Yesterday, the US military dropped the largest verified non-nuclear weapon in the world (I say verified because the Russians claim to have a much larger one but, whatever) in a fairly remote province of Afghanistan called Nangahar. The weapon is a descendant of the venerable BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter” that has been in used since Vietnam. As an aside, it was developed to create helicopter landing zones in the jungle.
We dropped eleven of those on Iraqis during the Gulf War… in one infamous incident a British unit, apparently uninformed about the scheduled attack, reported that the US had used a nuke.
Where the Daisy Cutter carries a mere 6.3 tons of explosives, the MOAB, the GBU-43/B, carries 11.3 tons.
The other critical difference is that the MOAB uses satellite guidance, much like the JDAM. Where the Daisy Cutter is launched at grid squares in the open, the MOAB can be rather precise. If you watched the bomb porn the downside of both was pretty obvious. They have to be delivered by cargo aircraft. This implies you have to have complete mastery of the air, including things people on the ground shoot into it. Otherwise, the MOAB and its transport are going to end up scattered over much of a hemisphere.
Last Saturday, Special Forces Staff Sergeant Mark R. De Alencar was killed in action in Nangahar Province, in an operation, I understand, that was directed against a tunnel/cave complex occupied by ISIS fighters.
The MOAB is ideally suited for attacking this kind of a target. Some people who really should know better were quoted as saying “it sets the air on fire” or words to that effect. The MOAB is not a thermobaric bomb, it uses Composition H-6 which is typically used in underwater explosives (not being an engineer I can’t help you out on why a particular explosive was selected). It kills by blast and by atmospheric overpressure and that is something that caves and tunnels actually amplify. As the blast wall passes over humans, the lungs and the hollow organs (stomach, intestine, heart, bladder) are ruptured. So instead of having to engage in an Okinawa-like fight using explosives and flamethrowers to pry the other guys out of tunnels and bunkers the MOAB simply kills them in their defensive positions.
The dust probably hadn’t settled and the eyeballs stopped bouncing in the caves of Nangahar when the left was on a jihad claiming that using the MOAB was illegal or was so inhumane as to justify making it illegal. A sampling:
I've studied the #MOAB for yrs. It's a disgusting device, designed to inflict maximum casualties. It's a carpet bomb. Should be illegal.
— Josh Fox BlackLivesMatter (@joshfoxfilm) April 13, 2017
This is dumb. Weapons are designed to inflict maximum casualties. Carpet bombing is a tactic, not a weapon, and hasn’t been used for decades. Apparently, he believes it should be illegal because it works.
We see this in every conflict. The left gets on its high horse about a certain weapon, typically effective ones, being illegal. In Barbara Tuchman’s Proud Tower she recounts how the ban on dum-dum bullets came to be established in the 1899 Hague Convention. The British used them and they were damned effective. The Germans and French wanted to score political points against Britain and to limit the effectiveness of British firepower. So they and some other parties teamed up to vote to make them illegal (the vote was 22-2, the two losers were Britain and the US).
While any weapon can be used in a way that constitutes an illegal act (for instance, My Lai), as you can see, very few weapons are illegal per se. White phosphorus– legal. Napalm– legal. Cluster bombs– legal. Land mines– legal. Depleted uranium rounds– legal. (Wikipedia has a great breakdown of restricted weapons.) The real arguments come in on usage and intent. For instance, you can’t use a weapon with the intent to maximize suffering (I don’t know how one establishes that). You can use landmines, you can’t just lay them out and walk away. You can’t target civilians with incendiaries… but the “sh** happens” rule applies. And a lot is situational. You can’t use incendiary weapons in an area with a civilian population but the US says it will do so if the enemy has a target, like a supply dump, located in a town or city.
All the MOAB is is a very large, very conventional bomb. In this case, it was dropped in a remote are away from population centers. There was nothing wrong with using it and there is no doubt that using it saved lives on our side. And ultimately that is what any commander’s responsibility is.