The Mother of All Bombs Is Big But It's No Nuke

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. dumped the most powerful nonnuclear bomb it's ever used in combat on Afghanistan in April 2017, it may have stirred up more questions than it did dust. And the Mother of All Bombs (MOAB) kicks up a lot of dust.

What the heck is the Mother of All Bombs, anyway? Is that even a real name? Why break it out now and why there? How does it compare to, say, a nuclear bomb? And, now that the U.S. dropped its biggest non-nuke, can unleashing a nuke be far behind?


To start, yes, the MOAB (it really stands for GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast) is big. Massive, even. It's a serious piece of munition meant to inflict serious damage.

The 21,000-pound (9,525 kilogram) bomb contains 18,700 pounds (8,482 kilograms) of H6, an explosive that is a mixture of RDX (Cyclotrimethylene trinitramine), TNT and aluminum. The weapon is expected to produce a tremendous explosion that would be effective against hard-target entrances, soft-to-medium surface targets, and for anti-personnel purposes.

The MOAB was developed in the early 2000s at an air base in Florida, and 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). The U.S. dropped one on a hilly region in Afghanistan on April 13, 2017, to destroy underground tunnels and caves where the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters were holed up. Many say the bombing had another purpose: It was meant to have a "psychological effect" on ISIS fighters and the Taliban in the region.

Whether it achieved any of those goals is still unclear.

"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."

Interestingly, the MOAB is not the largest nonnuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal. It's just the largest to be used in combat so far. The 30,000-pound (15-ton) Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), designed to take out underground or heavily fortified targets, is bigger. Neither of these, of course, is in the same bomb ballpark as a nuclear weapon.

A MOAB packs somewhere around 11 tons (9,979 kilograms) of explosive power. In contrast, the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima, Japan at the end of World War II featured 15,000 tons (13.6 million kilograms) of wallop. 

Let's not forget, too, 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 the deadly effects of radiation poisoning were factored in.

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

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.

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.

The Russians, however, topped that when they tested an H-bomb in 1961 that was even bigger. The Tsar Bomba is still the largest nuclear weapon ever built and set off at 50 megatons, or the equivalent of around 3,800 Hiroshima bombs.

Americans — and, hopefully, the rest of the world — are seemingly a long way from unleashing that kind of carnage on the planet again. It's a big leap, after all, from blasting apart tunnels in the desert or leveling a city block with conventional bombs to inflicting nuclear disaster on the world with atomic or H-bombs.

Still, as America's use of the MOAB showed, we're a long way from finding truly humane ways to settle our differences, too.


Originally Published: Apr 21, 2017