The "Mother Of All Bombs" - how the US plans to pulverise Iraq

About the author
Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

As the United States Air Force (USAF) builds up its deployments of aircraft in the Middle East, it has emerged that a huge new bomb has recently been developed that will be used in the war against Iraq. It is the most powerful conventional bomb to be deployed anywhere in the world and is described as having an effect as devastating as that of a small nuclear artillery shell.

The bomb, known as the Massive Ordnance Air Burst (MOAB) weapon, contains 9.5 tons of a very powerful explosive. It is intended primarily for targeting against infantry and armoured vehicles. It can kill people within several hundred metres of the point of detonation, and cause lung damage and other injuries over an even wider area.

The MOAB is an airburst weapon designed to be used against surface targets or shallow trenches, not deep underground bunkers. It represents a more powerful development of a 7.5 ton bomb, the BLU-82, originally produced during the US war in Vietnam; there, it was employed, among other things, for instant clearance of forest to provide helicopter landing zones. The BLU-82, sometimes called Big Blue or even daisy-cutter, was kept in the USAF weapons inventory after the end of the Vietnam war in 1975.

The BLU-82 was subsequently used to attack Iraqi infantry and trenches in the 1991 Gulf war, and more recently in Afghanistan. There, it was deployed against cave entrances and in open country around the mountains of Tora Bora. Journalists who visited areas where the bomb had been dropped reported scenes of extraordinary devastation.

Transports of death

Both the MOAB and the BLU-82 have been incorrectly reported to be fuel-air explosive (FAE) weapons, where a cloud of a hydrocarbon-based aerosol is created that is then detonated. Because such an explosive uses the oxygen in the atmosphere as the oxidant, it is more ‘efficient’ than many high explosives, but it also requires relatively calm weather conditions and is difficult to use in quantities of more than a ton. Even so, a modern FAE is a very dangerous and damaging weapon, especially when used against buildings. There are unconfirmed reports that the Israelis used such weapons during the siege of Beirut in 1982. In that conflict, some 20,000 people died in and around the city.

The BLU-82 and the MOAB are, in fact, much larger and more powerful weapons even than an FAE. They are based on a mix of ammonium nitrate and powdered aluminium in an aqueous suspension or slurry, with a binding agent to hold the materials together before detonation. The effect of the BLU-82 is astonishing, and rare film shows a detonation, shock wave and subsequent mushroom cloud very similar to a small nuclear weapon, even if it is actually a conventional bomb.

When used in war, the BLU-82 is ejected from the back of a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft at low altitude and is parachuted down until it is detonated a few feet from the ground. By contrast, the larger MOAB bomb is satellite-guided so that the plane can drop it from a much greater altitude.

It is not easy to give an indication of just how destructive such weapons are. Because of the advanced nature of the explosive, the MOAB probably has a blast equivalent of at least 20 to 30 tons of second world war-vintage high explosives.

Weapon of the strong

To convey the scale of destruction the MOAB can inflict, a comparison with the Provisional IRA (PIRA) bombing campaign in British city-centres in the early and mid-1990s is instructive. Two bombs were detonated in the City of London (1992 and 1993), a third in London’s Docklands area (1996), and a fourth in the retail heart of Manchester (also in 1996).

Damage on each occasion cost many hundreds of millions of pounds, and took up to two years to repair. These bombs, though, were crude fertiliser-based devices weighing up to a ton, nothing like as devastating as a commercial high-explosive. By comparison, a single MOAB would be at least fifty times as powerful as any of the PIRA bombs.

Furthermore, the PIRA bombs were intended primarily to cause economic damage, so casualties were relatively low. When the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka detonated a bomb of a similar size in the central business district of Colombo in 1996, nearly 100 people were killed and over 1,000 injured. The MOAB would be used in Iraq primarily and intentionally to cause high casualties. While US sources may say that the MOAB would be used in open country against the Iraqi military, there is every indication that the Iraqis will concentrate their forces in and around cities, especially Baghdad.

A war against people, not just ‘real-estate’

The current US war plan involves extraordinarily heavy air bombardments right from the first hours of the war, with several thousand targets hit in the first four days. The intention is to shock the Iraqis into surrender or retreat. With such a plan, an extraordinarily powerful weapon like the MOAB is virtually certain to be used in the opening stages of the war, as much for the sheer psychological effect of its blast as for the physical damage that it will cause.

The MOAB is one of many indications that talk of a ‘war against real-estate’, rather than against people, is highly misleading. It is one of a number of weapons, including cluster bombs, which are collectively known as area-impact munitions. These are specifically designed to kill and maim over a wide area. They were partly responsible for the 3,000-plus civilian deaths in Afghanistan, but even that was a relatively small air war compared with the one likely to be waged against Iraq.

One of the main contractors for the MOAB is reported to be the Dynetics Corporation, headquartered in Alabama but with plants in several other states. Its name is on the tail section shown in one of the few photos of the MOAB so far published, but the weapons section of the Dynetics website is currently blank. A fuller description of the MOAB, including a photo of the bomb with ‘Dynetics’ displayed on it, is available on the StrategyPage website, published 6 March 2003.

If, as expected, the Iraqis choose to fight in the cities and if, as equally expected, the US Air Force uses weapons such as the MOAB, then civilian casualties many times greater than those in Afghanistan are not just possible, but very likely.