by Paul Iddon.
The United States’ 21,600 pound (9,800 kg) GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast “Mother of All Bombs” (MOAB) saw its combat debut in Afghanistan in mid-April against the terror organization “Islamic State” (ISIS) in a massive retaliatory strike for their murder of a Green Beret. The bomb is the largest conventional explosive in the US arsenal and its use – shortly after Trump’s bombardment of Syria’s Shayarat with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles in response to the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack – appears part of an emergent tendency in the US to respond with overwhelming force to attacks on its forces or violations of its stated red lines.
This is reminiscent of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent practices in the region. In late 2015 merely a day after Russian intelligence services concluded that the downing of the Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 over Egypt’s Sinai region was the work of ISIS, Moscow retaliated with a large bombing raid. Russia’s Tu-22M3 Backfires, Tu-95MS Bear and Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers flew non-stop from Russia to rain down bombs on ISIS (for details, see Louis Martin-Vézian, “Comprehensive Infographic about the Russian Intervention in Syria — December 2015 Update“, 08.12.2015). The Russian Defense Ministry claimed the bombers flew 127 sorties which successfully struck 206 targets.
The flying of such large aircraft from the Russian mainland demonstrated that Moscow can effectively strike its enemies far beyond its territories. It already has smaller but capable attack aircraft and bombers at its base in Syria which could likely neutralize any identifiable ISIS target in Syria. However that wouldn’t convey a projection of unrelenting strength which heavy bombers, or cruise missiles, flying from hundreds-of-miles does.
The B-52 Stratofortress long projected a similar symbol of US-American reach and strength. These flying fortresses can take off from the US mainland and drop tonnes of bombs, or fire cruise missiles, and fly directly back home, as they proved capable of doing in the 1991 Gulf War.
Also, using such weapons against universally-hated militants in countries already ravaged by war is a good way to test their effectiveness. Putin himself said, in reference to his own campaign in Syria, that “no one has yet invented a more effective way of training and honing skills than actual combat operations. […] [O]nly in the battlefield could many of what was used to genuinely test, identify existing problems and fix them.” Interestingly, following the MOAB strike former Afghan President Hamid Karzai furiously declared that the strike amounted to “the inhuman and most brutal misuse of [the Afghan] country as [a] testing ground for new and dangerous weapons.”
Explosive demonstrations of strength through use of such destructive heavy weapons did not start with the Afghan MOAB strike, or even Trump’s Tomahawk barrage of Shayarat. It started just before President Barack Obama vacated the Oval Office. In January he sent two stealthy B-2 Spirit bombers to strike ISIS targets in Libya which costed estimated $11 million. He also sent a B-52 Stratofortress, accompanied by drones, to bomb a training camp belonging to an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria’s northwestern Idlib Province in a strike which the Pentagon claimed killed over 100 terrorists.
While the MOAB is certainly an effective weapon to penetrate bunkers and cave networks in Afghanistan smaller alternatives could prove as capable, not to mention cheaper and less destructive to nearby civilian populations, against such opponents. In other words, use of such weapons in most scenarios constitutes severe overkill.
Kenneth Pollack, former CIA intelligence analyst and expert on Middle East politics and military affairs, outlined – while evaluating Iraqi counterinsurgency tactics against the Kurds in the 1960s – in his important 2002 military history “Arabs at War”: “To destroy an enemy through firepower one must fix him in place, and the only way to fix a guerrilla force in place is either to trap it in a confined area or to engage it in close combat. Thus, using firepower against guerrillas suffers from an inherent flaw: the guerrillas are too mobile and elusive to be pinned down and destroyed this way.”
Applied to today this means that unless such immense firepower is aimed precisely, the MOAB has a whopping one-mile blast radius, against such irregular adversaries their actual usefulness is extremely limited, if not counterproductive.
When the United States initially entered Afghanistan in October 2001, following the devastating September 11th attacks the previous month, the deputy foreign minister of Iran at the time, Mohsen Aminzadeh, later recalled that: “There was nothing left in Afghanistan to destroy. It had all been destroyed already. American targeted bunkers – caves, actually. They dropped stupendous bombs that could destroy mountains. No result.” (Emphasis authors)
Rapid knee-jerk projections of strength using such lethal overwhelming firepower to quickly avenge attacks by the likes of ISIS or al-Qaeda will likely prove ineffective and even dangerous in the long run – especially if carried out in lieu of far more complex counter-terrorism strategies, which are absolutely essential for decisively defeating such groups.