May 10, 2007: While China sells cheap rifles,
pistols and RPGs to anyone with cash, they have been careful to keep them out
of places like Iraq and Afghanistan. This is somewhat reassuring since China
just announced a thermobaric (fuel air explosive) warhead ( WPF 2004), for use
by RPG launchers. Thermobaric warhead operate by dispersing an inflammable
mist, then igniting it. This produces an explosion that kills by sucking the
oxygen out of the surrounding areas, as well as with blast. Fired into a large
building, the thermobaric warhead would kill more people inside, and do less
damage to adjacent structures, while destroying the building itself.
Thermobaric warheads have been used with great success in Russian and American
shoulder fired rocket launchers.
For example, about a third of the American AT-4
rocket launchers now use thermobaric warheads, which can clear out an entire
house, and stun anyone it didn't kill. The AT-4 gunners quickly became quite
proficient. The average range was about 400 meters, and most AT-4 gunners can
put them right through a window 90 percent of the time.
The big market for the new Chinese WPF 2004 warhead is the Russian designed RPG
(rocket propelled grenade) 7. The WPF 2004 weighs seven pounds and is effective
out to 200 meters. The RPG 7 launcher itself was developed 40 years ago as a
cheap, lightweight anti-tank weapon. It was based on a similar German weapon
developed during World War II. The launcher weighs 18 pounds and the standard
anti-tank rocket weighs about five pounds. China, and several other nations,
make cheap clones of the RPG 7 launcher and a wide variety of warheads. The
standard RPG-7 rocket contains a shaped charge explosive for punching a whole
through armor. The new rockets either have fragmentation warheads or more
expensive thermobaric (fuel-air explosive) warheads. The thermobaric rocket, if
fired into a building, has the same effect of about five pounds of high
explosive (about the same amount found in a 120mm mortar shell.) For aimed
fire, the max range of the RPG-7 is about 500 meters, although the Chinese WPF
2004 is described as accurate only out to 200 meters.
Basic RPG rockets can be had in many third world
arms bazaars for as little as ten dollars each. A warlord with some cash to
spare can train some very expert RPG-7 gunners by supplying them with plenty of
rockets. And that's exactly what has happened in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorists tend to use
RPGs out in the open, against U.S. infantry or vehicles. An expensive (several
hundred dollars each) thermobaric warhead is not much more effective than one
with conventional explosives in it (and costing less than fifty dollars.)