As statements go, few say more than a 10-ton bomb. In this case, when it's being dropped on a foreign battlefield on the orders of a new president who campaigned on an isolationist platform, the GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast, better known as MOAB or the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used operationally, is a message designed to send shockwaves much further afield than Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province.
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The official reason for using the MOAB was to destroy an underground cave and tunnel complex from which fighters of the ISIS branch in Afghanistan (Willayat Khorasan or ISIS-K) were operating against U.S. and Afghan troops. However, this isn’t the first time in the last thirteen years, during which the GBU-43 has been operational, that American troops have faced a fierce enemy underground. In previous cases smaller munitions were used. Each MOAB costs about $16 million. It's too large to be launched from a regular fighter-jet and is instead dropped by a specially modified MC-130, a version of the venerable Hercules transport plane used by Special Forces.
Only fifteen such bombs are known to have been manufactured, and they were being kept for a different mission. Together with the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), which is designed to be launched from B-2 stealth bombers and penetrate rock and reinforced concrete and explode underground, the MOAB was to be used in a possible American strike against Iran’s underground nuclear installations. For now, the nuclear deal with Iran is holding and the MOPs and MOABs can be used against other targets.
While the Pentagon’s official version is that it was the operational commanders who authorized the use of this specific weapon, it is inconceivable that expending such a devastating and rare strategic munition could have been done without the president’s OK. This wasn’t just a technical-tactical choice of weapon. This was a message.
Less than a week after Donald Trump ordered 59 Tomahawk missiles to be launched at Syria, a week after he ordered a carrier battle group in the Pacific to sail towards North Korea and the day after he hosted in the White House the Secretary General of NATO, the military alliance he had called on the campaign trail “obsolete” and now describes as “valuable,” Commander-in-Chief Trump has now authorized dropping the heaviest bomb ever. This is a president who in the space of a week has gone from isolationism to global mega-power projection.
Even if the MOAB was indeed the best bomb for the job, it is hard to justify the use of such a rare weapon on what is still a relatively minor enemy. ISIS-K has been operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan for only two years and it's embattled and on the run, not only from the U.S. and local Afghan government forces but also America’s main enemy in the country, Taliban.
Partly it’s Trump who loves big shiny things, once towers, now missiles and bombs and has only very recently begun to grasp the immense power at his fingertips and now seems to be itching to use it more and more. His ratings (not the TV ones) for the first time in his short and chaotic presidency have begun to go up since last Friday’s Tomahawk strike. Americans, at least some of them, are rooting for a president at war.
And of course there’s the message. To the folks at home, the message is that this administration isn’t gunning just for the Assad regime - it's still going after ISIS, only using bigger and better weapons than Obama did. To the Kremlin, to Kim Jong-Un and to the Iranians, the message is that this president doesn’t hesitate to use everything America’s arsenals have to offer. Whether there’s a plan here, still remains to be seen.
If Trump was a spiritual or learned man, he may have been motivated by the sixtieth chapter in Psalms describing King David’s conquests – “Moab is my washpot; over Edom will I cast out my shoe: Philistia, triumph thou because of me”. But he is neither, he’s a man about town. Instead it is more accurate to say that MOAB is Trump’s statement weapon.