Russia’s New TOS-3 ‘Dragon’ Thermobaric Rocket Launcher Breaks Cover

The latest iteration of Russia’s TOS series of thermobaric rocket launchers has been seen, apparently for the first time, in military service. The TOS-3 ‘Dragon’ was displayed during an official armed forces event in Russia’s southwest Saratov region. While the new system draws heavily from its predecessors, its anti-drone screens also point directly to experience from the war in Ukraine. With that in mind, it likely won’t be long before we start to see the TOS-3 being deployed in combat, especially as losses of the legacy TOS-1A continue to mount.

A video published by Russia’s state-run TASS news agency shows a TOS-3 at a recent ceremony during which soldiers from the 1st Mobile Radiological, Chemical, and Biological Defense Brigade received awards for their service in the Ukraine war. The ceremony coincided with the brigade’s 45th anniversary.

Russian TOS series thermobaric rocket launchers have traditionally been assigned to the Troops of Radiological, Chemical, and Biological Defense, rather than artillery units, as might be expected. These units are also responsible for generating smokescreens, something that has also come to prominence in the Ukraine war.

The same TASS report noted that the brigade is currently equipped with TOS-1A and TOS-2 thermobaric rocket launchers, UTM-80M decontamination vehicles, RKhM-6 CBRN reconnaissance vehicles, and TDA-3 truck-mounted smoke generators, among others. Despite being displayed, the TOS-3 wasn’t specifically mentioned, perhaps suggesting delivery is imminent or pre-service trials are underway.

A pair of Russian Army TOS-1As during the annual Army Games defense technology international exhibition in August 2021. <em>Photo by Leonid Faerberg/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images</em>A pair of Russian Army TOS-1As during the annual Army Games defense technology international exhibition in August 2021. <em><button class=

A pair of Russian Army TOS-1As during the annual Army Games defense technology international exhibition in August 2021. Photo by Leonid Faerberg/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Another point of confusion surrounding the TOS series is the nature of their rocket armament.

As we have discussed before, Russian nomenclature describes the TOS series as ‘heavy flamethrowers.’ In fact, they have next to nothing in common with traditional flamethrowers and are, more correctly, thermobaric, or fuel-air explosive (FAE) weapons. Broadly speaking, these kinds of weapons use oxygen from the surrounding air to generate a high-temperature explosion and a much more powerful blast wave over a longer duration than a conventional condensed explosive. As we have seen, the destructive effect can be enormous, while the physiological impact on the enemy is at least as significant.

The TOS series was designed to provide general fire support alongside infantry and tanks. Its primary targets were always expected to include enemy manpower in both open and closed firing positions, as well as light armored vehicles and soft-skinned support vehicles.

“The TOS-1 is designed primarily for use against emplacements, defilade areas (such as terrain folds and tunnels), fighting positions, ships, buildings, as well as personnel and other soft targets. High angles-of-fire and steep impact angles support use in defilade and urban areas,” according to the 2011 edition of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s (TRADOC) unclassified World Equipment Guide.

The TOS-3 is based on a tank chassis, like the earlier TOS-1A, but its rocket pod looks much more like that found on the TOS-2, a second-generation thermobaric rocket launcher based on a wheeled high-mobility truck chassis. The TOS-2, first presented in 2020, features an integral loading crane and can fire a new generation of missiles with a longer range. While the TOS-1A and TOS-2 carry 24 and 18 ready-to-fire rockets, respectively, the rocket pod on the TOS-3 has three rows of five rockets for a total of 15 projectiles.

A TOS-2 system based on a Ural-63706 truck chassis on static display at the ARMY-2022 exhibition in the Moscow region, in August 2022. <em>Boevaya mashina/Wikimedia Commons</em>A TOS-2 system based on a Ural-63706 truck chassis on static display at the ARMY-2022 exhibition in the Moscow region, in August 2022. <em><button class=

A TOS-2 system based on a Ural-63706 truck chassis on static display at the ARMY-2022 exhibition in the Moscow region, in August 2022. Boevaya mashina/Wikimedia Commons

The first reports of the existence of the TOS-3 emerged around February of this year when the state-owned Omsktransmash (Omsk Transport Machinery Factory) secured the trademark rights for the logo and name of the TOS-3 Dragon.

In an interview with TASS in April 2024, Bekhan Ozdoev, Industrial Director of Weapon Systems at the Rostec State Corporation officially confirmed the development of the TOS-3, noting that it would have a tracked chassis and a new launcher firing increased-range ammunition. He also said the new system would incorporate lessons learned from fighting in Ukraine.

Among those lessons, it seems likely that the most important are the requirements for longer range and better protection.

In its TOS-1A form, the vehicle’s crew is relatively well protected within the armored tank hull. The downside is a relatively short range for the rocket armament — a maximum of only six kilometers (3.7 miles).

TOS-1A firing. <em>AP image</em>TOS-1A firing. <em><button class=

TOS-1A firing. AP image

The new rockets arming the TOS-2 can reach further — up to 15 kilometers (9.3 miles), according to Russian accounts. However, the truck-based vehicle is notably less well-protected than the TOS-1A.

This suggests that the new TOS-3 is designed to combine the best attributes of both the earlier systems, with the protection of the TOS-1A’s tank hull but with rockets offering a range at least as long, if not longer than those used in the more lightly armored TOS-2.

The range of the rockets used in the TOS-3 has not been revealed. However, based on the fact that a smaller number are carried, each is likely to contain more propellant, sufficient to send them beyond the 15 kilometers achieved by the TOS-2’s rockets.

There has been plenty of evidence of the high risk that TOS-1A crews expose themselves to as they approach their targets, to ensure that they bring them within the effective range of their rockets. In turn, they expose themselves to potential counter-battery fire, as well as the ever-present threat of drone strikes. In fact, there is some evidence that the proliferation of first-person-view (FPV) drones on the battlefield has been a significant driver behind the emergence of the TOS-3.

According to the Oryx open-source tracking group, Russia has had 25 TOS-1A systems either destroyed, damaged, or captured during the conflict so far, plus eight TZM-T reloader vehicles. The true figures are likely considerably higher. So far, there have been no recorded losses involving the TOS-2, but these have also been seen far less frequently on the battlefield.

The design of the TOS-3 clearly considers the drone menace, with factory-provided drone screens arranged around the rocket pod — the most vulnerable part of the vehicle, where a drone strike would very likely lead to a catastrophic ‘cooking off’ of the rocket armament. The drone screens as seen in the TASS video may be incomplete, judging by the large apertures, suggesting that additional screening or camouflage material could be intended to be added at a later date.

Factory-made, production-component ‘cope cages’ and other anti-drone measures, as opposed to hasty field modifications, are something that we began to see on Russian armored vehicles around the summer of 2023. Before that, we had seen more ad-hoc types of protection added to TOS-1A systems in the field, as you can read about here.

The TOS-3 certainly appears to have been developed in something of a hurry, to respond to an urgent demand on the battlefield. There are meanwhile suggestions that the new system might simply involve a combination of the existing rockets from the TOS-3 carried on an armored hull, although this would not necessarily explain the smaller number of rockets carried.

Whatever the exact capabilities of the new system, the emergence of the TOS-3 reinforces the importance that Russia assigns to its ‘heavy flamethrowers.’ Despite these systems taking heavy and dramatic losses in the fighting so far, Russia’s defense industry has adapted its latest thermobaric rocket launcher to the demands of the Ukrainian battlefield, and it may not be long before we start seeing the TOS-3 in combat.

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