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The Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) in Ukraine are being bolstered with the supply of thermobaric weapons, according to a UK Defence Intelligence update on 11 April 2023.

“As of 3 April 2023 Russian media reported the transfer of TOS-1A thermobaric multiple launch rocket systems to Russian airborne forces (VDV),” the update stated. It noted that the TOS-1A system “is typically operated by Russia’s specialist Chemical, Biological and Radiological Protection Troops in Ukraine and has not previously been formally associated with the VDV”, adding that the transfer “likely indicates a future role for the VDV in offensive operations in Ukraine”.

The Russian 220 mm 24-barrel TOS-1A system. UK Defence Intelligence says the transfer of such a system to the VDV likely indicates their role in a future offensive. (Photo: Vitaly Kuzmin/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The TOS-1A is a 220 mm 24-barrel multiple rocket launcher mounted on a tracked T-72 tank chassis. Because it is capable of firing rounds armed with highly destructive thermobaric warheads, it is designated in Russian as a ‘heavy flamethrower system’. The TOS-1A has already been deployed by the Russians in Ukraine, with the Oryx website, which tracks equipment losses in Ukraine, recording half a dozen such systems destroyed, damaged or captured as of mid-April.

The VDV, UK Defence Intelligence noted, suffered heavy casualties in the first nine months of the war in Ukraine, which would have been a period in which Russian commanders were still banking on their elite and best-trained units being able to prevail against the defending Ukrainian forces. In the opening days of the war VDV forces suffered heavy losses in their failed attempt to take Hostomel Airport in northern Kyiv in a heliborne assault, while VDV paratroops attempting to secure Vasylkiv Air base in Kyiv Oblast were also encircled and defeated.

According to BBC News Russian and the independent Russian Mediazona news website, 1,522 VDV deaths had been documented by 12 February 2023.

Peter Felstead