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Western media, including official Pentagon news outlets, have been citing a US Central Command report to the effect that “the largest-yield conventional bomb” has been used against a regional Islamic State cell in Afghanistan. What does this mean?

Western media, including official Pentagon news outlets, have been citing a US Central Command report to the effect that “the largest-yield conventional bomb” has been used against a regional Islamic State cell in Afghanistan. What does this mean?

The bomb in question is the GBU-43/B MOAB (the abbreviation stands for Massive Ordnance Air Blast, but is commonly known as the Mother Of All Bombs) GPS-guided munition. It was urgently developed in the run-up to the second Iraq war and produced in a small series of about 20 units (according to some estimates, only 14 such bombs are currently left). The urgency was due to the need to replace the legendary US BLU-82 Daisy Cutter heavy bombs developed back in the Vietnam War era, as the stocks of these were fast depleting. Contrary to popular belief, neither the BLU-82 nor the MOAB munition is a fuel-air explosive device. The Mother Of All Bombs is simply a very powerful high-explosive bomb: at around 10 t total weight, this 9 metre-long, 1 metre-wide device packs 8.5 t of high-yield explosive payload. Because of its great dimensions it can only be delivered by US Air Force Special Operations Command Lockheed MC-130 Combat Talon transport aircraft. The MOAB is pulled from the aircraft's rear cargo ramp using a drogue parachute, in the same manner as military vehicles are paradropped. This delivery method necessitates GPS guidance, without which the bomb would be carried off-target by wind.

Despite the high priority development effort, the MOAB was not used either in the Iraq war or in the subsequent 15 years or so. The munition has a very specific characteristic: in essence, it does not offer any particular advantages either against hardened targets (these are more effectively taken out by specialized penetration weapons, from smaller ones to the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator) or against soft area-type targets, which are more reliably destroyed by dropping several dozen lower-yield bombs on them. In both cases conventional bombers will do the job, whereas using transport aircraft against a more-or-less organized enemy entails obvious risks.

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SCNG Infographics

Does this mean that the Mother Of All Bombs has no advantages at all? Is it just a hoax aimed at expropriating U.S. defence budget money, as Russian radical patriots would no doubt like it to be? Not quite. The thing is, even the MOAB's predecessors, including the aforementioned BLU-82, which were developed for very specific needs (such as clearing vegetation for helicopter landing sites in the jungle, hence the nickname Daisy Cutter), demonstrated a surprising side effect: they had a powerful psychological effect on those under attack. An urban legend linked to the BLU-82 has it that a British SAS detachment which witnessed the explosion of one such bomb from afar in 1991 broke radio silence and reported that a tactical nuclear device had been used.

The GBU-43/B was also created with this psychological side effect in mind. Moreover, it still remains a devastating weapon, especially in canyons where the blast does not spread evenly but rather generates a tunnel effect. U.S. military reports state that the MOAB was actually used against an Islamic State camp situated in a “cave network” (possibly in a snug canyon) in Afghanistan's eastern province of Nangarhar. Even on open terrain a blast yielding around 11 t in TNT equivalent would have a severe damage radius of some 150 m and would result in minor destruction and concussions at distances of up to 1.5 km away. This effect would certainly amplify in enclosed spaces.

The above is more likely to be of interest to enthusiasts of contemporary military aviation, who might be awed by the MOAB's unusual characteristics. What does its employment mean in the context of the Afghan war then?

First of all, it is a reminder for everyone that the war continues, and that it has intensified recently. The number of aerial strikes and the amounts of air-delivered munitions used in 2016 exceeded the 2015 figures by roughly 50%. The figures for the first three months of 2017 alone amounted to approximately 50% of the 2015 levels [1] . Despite the fact that international media have been ignoring the Afghan war in the past several years, it continues to consume enormous sums [2] , and U.S. troops continue to suffer losses in the country. In this context, the use of the MOAB may have been an act of revenge for the fatal loss of a U.S. Marine several days prior; at least this is how some media chose to interpret this development.

Could it be that this “big bang” is exactly what is needed for the world, which is currently busy searching for the allegedly missing Tomahawk cruise missiles and bracing, again, for a new Korean war, to finally become aware of Afghanistan?

1. Airpower Summary, March 31, 2017 [PDF]

2. The draft budget for the 2017 fiscal year allocated 70% of spending for Afghanistan as “overseas military operations”, whereas only 15% of such spending was allocated for the ‘Inherent Resolve’ operation against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria!


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  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
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