The United States dropped a “Mother of All Bombs” (MOAB) in Afghanistan on Thursday targeting Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL) — its first ever use in combat.
In a statement, the Department of Defense said the bomb, designated the GBU-43 Massive Ordinance Air Blast (the common name being a backronym), targeted and destroyed a tunnel complex used by IS in Nangahar province in eastern Afghanistan.
The bomb has the largest explosive yield of any non-nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal at 11 tons. For comparison, the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima had the explosive capability equal to 15,000 tons. The blast radius is roughly one mile.
The strike took place at 7:32 PM local time in Achin district, where ongoing operations against IS in Afghanistan are being conducted as part of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and in the vicinity of where Special Forces Staff Sergeant Mark De Alencar was killed earlier this week.
According to Ismail Shinwari, the governor of Achin district, the strike took place in a remote, mountainous location and there were no reports of civilian casualties. Recently there has been heavy fighting between Afghan forces and IS fighters in the area.
The weapon’s purpose as an air blast weapon, like the BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter” before it, is to destroy troop concentrations and equipment, clear explosives, and intimidate enemy forces. It is not a “bunker buster” designed to penetrate the ground or hardened structures. It was designed before the 2003 Iraq War to pressure Saddam Hussein.
While the trend lately in U.S. counter-terrorist airstrikes has been to use smaller, precise bombs and missiles delivered by drones and F-16s to conduct localized surgical strikes against single rooms or vehicles, the MOAB was kicked out of the back of an MC-130.
But this is not the first time large area weapons have been used in Afghanistan. In the beginning of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Daisy Cutters were used to attempt to destroy Al-Qaida and kill Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora, also in Nangahar province. The operation was unsuccessful.
Afghanistan has been the target tens of thousands of airstrikes over the last 15 years. Unfortunately, the amount of civilian casualties per airstrike has risen since 2009, with 2016 the highest year on record. On average, one civilian was killed per every three US airstrikes.
Most civilian airstrike casualties occur in populated areas that the Taliban has infiltrated since most NATO forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 2014. As of early 2017, the Afghan government only controlled 65 per cent of its territory.
However, airstrikes against IS in Afghanistan have been in less populated areas because the U.S. has not given IS room to grow. The U.S. increased its airstrikes against them in early 2016 when reports of thousands of fighters had established themselves in remote areas of Nangahar. Today, the U.S. estimates only 600 – 800 remain.
I have seen a lot of outcry on social media about the use of the MOAB, presumably versus smaller munitions, but a war is still occurring in Afghanistan whether a MOAB is used or not.
If Governor Shinwari is to be believed and no civilian casualties occurred, perhaps it is a legitimate tactical choice to use a large airburst weapon against the few remaining IS fighters in Afghanistan, especially if we do not want them to take population centers.
Most Americans do not like when American service members are killed overseas. So using a weapon to destroy defenses, IEDs, and potentially psychologically disaffect IS fighters before U.S. Special Forces assist Afghan forces in conducting a dangerous clear and sweep operation on the ground may not be a bad thing.
Time will tell if the weapon was effective (we will have an idea if it is used again), but we should not let ourselves be swept up by the media’s fetishization of military weaponry with sexy names.
The Mass Ordinance Air Blast may be the U.S.’s largest non-nuclear bomb, but at 22,000 lbs of explosive yield it is more comparable to the size of the extensively used drone-launched Hellfire missile (20 lbs) than to “Little Boy”, the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima (30 million lbs).
One MOAB was dropped on Thursday. In 2016, the U.S. used so many smaller precision-guided weapons like the Hellfire — tens of thousands — that it could not replenish its stocks to keep up with with demand. Which weapon system has had more impact? You do the math.