The Complex

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 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

U.S. Army, Imgur, Brown Moses

The Complex

Mapped: 36 Places In Syria Likely to Get Hit With a U.S. Cruise Missile

View Syrian chemical sites and air bases in a larger map

It seems more and more likely that the United States will take some kind of military action against the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad. On Aug. 26, Secretary of State John Kerry all but said the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons to kill hundreds of civilians, a move the Obama administration says it will not tolerate. Kerry's words came days after the U.S. announced it is stationing four guided missile destroyers off the Syrian coast.

The goal of the attacks is unclear. But one of the suggested aims is to stop the Assad government from using chemical weapons. If that's the case, the American military may well find itself going after everything from chemical plants to arms depots to airfields in an effort to sever the the Syrian military's ability to make, store and fire its deadly sarin, mustard, and VX gas stockpiles.

The map above shows suspected locations of Syrian government chemical weapons sites as listed by the Nuclear Threat Initiative combined with the locations of Syrian air bases. The map shows facilities where chemical weapons are suspected of being made or stored along with the air bases containing the helicopters and jets that could be used to shoot chemical weapons at the rebels or civilians. It also shows Assad's palace in Damascus along with the headquarters of the Syrian military intelligence service, the Syrian military's general staff, the Special Forces Command, and the Republican Guard. (They are marked by flags on the map.) These are a few of the key command and control sites may also be targeted by the U.S., though they would likely be evacuated for secret backup locations in the event of U.S. airstrikes.

In theory, Assad's military can launch chemical attacks from the ground and from the air. In practice, air is the much better option, according to one defense expert. Yeah, Assad's military has hundreds -- if not thousands -- of easy-to-hide cannons and rocket launchers that could be used to fire off chemically-loaded artillery shells or rockets. But Chris Harmer of the Institute for the Study of War thinks they won't be nearly as useful as the aircraft are. First off, the rebels have denied large swaths of land to Assad's army, making it impossible for him to deploy artillery in many places throughout Syria. Furthermore, these ground-launched weapons have a much shorter range than his aircraft.

"If you're gonna use artillery or rockets to deliver chemical weapons, then you have to have that artillery close enough to where you actually want to use them," said Harmer. Assad's troops are "gonna have adequate forces, rockets, launchers, artillery shells to employ them [chemical weapons] right there in Damascus" as they did last week. However, "if they want to use it anywhere else, they're going to have to use air power."

"I think the most effective tactic at this point to deny further use of chemical weapons would be to take out the Syrian air force," said Harmer.

"My assumption is Assad has dispersed his chemical weapons stockpile sufficiently that there isn't one big fat target waiting to be hit," added Harmer. "So, using cruise missiles to run around looking for individual targets gets really expensive, really quickly."

Tony Cordesman, the veteran military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggests, doesn't believe such a campaign is worth doing. "Chemical weapons alone are not a reason to use force. Even the most successful cruise missile strikes would not destroy Syria's holdings," he writes in a newly-released study. "There is no credible chance the U.S. can locate or destroy Syria's entire holding without a massive air campaign and some kind of presence on the ground. Even if the Assad regime has not done the obvious, and used the last few months to covertly disperse a large portion of its weapons, cruise missiles simply don't have that kind of destructive power."

There's also the issue of civilian harm. Some worry that hitting chemical weapons depots or factories may hurt or kill large numbers of innocents if the chemicals are released into the air by exploding missiles. Assad's military is said to possess chemical weapons ranging from sarin and VX to mustard gas. While sarin may, in some circumstances, vaporize relatively quickly when hit with a missile, mustard gas isn't as easy to destroy and a missile strike could push it into the air. (The U.S. military goes to great pains to destroy its own chemical weapons far, far away from people just in case there any tiny leakage of the deadly poisons from the destruction facilities.) Even if the number of people killed by the release of toxins from a U.S. airstrike is relatively small -- and relatively might be the key word here -- compared to the numbers who who die when Assad uses his chemical weapons, the PR catastrophe that would result from Syrian civilians dying from a U.S. airstrike meant to protect them from chemical weapons would be pretty awful.

Harmer says he's not particularly worried about chemical collateral damage; the worst of the weapons, like sarin, are stored in "binary" format, with their chemical pre-cursors in separate units. "These weapons are more difficult to use than people realize; damaging them in place may vent chemicals to the atmosphere, but it is not like nuclear radiation -- chemical weapons will dissipate" relatively quickly, said Harmer. "There may be some collateral damage [in a strike destroying such weapons], but far less than use of chemical weapons" by the Assad regime.

Yet Harmer himself, credited by some as the man who put the bug in Washington's ear about a limited cruise missile campaign to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, thinks it might not be a very good idea. A few limited strikes without a broader strategic objective might make us feel good, he argues. It won't change the trajectory of the war.

As Killer Apps has pointed out before, truly destroying Assad's ability to fight the rebels would involve at least one U.S. aircraft carrier and a ton of fighter jets, bombers and support aircraft in addition to any destroyers. It could very well mean hitting political targets, in addition to purely military ones, as Cordesman suggests. While there's no way Assad could stave off such an onslaught, the U.S. could be faced with the prospect of keeping order if the rebels began to turn on each other in a bid for power. It looks increasingly likely that if the U.S. hits Assad, it will be a limited campaign aimed at punishing him for using chemical weapons, for now.