For as cool as hurling columns of fire at your enemies is, “flamethrower guy” was one of the most dangerous jobs in the military — one stray bullet and the big canister of napalm strapped to you goes ka-boom and you along with it. So what better way to safely spread thermobaric mayhem than by incorporating your flamethrower into a T-72 Battle Tank?
The conventional flamethrower that you’re currently thinking of was used throughout WWII, Korea and Vietnam, but has since been widely replaced by the FLASH system which fires a quartet of incendiary rockets outfitted with thermobaric warheads. They were able to engage the same military personnel, equipment and fortified bunkers as the napalm-spewers, just at a much longer range, which kept their operators further away from danger.
The Russians developed a similar thermobaric rocket system, except theirs carried 30, 220mm rounds and was attached to the chassis of a T-72 main battle tank. Known as the TOS-1 Buratino — or “heavy flame throwing merry wooden boy” after the protagonist from Tolstoy’s re-imagined Pinocchio tale, The Golden Key — this heavy launcher has an effective range of just 3500m so it typically deploys in the company of traditional tanks and infantry for defence. It also requires a pair of TZM-T support vehicles which caddy extra rockets and fuel. And, while not nearly as heavily armoured as the main battle tanks that surround it, the TOS-1 is outfitted with NBC (nuclear, biological, and chemical) defenses. The Buratino first saw combat in 1988 during the Soviet war in Afghanistan before making its public debut 11 years later in 1999.
By the turn of the century, the TOS-1 platform was getting rather long in the tooth, so Russia retrofitted the launcher assembly into the TOS-1A Soltsepek (“Blazing Sun”). Though the new launcher carried only 24 rockets, six fewer than before, each 90kg rocket packed more punch using its 73kg predecessors and could be fired out to 6km — roughly double the Buratino’s range — thanks to an updated ballistic computer. If needed, the Soltsepek can unload all 24 of its rounds onto a target in under 12 seconds. In addition to the thermobaric rockets, the Soltsepek was outfitted with a four-barrel smoke grenade launcher that could provide 400m-long cover up to 100m away. The three-man crew is also armed with an AKS-74, a full-auto RPKS-74, 10 hand grenades and three RPGs. The Soltsepek is powered by an 840HP V-84MS diesel and can cover up to 550km at a speed of 60km/h.
Check out some video of the TOS-1A blowing things up from nearly two miles away in this awesome coverage of a Russian anti-terrorism exercise: