The Letter To Britain’s Ministry of Defence About ‘Thermobaric’ Weapons

22nd May 2018 / United Kingdom
The Letter To The Ministry of Defence About ‘Thermobaric’ Weapons

Last week TruePublica reported via DroneWarsUK that the UK’s Ministry of Defence was frequently using a specific weapon in Syria that by any standard, is so horrific, it is considered illegal. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Criminal Court (ICC) – The “employment of a thermobaric weapon against a population is about half of a war crime.” And the only reason the use of thermobaric weapons isn’t a war crime is in fact because the international community has yet to officially name them as cruel weapons against the spirit of just about every single law of war that exists.


We said: “The question of their use anywhere in the world by British forces should be put to the government and it does not warrant the usual muted response behind ‘national security.”


That question has, in fact, already been asked. Here is the introduction by the author of that letter – which does exactly that.


By Lesley Docksey: In 2009 the Armed Forces Minister of the day, Bill Rammell, gave a speech at a conference in London.   As the then editor of the Abolish War newsletter, I had been following the thermobaric weapon story for some time, so I went prepared with my question: Why did the MoD think that, by reclassifying thermobaric weapons as ‘enhanced blast’ weapons, this would make them legally acceptable?


The conference, under the heading “And Still They Don’t Listen”, was addressing the problem of getting government and its Ministers to listen to peace campaigners begging them to comply with international laws – an ongoing problem.  This question came out of the blue, and Mr Rammell was totally unprepared.  He said that he would have to write to me with his answer.  Which, to give him his due, he did – a dense letter full of ‘science’ that did everything but answer the question.  So, using facts rather than the MoD’s science, I wrote back:


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Dear Mr Rammell


“Thank you for taking the trouble to answer the query I brought up at the ‘And Still They Don’t Listen’ conference.  However, I cannot say that I am satisfied with your response, nor did it answer the question I posed, a question I would still like an answer to.


“I am not concerned with the scientific explanations of what is or is not a thermobaric weapon.  I am well aware of the fact that the AGM-114N warhead (and related weapons) do not create the fireball that the original thermobaric weapons were designed for.  They are instead designed to create vacuum/pressure waves, and used in closed spaces that effect is enhanced as the walls reflect the pressure, creating more pressure waves.  And they are variants of and developed from the original thermobaric weapons. From the very start of this variant of thermobaric weapon being developed, it has carried the name ‘thermobaric’.


“I am, however, concerned with the effect of those weapons now marketed as ‘thermobaric’, particularly when used in urban areas.  It is the use and effect of these weapons that worry human rights organisations and lawyers, not what names or definitions they are given.


“I am also concerned (and this was the point of my question at the conference) that the MoD feels that simply calling this type of weapon by another name would somehow make its use more legally acceptable.  I do not think that the MoD is ‘hiding something’, as your letter suggests. I do think that the MoD believes that some obvious semantic footwork will allow it to escape its international legal obligations. As a law-abiding citizen, I object to a government ministry taking that view.  After all, had I committed murder and then redefined that act as ‘person removal’, I would still be guilty of the act of murder in the eyes of the law.


“What follows is what I have traced of the history of the AGM-114N thermobaric warhead for use with the Hellfire missile, as reported on defence/military websites and in the press.


“On 11 April 2002 the Defence Daily Network (the Business Source for Aerospace and Defence) reported that a thermobaric warhead (a variant of the AGM-114) for a Hellfire missile had been successfully tested by Lockheed Martin in early April.


“In mid-May 2003 Global Security reported that US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had revealed that US forces had for the first time used a new thermobaric variant of the Hellfire missile during the conflict in Iraq.  This was the AGM-114N warhead. The same report said that the production and supply of the AGM-114N was scheduled to take place over the next two years.


“On 23 August 2005 Lockheed Martin issued a press release titled: Hellfire Thermobaric Warhead Approved for Production.  It stated: ‘Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) announced that the U.S. government has approved the thermobaric HELLFIRE (AGM-114N) missile for an accelerated full-rate production run…. ‘Early versions of the MAC (Metal Augmented Charge) -configured HELLFIRE have already been combat-proven in Operation Iraqi Freedom and have been cited by the Administration as meeting an urgent requirement to suppress terrorists in urban areas,’ said Jim Gribschaw, program director for Air-to-Ground Missiles Systems at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control.  ‘This missile is capable of reaching around corners to strike enemy forces hiding in cases, bunkers and hardened multi-room complexes.’


“On 28 March 2007 Jane’s Defence Weekly reported: ‘UK attack helicopter commanders in Afghanistan have requested the acquisition of thermobaric warheads to improve the effectiveness of their Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.’  The request was made in late 2006. A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman told Jane’s: ‘Once the study team has reached a conclusion, the doctrinal and legal implications of acquiring thermobaric weapons will be considered by the MoD’s Doctrine and Concept Development Centre and by the ministry’s in-house legal team respectively’.


“She said it was normal procedure to look at the legal issues of any new weapon system that has not been fielded before by the UK armed forces to ensure the weapon complies with the UK government’s international legal obligations.  Thermobaric weapons have attracted criticism from human rights groups who have claimed they contravene the laws of war.


“It is quite clear from this that the MoD accepted that the warheads they were intending to buy were indeed defined as thermobaric.  At this point, the MoD was not saying it was ‘unfortunate’ (to use your word) that the manufacturers were using this label. Everyone, including the MoD seemed happy to use it.


“On 22 June 2008 the Times reported: ‘British forces in Afghanistan have used one of the world’s most deadly and controversial missiles to fight the Taliban.  Apache attack helicopters have fired the thermobaric weapons against fighters in buildings and caves, to create a pressure wave which sucks the air out of victims, shreds their internal organs and crushes their bodies.  The Ministry of Defence has admitted to the use of the weapons, condemned by human rights groups as “brutal”, on several occasions, including against a cave complex.’


“The same report also said that ‘the weapons are so controversial that MoD weapons and legal experts spent 18 months debating whether British troops could use them without breaking international law.  Eventually, they decided to get round the ethical problems by redefining the weapons. ‘We no longer accept the term thermobaric [for the AGM-114N] as there is no internationally agreed definition,’ said an MoD spokesman. ‘We call it an enhanced blast weapon.’


“However, the Armed Forces International website, when noting this report, added: ‘the AGM-114N is made by Lockheed Martin, under whose terminology it is still referred to as ‘thermobaric’.’


“On 28 May 2009 the Guardian reported that:British pilots in Afghanistan are firing an increasing number of ‘enhanced blast’ thermobaric weapons, designed to kill everyone in buildings they strike, the Ministry of Defence has revealed.’  Although there were quotes from an MoD spokesperson, nowhere in the article did that person claim that the ‘enhanced blast’ weapons were not thermobaric.


“Your letter states ‘These (warheads) have unfortunately been marketed by the US as thermobaric.’  I would suggest that the manufacturers of these weapons are rather more conversant with what they are making than the MoD.  They made and tested prototypes under the label ‘thermobaric’. They manufactured them under the label ‘thermobaric’. They marketed them under the label ‘thermobaric’, and after all that, our Armed Forces requested them and the MoD procured them under the label ‘thermobaric’.


“Human rights groups criticise this weapon, not because it is or isn’t ‘thermobaric’, but because of its effects.  No matter what name you give it, the way it works remains the same. The warhead is packed with fluorinated aluminium powder surrounding a small charge.  When it hits the target, the charge disperses the aluminium powder throughout the target building. The powder, reacting to the oxygen in the air, ignites, creating a vacuum followed by an intense pressure wave. Rather than blowing up the building or creating a firestorm, the vacuum collapses the lungs and the pressure wave (as surgeons in Gaza can testify) shreds all the internal organs of everyone in the building.  It also, as one can see in photos of bodies where this type of weapon has been used, pulverises the bones so completely that the limbs can be folded in any direction, like a rag doll.


“If you were an Afghan living in a small house with your family, and your town was being attacked by shell or missile, you would run to the nearest strong building (or cave) for shelter.  But it is precisely such buildings this weapon is designed to attack. The stronger the outside walls, the more effectve the weapon. The vacuum and pressure blast moves through every room.  It can, as its designers say ‘go round corners’. And up or down stairs and into the cellars, which is where most civilians would shelter from an air attack. There is no way this weapon can be used without the possibility that innocent civilians will be killed.  In an attack on a closed building or cave, there is also no way of knowing how many non-combatants are inside. One may be using a laser-guided missile, and targeting that missile on one specific room in the building. But the weapon is designed to kill everyone in every room in the building.  Under International Law, that makes the use of this weapon controversial to say the least, regardless of the definition or name the MoD has chosen to use.  If it is legally controversial as a ‘thermobaric’ warhead, it is equally so as an ‘enhanced blast’ weapon.


“Having said all that, I will now put my question to you again:


“How can the MoD justify the decision that simply changing a name or ‘definition’ of a weapon can turn its use from being certainly controversial and possibly illegal under International Law into being acceptable and legal?


“And as a post script:


“On Friday 9 October, while attending a meeting at the University of London, I met Rear Admiral Chris Parry (Retd), who was the Director General of the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, when the AGM-114N was being considered and undergoing its name change.  In response to my mentioning the thermobaric warhead he became quite defensive, not to say hysterical. He insisted that the UK has absolutely no thermobaric weapons and when I said I was speaking specifically of the thermobaric warhead, made by Lockheed Martin for use with the missiles fired by Apache helicopters he said I was being ridiculous because…


“Because the nature of the weapon meant that having any such weapon in any aircraft would blow the aircraft up.”  How did he think we and the US got these weapons to Iraq and Afghanistan – a postman with a pushbike? If this is the standard of intelligence in the MoD, I despair.”


I never got an answer to my question, and now it appears the UK is still using these horrific weapons, this time in Syria, but without the fig leaf title of ‘enhanced blast’


Lesley Docksey © 16/05/18

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