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For the first time in history, the U.S. military authorized the use of the Massive Ordanance Air Blast Bomb, the largest non-nuclear weapon they have. It is a piece of equipment they take seriously, and one whose power is to be respected — the running nickname for the explosive device is the MOAB, short for "Mother of All Bombs."
In the White House's first public address regarding the bombing in Afghanistan, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer emphasized the size and power of the weapon they used to target ISIS members in Afghanistan:
But those are broad strokes. What sort of weapon did the U.S. use to combat the terrorist operation?
It's big and powerful, but nowhere near nuclear strength
If your goal is to make a statement and do some damage in the process, there is nothing bigger in the U.S. arsenal to intimidate the people on the other side. According to records supplied by the Air Force, only 15-20 units have been made at the facility responsible for production, the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant in Oklahoma. In comparison to the estimated 7,000 nuclear weapons America has stockpiled, the MOAB makes up a small, but significant space in their inventory.
Measured by sheer weight, the MOAB is bigger than both bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasak—"Little Boy" and "Fat Man"—combined, weighing in at over 21,000 pounds and measuring 30 feet long. But if you're concerned by collateral damage, the MOAB does not have anywhere near the long-term damage or explosive capability of nuclear weapons used by America in the past. A GBU-43 (the technical name for the bomb) has a blast radius of approximately one mile, and its yield is equal to 11 tons of explosive force. "Little Boy," the smaller of the two atomic bombs dropped during World War II, had a blast yield of 15,000 tons of TNT. The smallest nuclear weapon currently in the U.S. arsenal is capable of 300 tons of damage, according to scientists with knowledge of the weapons.
The MOAB is a "smart weapon" that's guided using GPS
Make no mistake—the MOAB is capable of doing serious damage to whichever target its user deems necessary. Once a MOAB is dropped out of the plane it's transported in, the bomb detaches from its cargo pallet and is guided via satellite toward its destination. This "smart weapon" feature allows the user to be significantly more precise, which leads to better precision for strikes. That precision comes at a hefty price: production of each unit costs about $16 million, putting the high end of total MOAB spending to date in the ballpark of $320 million.
Here's video of a test-run of the MOAB, one of just two recorded tests of the device in history. Both tests have taken place at the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida:
While that precision is a major benefit in terms of preserving civilian lives, it does not come close to eliminating collateral damage altogether. A square mile’s worth of blast radius is significant coverage, even in a targeted attack. Once it hits the target and detonates, it becomes as unpredictable as any other bomb, damaging the surrounding area with no ability to scrutinize between targets and civilians. This is likely why the bomb has never been utilized since it was created in the early 2000's.
The power of the bomb prompted enemies to build counter-weapons
Because the military has yet to use the bomb in combat prior to today, there is no track record of the devastation it is capable of causing. Still, the threat of the MOAB alone was enough to prompt U.S. aggressors to devise weapons of their own to counter America's strength. Russia developed a bomb they call the "Father of All Bombs" in 2007, which they claim is four times as powerful as the MOAB and the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in existence.
Knowing this, it's not surprising U.S. military officials have decided to hold off on using the MOAB in combat up to this point. It is a devastating device with no field data available to accurately assess the risk of use. Authorizing the use of a MOAB in combat is a dramatic shift for the U.S. military. Despite the initial device’s development being fast-tracked in advance of Operation Iraqi Freedom, it laid dormant in combat until this first-time use in 2017. The repercussions of doing so—both on the ground and as it pertains to foreign relations—won’t be known for quite some time.