by Stephen Bryen
A specially equipped U.S. C-130 aircraft dropped an 11 ton bomb in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, April 13th at around 7:30PM local time. This is the largest non-nuclear explosive device ever used in warfare. Known in Pentagon parlance as the GBU-43, the bomb is rolled out of the C-130 on a trundle platform and released by being pulled out by a drag chute. It then is controlled by parachutes as it drops toward its target, and it is possible to steer the bomb during part of its decent. Finally the bomb is released and plummets into its target.
The GBU-43 is designed to destroy surface and underground bunkers, mainly by collapsing them and sucking the oxygen out. The bomb itself is an evolution of what, in the Vietnam war, was called a daisy cutter: a bomb about half of the size of the GBU-43. It was used primarily to clear jungle areas that could then be landing zones for U.S. helicopter-borne troops and supplies.
The specific Taliban targeted in today’s case were mainly militants from Pakistan and Uzbekistan. These are the same Uzbek terrorists who blew up the St. Petersburg metro last week, and who also are fighting for ISIS and al-Nusra in Syria. Mainly they come from the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan, a hotbed of Islamic radicalism. It is one of those areas that Saudi Wahhabi clerics infiltrated over the past twenty years. The Uzbek authorities regularly tried to suppress this terrorism, but they frequently encountered opposition to their efforts on human rights grounds, mainly from the United States.
The decision to use the GBU-43 was apparently made in the field by General John W. Nicholson, Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. If correct, this is an early example of the new Trump administration policy to let local commanders make military decisions without having to ask Washington for permission, a policy that often resulted in lots of second guessing, delays and often denials for operations that could have made a major difference in the balance of forces on the ground. We don’t know if General Nicholson requested any approval from the White House, State Department or Pentagon, but the weapon and delivery system were already in theater and ready for use, suggesting that a broader decision to deploy such a weapon was made earlier and only awaited an instance where such use was justified on military grounds.
No one yet knows whether the GBU-43 was effective in closing down Taliban operations in the selected area. The U.S. will be running overflights and, to the degree possible, inspections to judge the effectiveness of the weapon.
Assuming that the GBU-43 performed effectively, there will be a lot of interest in it for other reasons, and this may be why it was used in this instance.
The GBU-43 could take out North Korea’s nuclear weapons development and manufacturing sites, provided the airspace could be properly cleared and ground to air missiles liquidated. The C-130 is a slow-flying, four engine turboprop and while it is equipped with a DIRCM (Directed Infrared Countermeasure) system capable of defeating small air to air missiles, it probably cannot kill a SAM, even older models, because they have large warheads. North Korea’s most advanced model surface to air missile is the KN-06 which generally resembles the Russian S-300 (the same system recently delivered by the Russians to Iran). This is a capable missile and the KN’s (however many there are) and the older surface to air missiles in the North Korean inventory are quite functional, such as the BUK, S-200 and Kub (SA-6) plus MANPADS such as the SA-16. Unfortunately the GBU-43 is too big for the B-2 bomber which is stealthy and possibly could evade North Korea’s air defense.
In a similar fashion, the GBU-43 would work just as well against Iran’s famous underground nuclear sites and long-range missile emplacement.
The MOAB (Mother of All Bombs, the GBU-43) will also catch the eye of Israel which faces major problems with tunnels along the Gaza strip and Egyptian Sinai border. It could render tunneling as a military weapon highly unpopular for Hamas and, more recently ISIS which has appeared on the scene there.
About the only downside of using the GBU-43 just now is that it will further provoke the Russians who will say that our complaints about cluster bombs in Syria is nothing in comparison and that the Americans are hypocrites. It would be nice to say that their complaints are wrong, but killer weapons are what they are, and while the GBU-43 is not banned, it teeters on the edge of acceptability because it is such a massive ordinance to use against hidden targets. On the other hand, if it saves the lives of American soldiers and kills the enemy it is hard to complain about it. The GBU-43 was not dropped on civilians, and it was aimed at killing the enemy forces only. On this ground the best that can be said about the Russians is that their arguments are wobbly, and their Syrian counterparts using chemical weapons against civilian targets is surely immoral.