Were Syria’s Nerve Gas Rockets Based on an American Design?

For weeks now, photos have been showing up online showing a mysterious rocket found at the scene of alleged chemical attacks in Syria. While no one knows for sure, one former chemical weapons inspector says the weapons found in Syria appear to based a particularly brutal American design from the Cold War. Ordinarily, this might ...

U.S. Army, Imgur, Brown Moses
U.S. Army, Imgur, Brown Moses
U.S. Army, Imgur, Brown Moses

For weeks now, photos have been showing up online showing a mysterious rocket found at the scene of alleged chemical attacks in Syria. While no one knows for sure, one former chemical weapons inspector says the weapons found in Syria appear to based a particularly brutal American design from the Cold War.

Ordinarily, this might be a mere curiosity for weapons geeks. But these rockets have now became a cornerstone of the West's case that the Syrian military was behind the nerve gas massacre of more than a thousands people in the Damascus suburbs last week. U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice tweeted earlier in the week that only the Assad regime "has capacity to launch CW [chemical weapons] with rockets." An American intelligence official told Foreign Policy on Tuesday that the rockets found at the scene of the attack on the East Ghouta region were a strong indicator that the strike involved chemical weapons. The rockets were largely intact -- rather than completely destroyed, as they would be if they been carrying high-explosive warheads.

For weeks now, photos have been showing up online showing a mysterious rocket found at the scene of alleged chemical attacks in Syria. While no one knows for sure, one former chemical weapons inspector says the weapons found in Syria appear to based a particularly brutal American design from the Cold War.

Ordinarily, this might be a mere curiosity for weapons geeks. But these rockets have now became a cornerstone of the West’s case that the Syrian military was behind the nerve gas massacre of more than a thousands people in the Damascus suburbs last week. U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice tweeted earlier in the week that only the Assad regime “has capacity to launch CW [chemical weapons] with rockets.” An American intelligence official told Foreign Policy on Tuesday that the rockets found at the scene of the attack on the East Ghouta region were a strong indicator that the strike involved chemical weapons. The rockets were largely intact — rather than completely destroyed, as they would be if they been carrying high-explosive warheads.

Why is there so much rocket left? There shouldn’t be so much rocket left” if it were a conventional weapon, the official said.

The video above shows what looks like the rockets found at the sites of chemcial attacks being loaded and fired by men wearing red-beret topped camoflage uniforms consistent with the Sryian Republican Guard and military police, according to the Brown Moses Blog, a running catalogue of the weapons used in the Syrian conflict. The video purports to show the rockets being fired from the Daraya district of Damascus to the northeast of the Al-Mezzeh military airfield. While last week’s chemical attacks occured at night and this video is clearly shot during the daytime, Daraya sits very close to Muadhamiya, one of the Damascus suburbs affected by last week’s chemcial attack. (The weapons shown in the video could be a conventional version of the suspected chemical munitions.)

These mystery rockets have been documented for weeks by Brown Moses, who first pointed out that their uniform design and assembly made it unlikely they were homemade weapons built by the Syrian rebels. That they had to be from the arsenal of the Syrian military.

If these are indeed Assad’s rockets, they appear to be a painful example of how a design meant to save American lives on the battlefield has been converted to a weapon of mass destruction turned against civilians.

The Surface Launch Unit-Fuel Air Explosive or SLUFAE (shown below), is a 1970s-vintage American weapon designed to clear minefields. SLUFAE was what’s known as a fuel air explosive (FAE) or thermobaric munition. These weapons are designed to destroy targets with the massive amounts of air pressure generated by their explosions rather than with flames and shrapnel. The U.S. Army and Navy developed SLUFAE as a prototype weapons system meant to be fired into minefields ahead of advancing U.S. troops with the intention of using SLUFAE’s tremendous explosive force to safely detonate mines.

SLUFAEs were 5 inch-wide, Zuni rockets with a 13.5 inch-wide, 100-pound, barrel-shaped warhead filled with explosive gas mounted on the front. The whole contraption was about 8-feet long. As you can see by the image above, the rear end of SLUFAE bears an uncanny resemblance to the weapons found in Syria. The front-ends of of the mystery rockets also appear to have been large, barrel-shaped warheads that were destroyed or disfigured upon detonation and impact with the ground. 

One former inspector with the U.N.’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, says the the weapons in Syria could well be a knock off of the SLUFAE design, but with the warhead filled with chemical weapons instead of the pressurized explosive gas found in FAEs. 

SLUFAE’s “design would make it useful for chemical weapons delivery,” said the ex-inspector in an email.

“This type of rocket, with a similar warhead design, has been seen before as a FAE weapon,” he added, describing SLUFAE. “These were typically filled with a pressurized gas, I believe the U.S. used Ethylene trioxide.”

This gas would be expelled from SULFAE’s warhead when it was just above the target and then explode “a split second later,” according to the ex-inspector. “This gas explosion did not normally burn anything, but the detonation caused significant overpressure. This was found to be very deadly for people and animals.”

People and animals unlucky enough to be near a thermobaric explosion have their internal organs crushed by waves of air pressure instead of suffering shrapnel wounds or burns.

The U.S. abandoned the SLUFAE effort before it was ever fielded. However, in the decades since it was tested, several countries have built similar weapons loosely based on SLUFAE, according to the inspector.

In fact, “a very similar munition was found 3-5 years ago, during one of the Israeli excursions,” into Southern Lebanon, said the former weapons inspector. That weapon turned out to be Israel’s CARPET thermobaric mine-clearing weapon (see the PDF below.)

“While it is not the same munition, you can see the similarities,” adds the ex inspector.

When asked by Killer Apps about the likelihood of an actual SLUFAE prototype from the 1970s falling into Assad’s hands, he replied, “I’d say about zero.”  

“There are only a few floating around, most in museums and I’ve got one here,” he added.  “But the concept was kept afloat. You can see what the Israelis did with it, and the Russians were not above copying something that they liked. They had one about the same size as the Israeli piece.”

Without on site inspections by experts, it’s impossible to know for sure if the rockets appearing online were used the chemical deaths of hundreds of Syrians over the last month.

Still, “the weapon is certainly capable of carrying chemical weapons, we saw worse designs from Iraq that were filled and fielded,” the inspector said.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be skeptical of the chemical claims associated with this particular type of rocket. Video recently surfaced showing UN inspection in Syria teams looking at what might be a Soviet-made BM-14 rocket, a known chemical delivery system.

One thing to give anyone pause about thinking the mystery rockets are being used to deliver chemical weapons is the complete lack of fear shown by everyone posing in the photos with the weapons.

“I am a little conflicted in that too many are being photographed with everyone in the photos wandering around with no protective gear and apparently no concern,” the inspector noted. “Most people have a deep underlying fear of chemical weapons. If you truly believed and had witnessed others affected, I would expect to see a little more worry.”

 

CARPET Brochure %281%29 (1) by jreedFP

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

Tag: Syria

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