they have brought a new weapon into action in Afghanistan. Associated Press' Matt Kelley reported (I read it in the Star, which has crappy, non-persistent linkage, so it's mirrored here) that the new, super-hitech BLU-118b "thermobaric bomb" has been "rushed" from the labs just in time for the war:

Military researchers rushed the new "thermobaric" bomb to completion after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which killed at least 3,000 people... Thermobaric weapons work on the same principle that causes blasts in grain elevators and other dusty places — clouds of fine particles are highly explosive... Such explosions produce shock waves that can be directed and amplified in enclosed spaces such as buildings, caves or tunnels... That could prove to be a big advantage in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda...

The old BLU-118 was a 500 lb napalm canister, but that's not napalm that's in it now, obviously... so what is? Well, since all fuel-air explosives operate because of what scientists call the "thermobaric principle", what do YOU think? What's really happened here is they've put laser or satellite guidance on an FAE bomb for use as a cave-buster. But to avoid an outcry they can't call it an FAE bomb. So it's now the fashionable, cool-new-thing "thermobaric" bomb. Remember, class, cause this is important now: fuel-air bomb BAD. Thermobaric bomb GOOD. And read that AP article again: it's about as fine an example of military PR putting one past the reporters (assisted, once again, by's John Pike) as you ever did see.

UPDATE: Unlike AP, Agence France Presse (AFP) didn't fall for the bait-and-switch. Protein Wisdom has a link to their news story (found on Yahoo Singapore, of all places), which saw through the spin.

Posted by BruceR at 03:54 PM