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Incendiary weapons, Incendiary devices or incendiary bombs are bombs designed to start fires or destroy sensitive equipment using materials such as napalm, thermite, chlorine trifluoride, or white phosphorus.

According to the
 Protocol III of the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons
governing the use of Incendiary weapons, Incendiary weapons do not include:
  • Munitions which may have incidental incendiary effects, such as illuminants, tracers, smoke or signalling systems;
  • Munitions designed to combine penetration, blast or fragmentation effects with an additional incendiary effect, such as armour-piercing projectiles, fragmentation shells, explosive bombs and similar combined-effects munitions in which the incendiary effect is not specifically designed to cause burn injury to persons, but to be used against military objectives, such as armoured vehicles, aircraft and installations or facilities.

Development and use

Incendiary devices have been used since the beginning of gunpowder warfare in the Middle Ages.

Incendiary bombs, also known as firebombs, were used as an effective bombing weapon in World War II . The large bomb casing was filled with small sticks of incendiaries (bomblets), and designed to open at altitude, scattering the bomblets in order to cover a wide area. An explosive charge would then ignite the incendiary material, often starting a raging fire. The fire would burn at extreme temperatures that could destroy most buildings made of wood or other combustible materials (buildings constructed of stone tend to resist incendiary destruction unless they are first blown open by high explosives). Originally, incendiaries were developed in order to destroy the many small, decentralized war industries located (often intentionally) throughout vast tracts of city land in an effort to escape destruction by conventionally-aimed high-explosive bombs. Nevertheless, the civilian destruction caused by such weapons quickly earned them a reputation as terror weapons (e.g., German Terrorflieger) with the targeted populations, and many shot-down aircrews were summarily executed by angry civilians upon capture. The Nazi regime began the campaign of incendiary bombings with the bombing of London in 1940–41, and reprisal was exacted by the Allies in the strategic bombing campaign. In the Pacific War, during the last seven months of strategic bombing by B-29 Superfortresses in the airwar against Japan, a change to firebombing tactics resulted in some 500,000 Japanese deaths and 5 million more made homeless. 67 of Japan's largest cities lost significant area to incendiary attacks. The most deadly single bombing raid in all history was Operation Meetinghousemarker, an incendiary attack that killed some 100,000 Tokyo residents in one night.

Modern incendiary bombs usually contain thermite, made from aluminium and ferric oxide. The most effective formula is 25% aluminium and 75% iron oxide. It takes very high temperatures to ignite, but when alight, it can burn through solid steel. In WWII, such devices were employed in incendiary grenades to burn through heavy armor plate, or as a quick welding mechanism to destroy artillery and other complex machined weapons.

Incendiary weapons in the form of bombs and shells often contains White phosphorus (WP), and can be used in an offensive anti-personnel role against enemy troop concentrations, but WP is also used for signaling, smokescreens, and target-marking purposes. The U.S. Army and Marines used WP extensively in WWII and Korea for all three purposes, frequently using WP shells in large 4.2-inch chemical mortars. WP was widely credited by many Allied soldiers for breaking up numerous German infantry attacks and creating havoc among enemy troop concentrations during the latter part of WWII. The psychological impact of WP on the enemy was noted by many troop commanders in WWII, and captured 4.2-inch mortarmen were sometimes summarily executed by German forces in reprisal. In both WWII and Korea, WP was found particularly useful in overcoming enemy human wave attacks.

Protocol III of the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons
  • prohibits the use of Incendiary weapons against civilians (effectively a reaffirmation of the general prohibition on attacks against civilians in Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions)
  • prohibits the use of air-delivered incendiary weapons against military targets located within concentrations of civilians and loosely regulates the use of other types of incendiary weapons in such circumstances.

Since a smoke shell is not an Incendiary weapon, according to the definitions in the convention, these rules do not apply to smoke shells, even if based on White phosphorus.

A variety of pyrophoric materials can be also used. Selected organometallic compounds, most often triethylaluminium, trimethylaluminium, and some other alkyl and aryl derivates of aluminium, magnesium, boron, zinc, sodium, and lithium, can be used. Thickened triethylaluminium, a napalm-like substance that ignites in contact with air, is known as thickened pyrophoric agent, or TPA.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army developed the CBU-55, a cluster bomb incendiary fueled by propane, a weapon that was used only once in warfare. Napalm proper is no longer used by the United Statesmarker, although the kerosene-fueled Mark 77 MOD 5 Firebomb is currently in use. The United States has confirmed the use of Mark 77s in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Use by direct action groups

Incendiary devices have been used by many direct action groups, such as the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front to commit arson attacks on their targets. The Molotov Cocktail is a classic incendiary device that is often used by anarchists and rioters.

See also


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