How Russian Flame Artillery Took Bakhmut

Incendiary and Thermobaric Warheads at close Range

To counter entrenched positions, militaries in the 1970s and 80s increasingly relied on air power and artillery that was getting more accurate with each passing year. This approach had limitations though as regular artillery could be slow to respond and still had trouble defeating the heaviest types of fortification, while airstrikes required air superiority and were still vulnerable to air defenses like SAM’s and infantry teams with short range missiles. To fill this capability gap left behind after the retirement of flame tanks, the Soviet military began designing what would become the TOS-1 in the early 1980s.

Development was carried out in secret at the KTBM design bureau in Omsk, entering service in 1988 during the final years of the Soviet-Afghan War. Despite being used in combat trials in the Panjshir Valley of Afghanistan, the TOS-1 wasn’t unveiled to the public for another 10 years. Because of this secrecy not much is known about its early development history, but the nickname “Buratino” comes from the Russian translation for Pinocchio, as Russian designers thought the TOS-1 had a “big nose.” We don’t personally see the resemblance but if any of you viewers out there can crack Soviet engineers’ sense of humor then I’m sure there’s a position for you at the CIA.

Key to the TOS-1’s performance and the reason for all the secrecy around the weapons project is the Buratino’s focus on using incendiary and thermobaric warheads at close range. The Russian military still has problems building precision guided weapons in 2023 and this was even more of a problem in the late 80s so bringing a rocket launcher closer to the target has the benefit of improving both accuracy and response time. The first versions of the TOS-1 had a maximum range of about 3.5 kilometers, far shorter than similar 220mm rocket systems like the BM-27 Uragan which fires out to 34 kilometers.

This reflects the more direct support role of the TOS-1, bringing the firepower right up to the target for maximum effect, but being closer also makes the launcher much more vulnerable to enemy fire and artillery. To offset this vulnerability, both the TOS-1 and its reloading vehicle were built using a fully armored T-72 tank hull for mobility and protection. All aiming and firing functions can be performed from inside the vehicles so crew aren’t exposed to the battlefield, and the TOS-1 can go from on-the-move to firing on a target within 90 seconds, ensuring a quick response to requests for fire missions.
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