On April 13th, the U.S. dropped one of the largest weapons it possesses on an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) command site in Afghanistan. What made it such a newsworthy piece was not the fact that the U.S. dropped a bomb, but the fact that this bomb is the mother of all bombs — the largest (non-nuclear) weapon in the U.S. inventory. And it was the first time in the bombs 14-year history to be released in combat.
The world was captivated by it.
Within hours of the Pentagon releasing information on the strike, people flooded social media with interest and responses. For days, it was the rage in the news with millions of tweets on Twitter and hits on YouTube. And for the next several weeks’ military analysts, news outlets and the public debated its use and effect. Everything from its popularity to questioning its purpose to damaging the environment.
Was there more to it than just another combat operation in Afghanistan…the answer is yes.
Right weapon, right target
The Mother of all Bombs in technical terms is called the “Massive Ordnance Air Blast” or MOAB. Designed by Air Force Research Laboratories in the 90s; it went into service in 2003. Its total weight is 21,600 lbs., with the warhead itself weighing 18,700 lbs. The bombs blast yield is the equivalent of 11 tons of TNT and a shock wave that spreads over one mile in radius…Impressive!
Yet, despite these claims of its imposing capability, the MOAB is not the heaviest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. inventory. The Massive Ordnance Penetrator or MOB weighs in at 30,000 lbs. It can penetrate 200’ of concrete or 130’ of hard rock, taking out most hardened command bunkers or below surface complexes. To the laymen, it would appear the MOB to be a better weapon of choice since it primarily targets underground command bunkers or hardened structures like caves.
But to a tactical planner and strategist, the MOAB is more than a weapon.
It is designed for both destructive and psychological surface blast effect whereas the MOB is strictly designed to take out deep underground or heavily hardened structures. Unlike the MOB, the MOAB classifies as a thermobaric – an explosive substance spontaneously reacting with air – using oxygen from the surroundings to produce an extreme and hot impact high energy explosion in a confined region or space like burrow type caves. In other words, it creates a blast wave over a mile in diameter that can incinerate lungs, collapse caves and take the out the hearts and minds of the enemy.
The MOAB has been around for over a decade. And these cave complexes in Afghanistan have been used for over 20 years by several anti-government and terrorist groups. In fact, they were utilized by the Mujahedeen against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, by Bin Laden as a Jihad staging area in the 1990s, and recently by ISIS for much of the same reasons. With such a varied, persistent and enduring enemy, why did the U.S. take so long to destroy these targets?
Some personal history
I was part of a U.S. planning team in 2005 that worked tactical strikes against these same cave complexes. The best weapon we had available was a 2000lbs. laser guided bomb. The blast effect of this weapon against these types of targets, even with multiple bombs, was limited. The only option was to hit and collapse the cave entrances, which was done several times. It was effective in damaging the entrances but not effective in destroying the tunnels. Although it appeared as though the U.S. lacked the proper weapons, it was not the primary reason we struggled removing targets.
There were other constraints, ones that are still relevant today, and arguably our most severe – politics.
Hamad Karzai had just been elected president of Afghanistan. A popular political figure and chief of the large Popalzai Pashtun tribe, he was well respected. Karzai quickly began restricting combat operations and strikes putting limits on when, where and what was allowed. In other words, we could only drop so many weapons so many times on so many targets.
In Karzai’s defense, he was trying to rebuild a war-torn country. Unrestricted combat operations did little to build confidence with the people and his new government. He wanted more control and he got it but at the expense of the countries security — the enemy was not quitting nor placing limits on warfare.
As his popularity grew, American favor diminished. And the U.S. did little to argue since we were right in the middle of transitioning American control over to NATO and Afghan forces. Additionally, Iraq was quickly becoming a major problem; eating up time, resources and our will to finish the job in Afghanistan. The result was the U.S. effort was redirected to Iraq and Afghan target’s like these were hit with limited force and only damaged, not destroyed. Afghanistan was put on the back burner.
Some U.S. policy history
Our need to accurately define the war and the will to win was absent in Afghanistan. And this was not going to change with the Obama administration. Walking into the office, the President’s strategy for Afghanistan was about de-escalation, transfer of control and an exit. It was someone else’s war, and the use of a weapon like the MOAB would have said something else. Even after Obama was arm wrestled into a U.S. troop surge in 2009, it was still about preserving security and transfer of control, not winning — further leading to policy frustration, incongruence and eventual failure (read my blog: Afghanistan: The Real Problem and Why it is Important to Trump
NATO was now in control through a quasi-NATO organization called the International Security Assistance Force or ISAF. Even though led by an American four-star, American only combat operations were limited and a larger necessary force to take and hold territory was led by an inexperienced (and arguably less determined) ISAF.
As time went on, combat restrictions got more draconian further limiting the ability to battle insurgents. As a matter of fact, there were only four countries that could perform combat operations in ISAF: U.S., Canada, Great Britain and Australia. The other 22 supporting nations could only perform defensive operations which were dictated by their own countries policies, not NATO’s or ISAFs. And to add insult to injury, Pakistan’s borders were porous and difficult to control with insurgent forces unchallenged and allowed to flow indiscriminately across its borders. Like Vietnam, we fought with our hands tied behind our back and an enemy who knew no boundaries or rules.
Because of all this, a weapon like the MOAB was going to sit on the shelf until the U.S. had a change in leadership, strategy or another reason to use it.
Along comes Donald Trump. Bold, determined, apolitical and willing to win. Along comes the Syrian conflict, the creation of ISIS, the near collapse of Iraq, Iranian meddling and coercion as well as Russian aggression in Ukraine (not to mention their Syrian involvement). And to top it off a bolder nuclear-defiant North Korea and Chinese regional aggression.
These were growing flashpoints across the globe. Cold war divisions were reigniting, dictators and autocrats were testing nuclear missiles and annexing territory. Not to mention a more chaotic and disjointed Middle-East. The U.S. had to relook its current strategy and the way it projected and portrayed itself. The previous philosophy of diminishing U.S. power and influence, as well as an apologetic atmosphere, was doing little to affect conflict positively. In fact, it [a lack of leadership and resolve] arguably enticed world agitators to newer and bolder levels.
What needed to change? How about a message?
Message to the military
Here is what we know so far about the MOAB authorization. President Trump stated after the bombing, “”Very, very successful mission.” Adding, “We have given them [American Commander in Afghanistan] total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing, and frankly that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.” Further adding, “If you look at what’s happened over the last eight weeks and compare that really to what’s happened over the past eight years, you’ll see there’s a tremendous difference, tremendous difference.”
The comments are military code for the president approving the use of the weapon but allowing the local commander to decide when and how to use it. Trump’s simple approval was a fundamental change (and message) to our military…WIN! The U.S. was reasserting control of the battlefield.
The military was not the primary audience
Trump also sent a message to our global agitators; North Korea, Iran, China, and Russia. He is not Obama. He is a decision maker, willing to use great force and will own the conflict, no matter where it is. The MOAB appears to have been a part of a cascade of decisions and meetings in April strategically designed to present a very different U.S. security image. One of confidence, leadership, unlimited options, and command of a conflict; a powerful message to behave, or else. In other words, “speak softly and use a big stick” rather than “speak softly and wave a big stick.”
The art of the message
Quickly after the MOAB strike, many went to social media praising its use and intrigued by its shock and awe. Close to 70% of American’s approved the strike. Even Democrats praised its use and Trump’s leadership. Regardless of ideological differences or personal dislikes, America likes power, wants to win and loves bold leadership. And to add, conflict is a rallying point and the Afghanistan conflict (v. Iraq and Syria) is America’s just war, the “the good war.” Right place, right weapon, at the right time.
But what it really sent was a message of change
A different president with a different take on the world. A brash businessman who took few prisoners in the business world and will take few in the security world. He is a man who knows leveraging and compromise but most of all winning. He works on the best deal he can get and those he can leverage to win it.
As an example, a few days before the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the U.S., President Trump states in an interview with the Financial Times, “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we [U.S.] will.” It would have been an irresponsible comment that would have lacked any effectiveness and created little leverage had he not delivered a series of forceful messages somewhere else. Along with the retaliatory response on Bashar Assad’s airfield for his use of chemical weapons, the strikes signaled a change in how the U.S. is going to respond to conflict.
But there was more
Tomahawk cruise missiles are small, common, produce limited damage and unseen. Also, the strikes on Assad’s airfield were a retaliation message, the MOAB said so much more. It is grossly large, never used before, produces impactful damage and intimidating to watch. It is big, bold, and communicates a willingness to use all available means to succeed.
In essence, it cemented the mother of all decisions — to win!
The jury is still out on President Trump. Contrary to media perceptions and his poor language skills, those who work with or for him have consistently said that he is a strategist, wants to win and has a high intellect. He has an ability to connect the dots and a genius on “the deal.” He surrounds himself with talent, listens and is a quick learner. This might be best exemplified by the firing of LTG Flynn as the National Security Advisor (NSA) and addition of LTG H.R. McMaster’s (read my blog: Is LTG McMaster’s Challenging President Trump?). Having read and studied McMaster’s writings and used his insights in my own efforts in Afghanistan, I can tell you that he is an iconic military strategist. And between Trump’s brashness and McMaster’s strategic talent, something as simple as the mother of all bombs can be the mother of all decisions.