The MOAB Bomb: A Massive Force, But No Match for Nukes

By: John Donovan  | 
The U.S. dropped its first MOAB on a hilly region in Afghanistan on April 13, 2017, where ISIS fighters were thought to be hiding.

When the U.S. deployed the most potent nonnuclear weapon in its arsenal over Afghanistan in April 2017, the world took notice. The MOAB bomb, or the "Mother of All Bombs," certainly made an impact, both literally and in the media. But how does this colossal ordnance compare to its nuclear counterparts? Let's delve into the details.


Understanding the MOAB Bomb

The MOAB bomb, officially known as the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, is indeed a force to be reckoned with. Weighing in at 21,000 pounds, it's designed to unleash a devastating explosion, primarily for targeting tunnel complexes and hardened above ground bunkers.

Developed in the early 2000s at an air base in Florida, the MOAB was designed to explode in the air just above surface level (thus the "A" in MOAB), throwing shock waves along the ground (rather than into the dirt) for as far as a mile (1.6 kilometers).


  • Explosive Material: The bomb contains 18,700 pounds of H6, a potent mix of RDX, TNT and aluminum.
  • Blast Radius: Its explosion can affect areas as far as a mile (1.5 kilometers) away, making it effective against a wide range of targets.
  • Deployment: Due to its size, the MOAB is delivered by a C-130 military transport plane, guided by a GPS system and deployed via parachute.

"Such enormous munitions may make a big blast, but they are not guaranteed to wipe out enemy fighters burrowing deep underground," Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes in the New York Times. "And even if they kill insurgents, they will not kill the insurgency."

In his Times opinion piece, Boot suggests that using the MOAB was a sign of desperation.

"When the enemy becomes too powerful, as it did in Vietnam, then it becomes necessary to call in air and artillery strikes," he writes. "That was not a sign of progress; it was a sign, in fact, that the security situation was spiraling out of control."


MOAB vs. the Nuclear Bomb: A Comparative Analysis

At the time, the MOAB was the largest nonnuclear weapon used in combat, but it still paled in comparison to nuclear bombs. The atomic bomb that decimated Hiroshima had an explosive power equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. In contrast, the MOAB has an explosive force of around 11 tons. Furthermore, hydrogen bombs, or H-bombs, are even more potent, with some tested versions being over 1,200 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.

Let's not forget that there are far more important numbers to cite when talking about bombs and war. When it was dropped in August 1945, and counting the first few months afterward, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed somewhere between 90,000 and 160,000 people. According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, the city of Hiroshima estimates that bomb eventually killed more than 235,000 people, when factoring in the deadly effects of radiation poisoning.


Remember, too, that the atomic weapons like the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki aren't the strongest bombs man has devised. Fusion bombs (aka H-bombs or hydrogen bombs) are much more powerful.

How Atomic Bombs Work

Atomic bombs use fission to split the nucleus of an atom into two smaller fragments with a neutron, causing a deadly chain reaction. H-bombs go the other way and use fusion to bring together two smaller atoms to form a larger one. That creates massive energy in a reaction similar to the one that takes place on the sun.

The U.S. tested a H-bomb dubbed Bravo in March 1954. It checked in at nearly 15 megatons, or about 1,200 times more powerful than "Little Boy," the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and left craters more than a half mile wide and several hundred feet deep near the Marshall Islands in the Pacific.

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A man looks at debris of a collapsed building in the Achin district in Afghanistan after the U.S. military dropped its most powerful nonnuclear bomb at the time.
Zabihullah Ghazi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images


The Implications of Using the MOAB

The decision to use the MOAB in Afghanistan was not without controversy. The U.S. air force dropped one on a hilly region in Afghanistan on April 13, 2017, to strike a tunnel complex where the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces were holed up. Some experts believe it also served psychological operations, intending to demoralize ISIS targets and other militant groups in the region.

However, the use of such a powerful nonnuclear weapon raises concerns:


  • Civilian Casualties: While the U.S. military always aims to avoid civilian casualties, the sheer power of the MOAB means there's always a risk.
  • Escalation: Using such a weapon can be seen as an escalation, potentially prompting adversaries to respond in kind.
  • Military Strategy: Some experts, like Max Boot from the Council on Foreign Relations, suggest that relying on such massive ordnance might indicate a challenging security situation.

The Bigger Picture

While the MOAB is a testament to military engineering, it's essential to remember the broader implications of warfare. Whether it's the MOAB, the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a bunker buster or nuclear weapons, the goal should always be to find peaceful solutions and avoid conflict. As the use of the MOAB in Afghanistan showed, while we have advanced in weapon technology, the quest for truly humane conflict resolution methods continues.