Napalm Is Still Used as a Weapon in Combat

An napalm explosion on a battlefield with a helicopter in the foreground.

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The flammable liquid napalm has been used by the United States military in warfare since World War II. The U.S. was the first country to use napalm in warfare and is one of the few to still use it against enemy targets.

Napalm gets its name from two of the main chemicals in its composition, naphthenic acid, and palmitic acid. Napalm sticks to the skin and other surfaces and results in catastrophic burns for its victims, especially when it catches fire.

The use of napalm against civilian targets was outlawed by the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons in 1980, but the U.S. continues to use it as a weapon against military targets 

History and Background

Harvard University chemist Louis Fieser developed napalm in 1942. It was first used by the U.S. against Japan during World War II to burn buildings and as an anti-personnel weapon—meaning it was used on enemy combatants. The U.S. continued to use napalm during the Korean and Vietnam wars, to devastating effect.

The famous Pulitzer Prize-winning, Vietnam War photo Napalm Girl—taken by AP photographer Nick Ut—shows a group of screaming children running away from a napalm attack where many of them suffered serious burns. Although made differently than in the past, napalm is still used by the U.S. military in combat operations.

New Composition Introduced

Modern napalm is known as "Napalm B." It is distinctly different than the napalm used in Vietnam and World War II. Napalm B is made of different chemicals than the napalm of the past. However, despite its different characteristics, Napalm B is often referred to by military personnel simply as napalm.

Napalm B is usually comprised of plastic polystyrene and hydrocarbon benzene. These compounds combine to form jellied gasoline, which is extremely flammable and hot when ignited. Napalm B is much easier to control and manage when ignited than previous forms of napalm, which was so flammable that it often caught on fire when soldiers smoked cigarettes near it.

Napalm B is sometimes called "Super Napalm" as it burns much longer than older versions of the agent. It can burn for as long as 10 minutes, whereas older versions of napalm often burned for less than 30 seconds.

Napalm as an Incendiary Weapon

Napalm B is known as an incendiary weapon as it can cause fire, explosions, and severe burns. It can also lead to asphyxiation in people who are close to the detonation point, as well as winds that have reached 70 miles per hour. Napalm is unique in that it often sticks to the skin of people and is hard to remove even when it is burning.

Napalm B is typically used to destroy enemy positions such as bunkers, foxholes, trenches, and shelters. One discharge of Napalm B from a low-level military plane can destroy an area of 2,500 square yards. And despite the prohibition of its use against civilians, international law does not prevent the use of napalm against military targets.