Small Wars Journal

Thinking the Unthinkable about Napalm and Flamethrowers

Sun, 01/01/2012 - 7:29pm

Almost everyone who recalls the image from Vietnam of a terrified young girl running naked from a village attacked with napalm is likely to say the United States should never again deploy such a horrible weapon.

But unlike nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, is there a more nuanced approach to support the use of flamethrowers in places like Afghanistan to root out terrorists, hidden in caves in remote regions?

It wasn’t long ago that flame was used with devastating effect against us on 9/11, when fuel-laden commercial aircraft hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Not napalm exactly, but close. It said a lot about the determination of Al Qaeda and fellow travelers to fight us to the finish.

Napalm as described in Wikipedia traces its history to scientists at Harvard University in 1942 who developed the formula for synthetic napalm, in response to a shortage of rubber, a thickener then in short supply. Napalm wasn’t used much in Europe but was very effective in the Pacific Theater against Japanese –held islands and the mainland itself. It saved many Allied lives during the Korean War, without controversy. There still is no prohibition of its use against military targets. Civilians are protected by international convention signed in 1980, but only those agreeing to abide by its terms..

Napalm, delivered by bombs or flamethrowers, kills on one hand, protects lives on another, depending on where one stands. Beyond that, burning gas has a powerful psychological effect, topping my list of weapons used to intimidate and deter.

What motivates me to think about this is a message I received from a friend operating in Afghanistan. He asks, where were flame weapons when really needed to clear caves and attack terrorists during Operation Anaconda. A major objective was to kill bin Laden. The answer, we got rid of flamethrowers years ago. And napalm bombs went by the wayside too.

Our failure to field weapons equal to the task, especially napalm configured in flamethrowers, is disconcerting testimony to our determination to win in the field and protect those carrying the fight abroad.

Conventional wisdom says we should never even consider the use of napalm, because it is so indiscriminate. Anyone within the target area is likely to be killed or maimed, whether a legitimate combatant or innocent civilian.

That is absolutely true, as far as it goes. But what if its use were restricted to remote areas, where there is no civilian population? Enemy targets cannot be avoided, whether in caves or in the open. Ignoring the threat defeats the mission and prolongs the conflict. Otherwise, the only way to clear a cave without entering is to toss in a few hand grenades, conventional or thermobaric, hoping they are effective. But caves are not necessarily shallow boxes where grenades work well.

A napalm-bomb variant was used by the Air Force in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is substantially less impressive than earlier formulas because it uses jellied kerosene rather than gasoline as the main ingredient. It burns for only 15-30 seconds, compared to 10 minutes in earlier versions. I doubt kerosene could be used in flamethrowers, but it makes a lot of sense to find out, if it could overcome the main obstacle to returning flamethrowers into the inventory.

I understand napalm dropped in Vietnam was superior to every other formula, before or since, although it isn’t used anymore, perhaps to appear more compassionate. Perhaps this should be reviewed, too. If we’re going to use a napalm-substitute, why not go for the real thing?

Thermobartic weapons are new to the battlefield. They disperse explosive gas, creating tremendous overpressures when the mist is ignited. I’ve never seen one work, but I’m told they’re very effective in certain scenarios. I don’t think, however, they have much value in psychological warfare, compared to napalm.

This leaves the option of sending a soldier into a cave with  pistol and flashlight, as we did in Vietnam years ago. The great advantage of a flame weapon such as napalm delivered by flamethrower is that it sucks the air out of the cave, without exposing friendly forces to gunshot or IEDs. And it scares the hell out of anyone watching, thinking they may be the next target.

The solution may sound simple but there is no flame weapon in the Army’s arsenal, to the best of my knowledge, as there was when I was a young officer in Southeast Asia. Many years later, while serving in the Pentagon as we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, I inquired if we still have flamethrowers in storage. While some friendly nations still manufacture and deploy them, I learned, the only similar weapon in the Army arsenal was a shoulder-fired missile called “Flash.” It wasn’t clear if launchers were still around or how many missiles were in storage that were safe to fire. In any event, there was no apparent training program to teach soldiers how to use the weapon.

Napalm bombs, as we knew them in earlier wars, were not precision weapons, intentionally. Recalling newsreels from Iwo Jima, they seemed to resemble exterior gas tanks as they bounced over burning targets. I’m sure aerodynamics of the container could be fixed to improve accuracy, and used very effectively against enemies in the open, whether in Afghanistan or places yet to be determined.

Flamethrowers have another advantage: they are very effective if one’s position is about to be overrun. They are instantly available before defensive fires from mortars, artillery or air arrive.  I can’t imagine any soldier in extremis threatened by an enemy through the wire would have second thoughts.

About the Author(s)

Charles A. Krohn is a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served with an infantry battalion in Vietnam, 1967-68. He is the author of The Lost Battalion of Tet.



Mon, 01/02/2012 - 11:18am

In reply to by Scott Kinner

I remember some Monday morning quarterbacking saying the USMC and these weapons would have been a better choice than some Army units sent into Afghanistan in the early days.

Scott Kinner

Mon, 01/02/2012 - 11:11am

In reply to by bumperplate

This is certainly a techniques issue...if the decision is to kill, then it is merely a matter of having the most efficient means on hand to do so. Of course, there is some wisdom in spending a bit of time thinking about what efficiency would actually look like - very few people would want to truly live in a world where pure efficiency was the highest virtue.

That said, the Marine Corps reintroduced a thermobaric round to the SMAW in the early 2000s. I was lucky enough to see the trials comparing existing rounds (control group), an actual flamethrower, and the thermobaric round. The thermobaric round was the hands down winner - more effective than a flamethrower for producing destructive effects and possessing the stand-off (survivability) range associated with a rocket.

But having something in the inventory and having it available when needed requires a bit of planning and foresight. There is probably a self-fulfilling usage issue here. Because some of these more exotic weapons are stockpiled somewhere, out of sight and out of mind, those that need them don't have them, and may not even know about them. Therefore the weapons don't get used - which just leads to some analyst noting that "we haven't used Weapon X in Y years, obviously we don't need them anymore..."

Everyone wins - the experimenters who developed the requirement, the contractor who produced the weapon, the warehousmen who stored it, and even the analyst who saved everyone some money - except for the guy on the ground who needed it and never had it...


Mon, 01/02/2012 - 10:46am

Seems like, if I remember correctly, when 3-24 was first introduced the mantra was something like 'gain trust with the populace, but remember the man you drink chai with today may be the man whose head you blow off tomorrow'. Seems we had a balance with the need to engage the locals along with the understanding that devastating firepower was there as well.

Today though, yes, firepower is a bad word. You'd be better getting caught with porn than a grenade.

In Grozny part II, I think the Russians used thermobaric to devastating effect. I believe they also transitioned from having their ZSUs provide ancillary work to having them methodically remove floors from buildings when a sniper was suspected. So, discretion was not a part of there TTPs.

My memory may be off but I believe thermobarics were reported to have pretty devastating psychological effects for those close enough to see the effect not receive the bulk of the effect themselves. As such, using them in caves would probably be good. But, even in a remote looking compound there's bound to be civilians around and the backlash could be severe, whereas a sniper or PGM may be better.

I sometimes feel it's stupid to debate how we kill people by military means, but it does matter. Good discussion to have.


Fri, 01/06/2012 - 2:12pm

In reply to by rgeee

You do realize the President never actually said that, right? That's a facetious quote someone made up in a satire about his position on national defense during the 08 campaign. President Obama has actually said enough silly and incorrect things -- there's no need to attribute fake quotes to him.


There is no doubt that we as a nation have lost many good weapons due to political purposes. As an example read the following statement made by our current president. and then think of what is happening to our troops.

It's my intention, if elected, to disarm America to the level of acceptance to our Middle East Brethren. If we, as a Nation of waring people, conduct ourselves like the nations of Islam, where peace prevails - - - perhaps a state or period of mutual accord could exist between our governments ......"

We need to make change also and return the military back to its former capabilities and purpose.

gian gentile

Sun, 01/01/2012 - 7:58pm

This a very interesting and thought provoking article by Vietnam combat veteran Charles Krohn. These are the kinds of issues and considerations that we need to start thinking about, and hard.

Unfortunately over the last 4-5 years we in the American Army have come to see firepower as an almost dirty word and have replaced it with terms like "trust with local populations" and so on. But if an army cant do the basics--control and integration of firepower with maneuver--then it really wont be able to do anything else.

So i applaud Mr Krohn for helping us to think about this important aspec of fire-power and how we might consider employing it to our advantage.