MoD is working on devastating 'vacuum bomb'

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Indy Politics

Britain is developing a hi-tech urban warfare weapon based on vacuum bombs - much criticised by human rights groups for causing a devastating loss of civilian lives.

Britain is developing a hi-tech urban warfare weapon based on vacuum bombs - much criticised by human rights groups for causing a devastating loss of civilian lives.

The thermobaric missile can be fired by one soldier from a shoulder-held launcher to destroy a building and the people in it. The device is an advanced version of the Russian rocket-powered Schmel flamethrower, nicknamed "satan's stick" for the casualties it inflicted in the Afghan war.

The planned British weapon will use similar technology to the fuel-air bombs used by Russian forces in Chechnya, which were condemned for the levels of civilian casualties. However, the Ministry of Defence said thermobaric munition was not banned by the Geneva Convention and insisted the precision of the weapon would limit civilian casualties. It was mainly for use against snipers or resistance in built-up areas.

While fuel-air bombs spray flammable liquid over a wide area before igniting it to cause firestorms, the shoulder-launched thermobaric weapon is more precise by igniting fuel on impact. The missile would send shockwaves, causing massive damage to the victims' internal organs, before enveloping them in a fireball. At the same time the air would be sucked out of their lungs by the pressure created by the blast.

The plan was immediately criticised by the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, Menzies Campbell. He said Britain should be leading attempts to ban that type of weaponry instead of producing it. The MP called on the Government to reveal in exactly which circumstances it would be used.

He said: "These weapons can inflict terrible injuries on human beings whether hand-held or mounted on the back of tanks. Dum-dum bullets are outlawed by the international community. Should not these weapons be treated the same way? There is an extensive problem of proliferation. Great Britain should, instead, take the lead in drawing up a convention limiting these weapons."

Several arms companies have submitted development proposals to the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency and, although no funding has yet been assigned, the new arms could be in use by 2005.

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