Vacuum bombs: What are thermobaric weapons and how do they work?

The Ukrainian ambassador to the United States says Russia has used a devastating weapon known as a vacuum bomb against Ukrainians.

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Oksana Markarova told reporters on Monday night after a meeting with U.S. lawmakers that the bomb was used to destroy a Ukrainian army base in the northeastern town of Okhtyrka, killing 70 soldiers there.

U.S. officials say they have not yet confirmed the use of the bomb, which sucks oxygen from the air and generates a high-temperature explosion.

“I don’t have any confirmation of that,” said White House spokesperson Jen Psaki. “We have seen the reports. If that were true, it would potentially be a war crime.”

What is a thermobaric weapon and is it being used in Ukraine?

Here is what we know about it.

What is a thermobaric or “vacuum” bomb?

A thermobaric bomb is a two-stage bomb that is so powerful and so hot that it can vaporize a human body.

The first stage of the explosion sends out an aerosol made of a carbon-based fuel and powered metal particles. The second charge ignites that material.

After the initial explosion, a prolonged low-pressure zone sucks back toward the explosion site, according to The result is a fireball, a shock wave, and an intense vacuum as it sucks up all surrounding oxygen.

What can the bomb do?

The bomb creates massive damage because the blast lasts longer than other types of bombs. In addition, the vacuum effect creates more damage and attacks the lungs by destroying air sacs, basically ripping the lungs apart.

The bomb can penetrate bunkers, or, in the case of Ukraine, can penetrate the subway stations many have gone to for shelter.

The bomb is effective in underground bunkers because a prolonged thermobaric blast can also go around corners, making it effective against bunkers, trenches and tunnels, which would provide shelter from a normal blast.

The weapons come in a range of sizes.

Are they new weapons?

No. Variants of this weapon have been used since the 1960s. A version was used by the U.S. in Vietnam.

The U.S. also used a version of the bomb in its attempts to eliminate al-Qaida in the mountains in Afghanistan. It was called “the mother of all bombs.”

Is it a war crime to use the weapon?

Under international law, the weapons are not illegal for use against military targets but cannot be used against civilians.

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