What happened to the “Mother Of All Bombs”?

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
3 December 2003

In early 2003, just before the start of the war with Iraq, reports appeared in the specialist defence press about a new weapon – the Massive Ordnance Air Burst (MOAB) – being tested by the United States armed forces for use in Iraq. It was soon apparent that such an improbable acronym enabled it to be called the “Mother Of All Bombs” (see the column of 7 March 2003 in this series).

By any standards it was a huge device, containing 9.5 tons of a very powerful high explosive, and substantially more destructive than the BLU-82 slurry bomb (also known as Big Blue or “daisy-cutter”. This was used by the US air force (USAF) in Vietnam, in the 1991 Iraq war and more recently in Afghanistan. The MOAB was not a fuel-air explosive (as some reports suggested) but it was certainly the most powerful bomb deployed by any air force anywhere in the world, one that produced blast waves destroying large complexes of buildings and likely to kill hundreds of people caught out in the open.

Some idea of its power is given by comparing a MOAB with one of the bombs used by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) to devastate parts of the City of London and the centre of Manchester during the group’s bombing campaign in Britain in the mid-1990s. Each of the four bombs detonated at that time caused hundreds of millions of pounds of damage – but a single MOAB would be at least fifty times as powerful as any single one of them.

There were strong indications that US forces would use the MOAB in the war with Iraq, indeed it looked as though the bomb was being rushed into production for that very reason. In the event, there were no reports of it being used and few further mentions of the whole project during the war and its aftermath.

The dream of global reach

Recent information, again from defence sources, confirms that the MOAB most certainly has not gone away. Rather, it has undergone further development, was tested barely a fortnight ago and is likely to form the basis for an even bigger weapon. Indeed, the weapon was not used in the initial three-week phase of the war in Iraq in March-April 2003 only because – though it was manufactured and fielded with great speed – it did not reach operational units in the Gulf region in time for deployment in the field.

But the programme has been maintained in the United States and it now seems likely that it will form part of the country’s increasing capability to use massive weapons to destroy targets anywhere in the world.

During the past nine months the MOAB has undergone further development and refinement. It now has, as one of its main functions, the ability to be aimed with precision at targets such as the entrances to caves or underground bunkers. The idea is that such an extraordinary blast weapon will send intense pressure waves along tunnels, bursting through protective blast doors, destroying the people, equipment and weapons hidden inside.

One of three tests now underway at the Nevada Test Range is measuring the practicality of this use of the MOAB. There, according to the US journal Aviation Week [(17 November 2003; subscription only)], “tunnels have been constructed to represent realistically the underground target set.”

One of the original limitations of the weapon was that it had to be dropped from a relatively slow-moving Lockheed Hercules MC-130 aircraft with a limited range and altitude capability. The US air force is now working towards fitting the MOAB to its B-2 “stealth” strategic bomber. With its intercontinental range, coupled with air-to-air refuelling, the B-2 could attack any target anywhere in the world – during the Iraq war earlier this year, B-2 aeroplanes regularly flew from their base in the United States to bomb targets in Iraq.

The first of the three new tests of the MOAB took place on 21 November on a bombing range at the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The plume of smoke produced by the test rose 10,000 feet (7,300 kilometres) into the air and was visible 40 miles (64 kilometres) away. A USAF observer, Jake Swinson, reported that “it looked like a big mushroom cloud filled with flames as it grew and grew and grew. It was one of the most awesome spectacles I’ve seen.”).

The MOAB is reported to be ready for use when required, and USAF planners are now considering the development of an even larger version, weighing up to 15 tons. The main aim is to attack tunnels and bunkers, but there is a ready awareness that the MOAB can have other uses, including the destruction of large area targets, or even for psychological impact.

US strategic planners anticipated these results from the expected deployment of the MOAB bomb in Iraq. In the event, the US forces were able to use many other, if less powerful, area-impact weapons such as cluster bombs and multiple rocket launchers, which contributed to the deaths of at least 7,000 civilians and many thousands of Iraqi soldiers.

As planned at present, the MOAB/B-2 combination would give global reach for this hugely destructive bomb, but there are plans to do much more than this – partly in response to the fact that a conventional strategic bomber such as the B-2 can take twenty hours or more to reach a distant target.

The planners also envisage the development of pilot-less hypersonic bombers that can reach speeds of 6,000 miles (9,600 kilometres) an hour, flying more than a third of the way round the world in 90 minutes. In a little-noticed provision slipped into the Fiscal Year 2004 Defense Authorization Bill, both houses of Congress voted without discussion to instruct Donald Rumsfeld to “establish an integrated plan for developing, deploying and sustaining a prompt global strike capability in the armed forces” [(Defense News, 24 November 2003 (subscription only)].

This latter aspiration may take well over a decade to achieve, although a more limited capability could be available sooner – in parallel with plans to develop directed energy weapons such as the Space-Based Laser (see the column of 31 July 2002 in this series). The planners anticipate the ability to strike just about anywhere on the earth’s surface – rapidly, with precision and with very destructive weapons, in a manner against which there is no defence.

The challenge of “asymmetric warfare”

These plans form only part of a wider strategic objective in the United States, one termed “full spectrum dominance”, the ability to command at all levels of military activity and in all potential theatres of war. It is a seductive vision, but it is also deeply ironic that one of its central components, the development of the MOAB, took place in the context of a war against the Saddam Hussein regime that has had very unexpected results.

In the three-week war, the United States was able to use extraordinary firepower against forces that had few defences. At the level of an individual country it was as though Iraq was serving as a model for US military capabilities that could eventually be deployed across the world. What has happened, instead, is that US forces have become mired in a bitter and violent guerrilla war in which firepower and technical superiority are greatly blunted in their effect.

Once again, asymmetric warfare has become the order of the day and US forces are finding it hugely difficult to respond with conventional military means. As in Iraq, the illusion of dominance based on strike aircraft, missiles and other instruments of a military superpower on a global scale may prove to be comforting in theory but in practice utterly fantastical.

At present, however, the Massive Ordnance Air Burst bomb, prompt global strike, directed energy weapons and other new technologies will continue to be developed, even as control in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan proves more and more difficult. In time there may be a reappraisal. But that is hardly likely now, and certainly not with the current political leadership in the Pentagon and the White House.

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