MOAB Makes Foreign Adventurism Less Likely Because Less Necessary

On Thursday, U.S. forces detonated the most powerful conventional weapon in the U.S. arsenal, the Massive Ordnance Air-burst Bomb or MOAB, against an ISIS tunnel complex in Afghanistan’s Nangahar Province which is just along that country’s northeast border with Pakistan. The MOAB first entered the US arsenal in 2003 during the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. Its recent employment is the first time it has been used in a combat situation.

Weighing 21,000 pounds, the satellite-guided MOAB is packed with some 18,000 pounds of a gelled slurry of ammonium nitrate and powdered aluminum detonated by a highly explosive booster. The MOAB delivery package consists of an inertial guidance system, a global-positioning system, and fins and wings for course adjustment, making it extremely accurate. Given its massive size, the MOAB is dropped by parachute from a C-130 transport plane before the satellite-guidance system takes over.

The MOAB is a follow-on to a weapon designed to clear helicopter landing zones in Vietnam, the BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter,” a 15,000 pound fuel air explosive device. The BLU-82 was also employed in the 1991 Gulf War and more recently in Afghanistan, where along with the BLU-118/B thermobaric weapon, it was used against al Qaeda troops in fortified caves.

Military officers contemplated employing the MOAB during the Iraq War. Indeed, as the war approached, the Department of Defense made no effort to keep the effects of the MOAB secret. This lack of secrecy suggested that the weapon had a distinct psychological objective: the potential destruction of an Iraqi Republican Guard unit as an incentive to others to surrender.

A fuel-air explosion of the magnitude of the MOAB generates blast and overpressures similar to a small nuclear weapon, minus the radiation. But the fact that so much of the Iraq War took place in populated areas precluded the use of the MOAB. But the isolated area in which the ISIS compound was located before Thursday made it a perfect target for the weapon.

A few observations: first, the employment of the MOAB seems to be the fruit of President Trump’s decision to return to the idea that the military “on the ground” ought to have the authority to make tactical decisions. Reports suggest that the decision to use the MOAB came from Central Command, not the White House. This devolution of decision making is a welcome change. During the Obama years, the rules of engagement (ROE) were so restrictive that U.S. casualties were higher than necessary. In addition, opportunities to inflict damage on the enemy were often lost.

Second, although the purpose of the strike was tactical—the destruction of the ISIS complex—the use of the MOAB also sent a clear message to the mullahs in Iran, to Assad in Syria (and by extension to one of his sponsors, Putin), and to North Korea. Although the use of the MOAB is limited in many potential instances due to the possibility of civilian casualties, the United States has also developed a “bunker buster” version of the MOAB: the GBU-57 A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a weapon designed to destroy deeply buried hardened targets.

The MOP is a 30,000 pound direct-strike hard-target weapon (DSHTW) featuring 5.300 pounds of high explosive enclosed in a cobalt-alloy bomb body. This configuration enables it to penetrate to depths of up to 100 feet underground before detonating.

So what does all of this mean? Does the Syria strike and the employment of the MOAB in Afghanistan indicate that President Trump is eager to broaden foreign adventurism? Not necessarily. More likely, President Trump is signaling to our adversaries that future aggression will not be cost free.

This is the essence of deterrence, a concept that has atrophied since the end of the Cold War and the perception that nuclear weapons are less important than they once were. But while deterrence was central to our thinking about nuclear weapons, the concept has broader application.

For deterrence to work, three conditions must be met. First, the party that seeks to deter an adversary must have the capability to do what it threatens to do. Second, the deterring party must demonstrate the will to follow through on a threat. Finally, there must be an element of uncertainty at work.

Our adversaries became more aggressive during the Obama years because of the absence of the last two factors. The Obama administration made it clear that it lacked the will to carry through on threats, e.g. Obama’s “red line” in Syria. Obama’s predictable behavior also lessened our adversaries’ uncertainty.

Trump’s actions have restored the missing two elements (our will to use force and the enemy’s uncertainty) to the concept of deterrence. Even though the employment of the MOAB was primarily a tactical decision, in the long run it has a strategic effect by putting adversaries on notice that the leadership of the United States possesses the will to act. Our adversaries also face a level of uncertainty that they did not face with Obama. Contrary to the fears of some Trump supporters, the new circumstances actually lessen the likelihood of US involvement in conflict abroad.


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16 responses to “MOAB Makes Foreign Adventurism Less Likely Because Less Necessary”

  1. I’m glad that Mr. Owens included the MOP. Out small fleet of Northrop Grumman B-2A Spirit stealth bombers can carry two MOPs and hit a target with one meter in hitting the bulls eye. The MOP was designed to eliminate Iran’s buried unclear facilities and can make it to 200 feet deep when dropped from a B-2 at 50,000 feet. MAGA. I hope that Nork runt has been told of our capabilities and that with zero gone, we now have the will to use our weapons and our military.

    MSgt USAF (ret)

    • Nork Runt…I like that. I’ve been callin him the “Fat Kid” for a while. He should get popped mid Twinkie.

  2. If there’s anything I’m an expert in, it’s big bombs. As a COMMANDO VAULT C-130 loadmaster/bombardier in 1969-70, I dropped roughly 100 M-121 and Blu 82 bombs. The MOAB (which is NOT a fuel/air bomb) uses the exact same explosives as the Blu 82. It just has more of it. The Blu 82 weighed 15,000-pounds and contained 10,000 pounds of explosive. The “MOAB” may have a little higher ratio but it’s not much. The Blu 82s were also “air detonated” in that they had fuse extensions so they’d detonate before they went into the ground. If the MOAB detonates in the air, it is NOT going to do substantial damage to caves. (I am also a former caver and the author of a novel about a cave in the Vietnam War.) This bomb is not new. If it was as effective as the media is making it to be, they’d have been used ten years ago.

  3. They dropped in on the guys who killed the Special Forces soldier a few days before. Unless the doors to the caves were sealed when that bomb went off it would be like suddenly being about a thousand feet down in the ocean wearing your street clothes.

  4. Good article, but you don’t need uncertainty for deterrence. Certainty of retaliation deters perfectly well.

    • Certainty is essential for deterrence. Cold-War MAD depended on the other side knowing that retaliation was inevitable and overwhelming. Uncertainty offers an adversary in extremis the element of risk: why not take the chance?

      /L. E. Joiner

    • I think the uncertainty elements feeds the notion the “juice is not worth the squeeze” for the belligerent power/forces. IOW, the price of attack and personal jeopardy will be far greater that the damage incurred or perceived gains by the belligerent power. In the case of NK, their leadership must know their country will be decimated and they will be hunted down and face capital punishment if caught alive, should they ever deploy nuclear weapons &/or a massive conventional attack anywhere, particularly South Korea. The MOAB adds to that uncertainty, and therefore aids deterrence because that ordnance is designed to attack massed troop formations and weapons such as artillery, to destroy forces while denying them access to terrain, so it can fit nicely into deterring NK since their forces near the DMZ would be very vulnerable to a MOAB or other massive ordnance attack. That uncertainty of consequences is at the heart of true deterrence, imho, when the actual response to aggression can’t be clearly quantified, and that is a good thing which keeps enemies guessing. The wild card is if the NK leadership see their position as untenable they could unleash a massive attack, nuclear &/or conventional. I believe the Chinese are aware of every move of the NK forces, all of them, and will act pre-emptively to prevent those attacks, especially given the signals coming from the US leadership, and its obvious ability to deploy powerful conventional attacks without the need for any additional troops on the ground, while taking measures to protect US and South Korean forces. Not a perfect approach, just better than all the other alternatives.

  5. How does a bomb, nicknamed “The Mother of All Bombs”, killing ONLY 36 militants, is supposed to deter anyone?? It actually points out how powerless the Armies of the world are, Especially the US army, when fighting Guerrilla and terror groups.
    Terror groups can detonate a cheap bomb in a car and get more casualties. MOAB, and the bombs in Vietnam didn’t win any war and didn’t scare anyone except civilians……

    • You need to actually read the article and not reflexively jump to liberal conclusions. That said, let’s examine your point: “ONLY 36 militants.” Reports indicate there are between 500 and 2000 ISIL militants in Afghanistan. Let’s split the baby and call it 1250. The number of militants killed in the attack is now approaching 100. So the MOAB killed nearly 8% of the ISIL force in Afghanistan in one attack. That’s damn good for one day’s work with one bomb.

      • How well do you know me! It’s amazing that you have that ability to actually know what some else (whom you never met before) actually did. That is a huge asset and you are obviously a very wealthy and famous person due to that ability.
        That said, you missed my point completely. Kind of a surprise for a clairvoyant such as yourself.

        “Terror groups can detonate a cheap bomb in a car and get more casualties. MOAB, and the bombs in Vietnam didn’t win any war and didn’t scare anyone except civilians……”

        Now, try again

  6. I think the Muslims know all about Moab:

    Jeremiah 48:15 – Moab is spoiled, and gone up out of her cities, and his chosen young men are gone down to the slaughter, saith the King, whose name is the LORD of hosts.

    America is telling the Muslims that we have bomb that will turn you into Moab.

    It’d be great if we can get another bomb and call it AMORITE or BASHAN.