Can Flamethrowers Still Be Used in War?

Why the U.S. Military Discontinued Use Of the Controversial Weapon

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One of the most controversial military weapons ever invented is the flamethrower. However, fire on the battlefield goes back to the Greeks in the Peloponnesian Wars, when they would squirt flaming liquid at the enemy through giant bellows. And during the Medieval times, buckets of flame were catapulted into enemy forts and strongholds. Even during the Civil War, fire was used effectively as a method to burn entire cities and enemy forts, infrastructure, and equipment.

Because of the particularly gruesome death that flamethrowers inflict on people, the weapon has been controversial since it was first used in the trenches of World War One. Typically, military flamethrowers project a stream of flammable liquid and allow soldiers to control a stream of fire. The weapon was widely used during the Battle of the Pacific in World War Two – mostly to destroy Japanese bunkers and camps on Pacific islands. Many militaries mounted flamethrowers onto tanks and armored vehicles during World War Two.

During the Korean and Vietnam Wars United States Marines also used flamethrowers. In those combat environments, flamethrowers were used to destroy forts, bunkers, and vehicles. They were also used to inflict psychological terror on enemy soldiers who were terrified of being burned alive. Modern flamethrowers can be mounted onto vehicles or a soldier’s back. Some flamethrowers can project fire 100 meters and incinerate targets within seconds. In fact, many Marine veterans of the Pacific Island Hopping campaigns state that they would have been able to take over the island without the use of the flamethrowers. Most of the bunkers and tunnels that safely housed the Japanese Army on the islands were booby trapped with explosives and defended to the death by the Japanese Army. 

Flamethrowers have also proved controversial to the troops as well, because of the dangers they pose to soldiers who operate them. The back mounted weapon is very visible and explosive. As a result, soldiers who operate flamethrowers have often found themselves the target of snipers. Flamethrower operators are often viewed with particular scorn and were rarely taken prisoner in past wars. Typically, flamethrower operators have been executed once captured or tanks explode on their back causing severe injury or death as well. 

The controversy and dangers posed by flamethrowers have led to calls for the weapon to be banned in international treaties. However, to date, there are no treaties that explicitly ban the use of the weapon in combat. America is one of the few countries to voluntarily discontinue use of flamethrowers. The weapon has proven popular with terrorist organizations ranging from Al Qaeda to the Irish Republican Army.

Not all countries dropped the flamethrower from its arsenal. In 2015, the Chinese military used flamethrowers on its own citizens to drive out ten "foreign led extremist terrorists" from a cave in Xinjiang region of China. Russia also still has flamethrowers as part of its warfaring weaponry. 

Dropped by the U.S. Department of Defense

The U.S. Department of Defense decided in 1978 to stop using flamethrowers. They have been removed from the U.S. weapons arsenal and are not currently used by American soldiers. The decision by the U.S. Defense Department to ban the use of flamethrowers was voluntary. At the time, military officials stated that flamethrowers were not effective in modern combat scenarios. 

Civilian Use of Flamethrowers

Fire has been used as a weapon since ancient times. However, modern flamethrowers have uses beyond military applications. Flamethrowers are frequently used on farms, sugar cane plantations, and elsewhere to conduct controlled burnings of vegetation and land. Firefighters often use a version of the flamethrower to help burn off certain areas in order to control larger forest fires. 

In the United States, the civilian use of flamethrowers is banned in some states such as California. States like California in the West are tender However, there is currently no federal law banning flamethrowers in the U.S. Most recently, Elon Musk's Boring Company created and sold several thousand "flamethrowers" at $500 each. This "not a flamethrower" device actually shoots a two foot flame out or its gun like nozzle and created more than $10 million in revenue for the company. Presently, these flamethrowers can be found on eBay for several thousand dollars as the company only made 20,000 models.