On 13th April 2017, a terrifying object drifted down from the sky towards a cave complex in Achin District, Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan. A peaceful calm on the ground before hell arrived.
What was falling that day was not just a bomb. It was the largest non-nuclear device in the powerful arsenal of the United States. It was not just a bomb – it was the GBU-43/B MOAB – the mother of all bombs.
A Short History of Bombs
Well, not quite a complete history as that could take a while, but let’s begin in 1945. Bombs fundamentally changed during World War II. The two devices that detonated above Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused the kind of devastation the world had never seen.
The fact that whole cities could now be levelled with a single bomb was a truly terrifying advancement with the Japanese Emperor announcing the county’s surrender a week after the bombing of Nagasaki. The age of the nuclear bomb had arrived.
As we’ve seen time and time again here on Megaprojects, the Cold War was filled with countless cases of one-upmanship. The U.S and the USSR battled each other for prestige considerably more than they ever did in real life. The need to go bigger and better than the other was a common trait across the decades and certainly played a part in the Soviet Union’s sagging fortunes as it neared its collapse.
In their development of nuclear bombs, both nations built the kind of nuclear weapons that would make the devices dropped on Japan seem like firecrackers.
The largest U.S nuclear bomb was the B41 with a massive 25 megaton yield. Roughly 500 of these were developed between 1960 and 1962 – that’s right, you heard it right – 500. Each one of these would have had a power over 1,900 times that of the Little Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
However, the B41 could not hope to match the monster that emerged from the Soviet Union. The Tsar Bomb was first tested on 30th October 1961 over Novaya Zemlya Island in the Russian Arctic Sea. Detonated 4km in the air, the blast had a yield of 50 megatons, thought to be around 3,800 times as powerful as what was dropped on Hiroshima.
So by the early 1960s, both the U.S and USSR were in the possession of true apocalypse bringers. Thankfully it was the height of the madness, and from there a series of treaties began to limit the testing, and eventually the numbers of nuclear warheads around the world.
But what about non-nuclear bombs? It’s easy to focus on nuclear weapons, but what do you do if you just want to blow up a small area, and not the entire world?
A few truly massive, more conventional bombs also emerged during World War II. The British used a bomb known as Grand Slam 42 times during the war. These earthquake bombs weighing 10,000 kg (2,000 lb) were used to penetrate 40 metres (130 ft) into the ground before detonating. The effect as you might imagine had more than a striking similarity to an earthquake.
The United States developed the T-12 Cloudmaker between 1944 and 1948, but the massive 19,800 kg (43,600 lb) bomb was never used in combat.
In 2007, Russia claimed it had developed what they called the Father of all Bombs – remember what I was saying about one-upmanship – which they say is more powerful than the Mother of all bombs. However, since the specifications, and indeed any evidence at all seems very light, we’re not entirely sure about that one.
The Daisy Cutter
The Mother of all Bombs has its roots in another bomb which came to the fore during the Vietnam War. The 6,800 kg (15,000 lb) BLU-82 (bomb live unit) bomb that was heavily used during the U.S engagement in South-East Asia was known as the Daisy Cutter, for the simple reason, it was initially used to clear landing zones for helicopters.
Its role was expanded throughout the war and was sometimes used to hit specific targets such as warehouses, bridges and even concentrations of troops. And it wasn’t just in Vietnam that these bombs, which at the time were the biggest in operation anywhere in the world, were used.
Daisy cutters landed inside both Laos and Cambodia – the second of which occurred during the last combat operation in South-East Asia in 1975 against the Khmer Rouge. The rescue attempt of U.S merchant sailors held captive by the Khmer Rouge came to be known as the Mayaguez incident and is sadly remembered for the three U.S marines left behind on Koh Tang after the evacuation who were later executed, and the deployment of a BLU-82.
Fast Forward nearly twenty years and the U.S again found themselves at war as they combed the mountains of Afghanistan in search of Osama Bin Laden. Several BLU-82s were dropped on Taliban or Al Qaeda targets in November and December 2001. They were used not simply for the catastrophic damage they could cause, but also for the psychological impact that such a weapon had on enemy combatants. And this was exactly what the U.S had in mind with the Mother of all Bombs.
This bomb was first tested in combination with the explosive Tritonal, which is a mixture of 80% TNT and 20% aluminium powder on 11th March 2003, at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. As far as we know it went well and was tested again on 21st November 2003. Measuring 9.1 metres (30 ft 1.75 inches) end to end it is as long as the height of four and a half Michael Jordans and has a diameter of 103 cm (40.5 in).
But it is the power inside that makes this special (or awful, depending on how you like to look at bombs). Its blast yield 11 tons of TNT is a little less than what was dropped on Hiroshima (15 tons of TNT) and the MOAB is primarily designed for soft or medium-soft targets, meaning it would not be as effective to attack a bunker – but an ISIS camp in the mountains is much more like it.
It’s also important to put this bomb into perspective with large scale bombing raids. During Operation Arc Light in the Vietnam war, the United States Air Force conducted over 10,000 bombing raids, typically involving two groups of three aircraft. A standard mission dropped 168 tons of ordnance on an area measuring just 2.4 km by 0.8 km (1.5 by 0.5 miles). Therefore a single mission during this operation would have had a similar impact as 10 to 17 MOABs. It is a fearsome, hellish weapon, but principally designed to be used in isolated instances.
Dropping this kind of bomb is not as simple as just hitting a switch and crying bombs away as they used to do. The MOAB needs to be deployed in a particular kind of way. Its carrier would normally be the MC-130 – the Lockheed goliath that handles many heavy-duty missions for the U.S Air Force. At an altitude of 1,800 metres (5,905ft) or above, the MOAB, which sits on a cradle, is deposited out the back bay door of the aircraft and begins its descent by parachute. Once the bomb is safely clear of the plane it detaches from its cradle and with the fins guiding it, the MOAB uses its satellite guidance system to search out the target. The bomb detonates just two metres (6.5ft) from the ground, with a huge amount of oxygen burnt, causing suffocation both above and below ground.
Around 20 MOABs have been manufactured out of McAlester Army Ammunition Plant in McAlester, Oklahoma since 2003, with the Air Force stating that each one cost $170,000 (roughly $250,000 today), but many speculate this isn’t entirely accurate. The total program cost is thought to be around $314 million, which included development, testing etc. If that is the case, the cost per weapon would be roughly $16 million (both of these figures have been adjusted for inflation).
This brings us back to 13th April 2017 – the only time a MOAB has been used in combat operations. The previous administration had shied away from using it out of fear of causing significant civilian casualties, but four months after his inauguration, President Donald Trump authorised the use of a MOAB against an ISIS cave and tunnel system in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Casualty reports are varied, to say the least, with an Afghan army spokesman claiming 94 ISIS militants were killed, including four commanders. He went on to add that the strike had caused no civilian casualties. These reports have come into question, with some claiming the number of militants killed could have been as low as 36, while others say a teacher and his son were among the dead.
In terms of defeating ISIS, it’s not really clear how successful this attack was. If we use the low casualty number of 36, it would mean that it cost $450,000 to kill each ISIS militant. Whether that is worth it to military leaders, only they will know.
The Bomb of Bombs
Pope Francis commented about the bomb shortly after its use.
“A mother gives life and this one gives death, and we call this device a mother. What is going on?”
And he wasn’t alone. While the disgust of organisations like ISIS is evident, the use of such a weapon proved far from popular. Perhaps some assumed that this kind of warfare was now a thing of the past, but the truth is it’s never really gone away – we just don’t see it very often.
Modern Warfare has taken on a much more sterile, cold nature. Bombs and missiles can be launched hundreds if not thousands of miles away, while drone operators sitting in the United States have the power to obliterate targets on the other side of the world. Even when we see war on television we still see images of smaller-scale attacks that might damage buildings, but often don’t destroy them entirely.
The truth is these weapons are out there. Thankfully we don’t see them too often, but make no mistake about it they are lurking. The fear of causing civilian casualties has probably never been higher, especially when it is the richest, most powerful country in the world striking one of the poorest. But I would dare to say this is a fear that comes from negative media coverage, rather than genuine regard for human life.
The MOAB is so monstrous it has limited its use and that is probably why we have only ever seen one strike using it. If anything it is used as a psychological deterrent much more than an actual weapon. When the enemy carries the fearsome power of the gods, how can you possibly fight against it?