Politics & Policy

Enter Moab

Part of the "shock and awe."

The Pentagon has been using the term “shock and awe” to describe the campaign military planners envision for the approaching war with Iraq. We may just have gotten an idea about what this means: On Tuesday, the Air Force tested what is described as the most powerful conventional weapon in the U.S. arsenal, the so-called Massive Ordnance Air-burst Bomb or MOAB. This weapon, tested at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle, is also apparently known as the “mother of all bombs.”

The MOAB is a follow-on to the BLU-82 “daisy-cutter,” a 15,000-pound fuel-air-explosive weapon originally designed to clear helicopter-landing zones in Vietnam. The daisy cutter also saw action in the first Gulf War and more recently in Afghanistan, where along with the BLU-118/B thermobaric weapon, it was used against al Qaeda troops in fortified caves.

Weighing in at 21,000 pounds, the MOAB is packed with some 18,000 pounds of a gelled slurry of ammonium nitrate and powdered aluminum that is detonated by a highly explosive booster. It is satellite guided. The MOAB delivery package consists of an inertial guidance system, a global-positioning system, and fins and wings for course adjustment, making it extremely accurate. Like the BLU-82, it can be dropped by parachute from a C-130 transport plane before the satellite-guidance system takes over. Some reports indicate that it does not need a parachute.

The MOAB seems to be a blast-only version of a weapon designed to destroy buried hardened targets. This so-called direct-strike hard-target weapon (DSHTW) features a cobalt-alloy bomb body that enables it to penetrate to depths of up to 100-feet underground before detonating.

Defense officials reportedly describe the purpose of the weapon as primarily “psychological.” The daisy cutter was employed in such a role during the 1991 Gulf War. DoD has certainly made no effort to keep the effects of this weapon secret. This lack of secrecy meshes with another recent news report claiming that a centerpiece of a campaign of shock and awe would be the purposeful destruction of an Iraqi Republican Guard unit as an incentive to others to surrender. A fuel-air explosion of the magnitude generated by a MOAB resembles a small nuclear detonation. If I were on the receiving end of such a weapon, or observed the effects of a MOAB strike, that would certainly seem like shock and awe to me.

— Mackubin Thomas Owens, an NRO contributing editor, is on leave from the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., to write a history of U.S. civil-military relations.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

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