On Monday, the deputy head of Kyiv’s police claimed that Russian forces were using white phosphorus munitions in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, a claim echoed in a British ITV News report with video of sparkling, fiery objects raining down on the city. White phosphorus is bad enough, but some have identified the weapon as something even worse: a Soviet-era anti-personnel weapon which scatters hundreds of miniature napalm bombs.
Samir, an open-source intelligence analyst who is mainly known for extracting useful data from satellite imagery in the Middle East (and has 73,000 Twitter followers as a result), immediately recognized it as something else: “This isn’t White Phosphorus, these are thermite incendiary submunitions … we’ve seen similar footage of these unguided 9M22S incendiary Grad rockets in use by the Russians in Syria countless times.”
White phosphorus, or WP, is a chemical that self-ignites in air: it burns immediately on contact with oxygen, producing a dense white smoke. It is commonly used in artillery smoke shells, as a barrage of WP will rapidly obscure a wide area, providing instant cover from observation. However, it is also an effective antipersonnel weapon: it sticks to the skin and keeps burning. As Human Rights Watch notes, it is notorious for the depth and severity of the burns it causes and is also toxic, so victims may die of organ failure even if they survive their burns.
Because it is mainly used for producing smoke, WP is often not considered to be an incendiary weapon, and there are few controls on its use. It can still be controversial, as when U.S. artillery carried out “shake and bake” strikes on insurgents in Fallujah in 2004 with a combination of high explosive and WP rounds.
Other images of WP shells fired at night look different to what was seen in Kramatorsk, which appears much more like 9M22S strikes in Syria, as Samir notes. While phosphorus burns a dull yellow and orange with a lot of smoke, while magnesium produces a characteristic bright white flame, which is why it is used for flares. And magnesium is a key component of 9M22S rockets, which is a special munition for the BM-21 “Grad” multiple rocket launcher, a truck-mounted system that can launch a salvo of 40 122mm rockets in 20 seconds.
This incendiary rocket was specifically designed as an antipersonnel weapon. While the napalm bombs dropped by the U.S. in Vietnam were simply tanks of liquid incendiary mixture which burst open to spread their contents– a 120-gallon version covered an area about 150 feet long by 50 wide – the Russian wanted to cover a wider area with a smaller weapon. To achieve this, they experimented to discover the minimum size fragment of incendiary mix to disable a person, even if they were wearing thick winter clothes – all it takes is about 5 grams – and developed a cluster warhead to distribute these amounts.
Each rocket contains 180 incendiary elements. Unlike napalm they are not self-igniting, but are set off by charges when the warhead bursts. Each element consists of a hexagonal shell of magnesium alloy filled with a fire mixture whose main ingredients are gasoline, isopropyl nitrate and rubber. (U.S. Napalm B was a mix of gasoline, benzene and polystyrene thickener). The magnesium burns briefly with a bright white light, the fire mixture produces a longer-lasting flame, and typically sticks to the target while burning. Attempting to scrape the mix off just spreads it, and it is not extinguished by water. Technically this is not thermite, which is a metal/metal oxide mix burning at higher temperature.
Each 140-pound rocket covers about 250 feet by 250 feet with flaming projectiles, so a whole 40-rocket barrage will hit a large area. While it is most effective when used against troops in forests or dry vegetation, it may also be used against personnel in the open and is described as “particularly effective in defeating manpower located in trenches.”
The use of the weapon in the current invasion no great surprise, as it had previously been identified in Eastern Ukraine in 2014. As in that incident, it will take forensic analysis to confirm exactly what weapon was used in this instance. 9M22S rockets may also have been used in Luhansk on March 12, according to open-source intelligence group the Conflict Intelligence Team.
Technically, the 9MS22 incendiary rocket is not illegal; flame weapons can be used against military targets, like flamethrowers on bunkers, or Molotov Cocktails against tanks. But a bizarre legal loophole means that ground-launched incendiaries can be used against military targets even in populated areas so long as these are “clearly separated from the concentration of civilians and all feasible precautions are taken.”
Human Rights Watch understandably wants to see this loophole closed and calls for new laws to prohibit the use of all incendiary weapons, regardless of their delivery system, in concentrations of civilians.
The use of such weapons in cities is another indication of Russia’s willingness to ratchet up the levels of destruction, destroying apartment blocks and causing mass casualties. This serves no military purpose, but aims to demoralize the civilian population and undermine their will to fight. Bombarding cities cannot win the war, but at present it seems to be the only tactic the Russians have left.