Da Bomb Meet the Air Force's "palace buster."


Da Bomb Meet the Air Force's "palace buster."

In-Depth Coverage

By Fred Kaplan

So, what about this Mother of All Bombs? Last Tuesday, the U.S. Air Force tested a new and very powerful weapon called the Massive Ordnance Aerial Burst. The resulting acronym, MOAB, spells out the more colorful title as well-no doubt, deliberately so, as a snarling in-joke reference to the "mother of all battles" that Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf waged against Iraq in '91. Was MOAB, in fact, tailor-made for the impending Gulf War II? How will it be used, against what sorts of targets? And just how big a Mother is it?

First, it's big, but not that big. On the night of the test, ABC News reported that the bomb was "similar to a small nuclear weapon." Time magazine, in strikingly similar language, reported that it "packs the punch of a small nuclear weapon." Let's do the math. The MOAB weighs 21,000 pounds, including 18,000 pounds' worth of high explosives. That's 9 tons. The teeniest nuclear weapon in the U.S. stockpile has the blast-power of 1,000 tons (one kiloton, in the parlance). In other words, had Time's reporter been a bit less giddy, he would have written that MOAB (which, by the way, the Air Force pronounces "mo-ab") "packs one one-hundredth the punch of a small nuclear weapon."

Nor does such a big conventional bomb mark any great technological achievement. During World War II, Britain's Royal Air Force built a 22,000-pound bomb called the Grand Slam, which Lancaster bombers dropped on Nazi U-boat pens. The U.S. Army Air Force built a 44,000-pound bomb, called the T-12 Cloudmaker, though the war ended before it was used. (Again, by comparison, the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima released the explosive energy of 13,000 tons, or 26,000,000 pounds.)

Still, 18,000 pounds is a lot for a conventional bomb that falls from the sky. It is, by the Air Force's own labeling, a "massive ordnance" (even if by no stretch a weapon of mass destruction). It delivers about 10 times the blast of most U.S. Air Force and Navy bombs ("smart" or otherwise). It's about one-fifth larger than the BLU-82 "Daisy Cutters," which, at 15,000 pounds, were until now the most powerful bombs in the U.S. non-nuclear arsenal.

According to Jim "Jake" Swinson, public affairs officer at Eglin Air Force Base, where the new bomb was developed, MOAB is meant to be a "modernization" of the Daisy Cutter. It's a fair inference, therefore, that it will be used for much the same kinds of missions. The Daisy Cutters not only make a huge explosion, they are designed to go off about six feet before they hit the ground. They don't plow much of a crater, but they flatten almost everything (people and most buildings) within a radius of a few hundred feet. In Vietnam, they were used to create instant helicopter landing-pads in the middle of thickly foliated jungles.

Some Daisy Cutters-how many has never been revealed-were used in the '91 Gulf War. According to the official U.S. Air Force study of that war, they were dropped from MC-130 gunships "to clear mine fields and support psychological operations." Swinson explains what is meant by this latter term: "If you're facing a couple of divisions and you wanted to give them an opportunity to surrender, you could drop a few of these things. They'd see and hear how effective they were, and the commander could calculate that they might all do better to give up. Or if they didn't give up, they'd be so frightened, they'd dig themselves in to the point where they'd no longer be effective combatants."

Another conceivable use for either Daisy Cutters or MOABs, though Swinson chose not to speculate on such matters, might be to pulverize a couple of Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces-as a potent symbolic gesture, if nothing else. (John Pike, head of GlobalSecurity.org, agrees with this scenario and dubs the MOAB a "palace-buster.")

One problem with the Daisy Cutter, from an operational standpoint, is that it drops on a parachute. The pilot has to fly right over the target and unload the bomb from a very low altitude, so it doesn't drift with the wind-a very dangerous thing to do if enemy air-defense batteries are anywhere near. MOAB, on the other hand, works the same way as modern smart bombs: It's guided to the target either by GPS satellites or, if those fail for some reason, by inertial gyroscopes. This means the pilot can drop it from far above the range of any air-defense radar. MOAB also has wings; they're not powered, but they do allow the bomb to glide toward the target from a distance of at least a few miles, providing the pilot an additional measure of safety. To a distant observer, the explosion would come seemingly from nowhere.

Was the MOAB designed specifically for the coming Iraq war? In one sense, no. In another sense, almost certainly. The idea for this bomb has been around for many years. Eglin Air Force Base, which is in Florida, is home of the Air Armament Center. Every aerial bomb and missile that the U.S. Air Force has built in recent years was first hatched at this center, along with many, many more that never made it that far. As Swinson describes it, "We've got a think tank down here that's out of this world. We have this genius named Greg Jenkins who has these ideas that are so far off the map, he has to prove they can exist-and he usually does." A few years ago, the Air Force asked Eglin to come up with some ideas for the next-generation gunship. The center's chief engineer, Steve Butler, formed a team called Task Force Warlord that, Swinson says, came up with 184 ideas. With so many on the docket, a couple will probably be approved. "Some of our concepts," Swinson says, "stay on the shelf for years before the Air Force decides they're needed."

Eglin has been strongly pushing of late for weapons along the lines of MOAB. Butler, the chief engineer, said last October at a Precision Strike Technology Symposium at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab, "We'd like to create a family of weapons of very large size that are uniquely available to go after certain targets."

Another in this family of weapons is Big Blue, a 30,000-pound "cousin" of MOAB that's designed to penetrate the earth and blow up deep bunkers. Swinson says that as far as he knows, Big Blue doesn't exist yet. "However," he adds, folksily, "a lot of things that 'don't exist' do exist." (It may be worth noting that John Pike, who follows new weapons programs assiduously, says he'd never heard of MOAB-or anything answering to its description-before last Tuesday's test.)

Though MOAB was on the shelf for years, the coming war probably did trigger its move to production. One clue is the acronym. The people who name new weapons sometimes have a dark sense of humor about their job; it's inconceivable that they devised this name without intending the double entendre. Another clue is the timing. According to the Air Force, Eglin received the order to put the concept into development last October. To go from initial development to operational testing in just five months indicates an accelerated schedule. Last October was when President Bush started sending troops to the gulf in a serious way. Coincidence? I don't think so.