Much Ado About MOAB

“U.S. forces in Afghanistan on Thursday struck an Islamic State tunnel complex in eastern Afghanistan with “the mother of all bombs,” the largest non-nuclear weapon ever used in combat by the U.S. military, Pentagon officials said.” — The Associated Press

“The Pentagon said U.S. military forces dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb in Afghanistan on Thursday.” — CNBC

“The US military dropped America’s most powerful non-nuclear bomb on ISIS targets in Afghanistan Thursday, the first time this type of weapon has been used in battle, according to US officials.” — CNN

“The U.S. military dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on an ISIS tunnel complex in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, a U.S. defense official confirmed to Fox News.” — Fox News

“The United States dropped the ‘mother of all bombs’ — the most powerful conventional bomb in the American arsenal — on an Islamic State cave complex in Afghanistan on Thursday, the Pentagon said...” — The New York Times

“The United States dropped ‘the mother of all bombs,’ the largest non-nuclear device it has ever unleashed in combat, on a network of caves and tunnels used by Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, the military said.” — Reuters

“The US military has just dropped a big bomb in Afghanistan. The GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, also called the ‘mother of all bombs’ or MOAB for short, is the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used by the US military on the battlefield.” — Vox

“U.S. forces in Afghanistan dropped a 22,000-pound bomb on Islamic State forces in eastern Afghanistan Thursday, the Pentagon announced, using the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat.” — The Washington Post

One of these is not like the others. Can you spot the difference?

Unless one has been avoiding the news lately (trust me, I sympathize), one has probably heard that American forces in Afghanistan used a big bomb last week. The GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), colloquially known as the ‘mother of all bombs,’ is a big bomb. It has a blast yield equivalent to 11 tons of TNT. It’s such a large weapon that our bomber fleet can’t carry it. It has to be loaded into a cargo plane and shoved out the back over a target. It’s an unwieldy weapon that leaves the plane carrying it vulnerable to ground fire. It’s also been hard to find a use for it.

The MOAB was first introduced to the public in the run-up to the Iraq War as a bit of theater to intimidate Saddam Hussein. Indeed, its nickname is a poke in the eye at Saddam, who once referred to the coming Gulf War as the ‘mother of all battles.’ Alas, the MOAB was more propaganda piece than usable weapon, and remained safely in storage until last week.

When it was brought out and dropped on ISIS insurgents, it immediately became something political — slipping smoothly into our endless partisan bickering. Everyone from reddit users to United States Senators has an opinion about the MOAB, and most of those opinions have been formed by one common refrain — that the MOAB is the ‘largest non-nuclear bomb’ ever used in combat. Go ahead and read through those news quotes up there again. Only one of them doesn’t refer to the MOAB in that way. Mostly that’s because that’s how the Pentagon referred to the bomb. But it’s misleading, and most of the press didn’t bother to clear up the facts.

Yes, the MOAB is the largest non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal. But it’s the largest non-nuclear bomb in the same way that a Tonka truck is the largest non-functional dump truck that can be bought in a toy store. A real truck and a toy truck are different by orders of magnitude, and the same can be said of nuclear and conventional bombs.

The smallest nuclear bomb ever used in combat, Little Boy, had a blast yield of 15 kilotons of TNT. Compared to the MOAB’s 11 tons, that makes Little Boy over 1,300 times more powerful than the MOAB. Meanwhile, the MOAB is only about five times as powerful as some of the general purpose bombs that the US military uses. It’s much more accurate to refer to the bomb as did the New York Times, as the ‘most powerful conventional bomb’ as opposed to ‘largest non-nuclear bomb.’

What really disappoints me about this story is that the press should know better. The press has been reporting on military affairs for as long as there has been a military. There are reporters with long experience with the military, who are familiar with different weapons systems and how they are used. Yet so many news organizations chose to go with a sensationalist telling of the use of the bomb. All this did was throw the bomb into the political arena, as I wrote above, and spread needless anxiety.

When the public hears something like ‘largest non-nuclear bomb’ it immediately evokes pictures of mushroom clouds and civilization turned to dust. It makes the MOAB seem like an escalation into a new type of war, when it is anything but. And the misperceived sense of the bomb’s size places credit and/or blame for its use in the Oval Office. Sure, the buck stops with the president, but there is no indication at all that anyone in the White House had anything to do with the bomb’s use. From other reporting, it appears the mission to use the MOAB was nothing special. A JTAC officer on the ground probably filed a target request and it kept going up the chain of command until the strike was approved by General John Nicholson, the current commander of US forces in Afghanistan.

The timing of the strike, while tensions are rising in the Middle East and the Korean peninsula, is an unfortunate coincidence, but it’s important to remember that not everything that happens in a government is the result of direct orders from the president. Different officials and military officers have tasks and policies that they implement without any input from the White House. Sometimes, this can lead decisions to appear to have far more calculation than they actually do.

For further reading, I recommend Essence of Decision by Graham T. Allison. The book is a case study of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He looks at the crisis from three aspects. The most relevant to the MOAB is the idea of organizational process, where Allison shows that procedures outside of politics but still within government can lead to misunderstandings and crisis.