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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.