‘Mother of All Bombs’ Met by Yawns

The massive bomb tested with much fanfare by the Air Force last week may be the “mother of all bombs,” but it was also the only one in the U.S. arsenal and, even if more could be made quickly, they almost certainly wouldn’t be dropped on Iraq.

But that wasn’t the military’s intent anyway, analysts say. It was to send a loud message to the Iraqi leadership -- though the message it sent apparently wasn’t all that loud. Although the test did receive some coverage in Arab media, the story did not quite make it to the editorials or to talk shows.

Al Jazeera television presented the story as a short news item. Official pictures of the explosion were seen on the screen, but the station did not have any comment on it from analysts and the subject was not brought up in a talk show.


Al Ahram, the Egyptian state-owned paper, ran the testing of the massive ordnance as a front-page story. Despite the important place it had in the paper, it was a wire story. Other Arab papers, such as Al Hayat and Asharq al-Awsat also picked up the item from the wires.

Analysts in Cairo believe that the reason the announcement was not given much weight is because it was seen as American prewar propaganda. And, they say, it has been an unofficial editorial policy at many news outlets in the region not to talk about the plans of the U.S. military.

Not that the plans of the U.S. military necessarily include using the bomb -- its very size limits its value as a weapon.

Military analysts in the U.S. say that because the 21,000-pound massive ordnance air burst, or MOAB, is so huge, it can be dropped only from a military cargo plane that flies slowly and at relatively low altitudes, making the plane vulnerable to antiaircraft weapons. And because the bomb causes devastation across such a broad swath, it is unlikely to be used against anything but a large concentration of entrenched enemy troops -- just the kind of target likely to be armed with antiaircraft weapons.

“It’s really quite improbable that it would be used,” said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a defense think tank in Arlington, Va.

“The Pentagon is committed to avoiding large concentrations of civilians, and it is committed to avoiding putting its pilots and its planes at unnecessary risk. The only real use for this kind of indiscriminate terror weapon is to scare the bejesus out of Saddam Hussein.”

The MOAB shares the same acronym as Hussein’s memorable threat in 1990 that he would wage the “mother of all battles” against U.S. troops.

When it was tested at Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base on Tuesday, the munition sent a dust cloud 10,000 feet into the air.

The bomb, the largest conventional munition built by the U.S. military, detonated as intended -- exploding just above the ground and sending a devastating wave of fire hundreds of yards across a test range, Air Force officials said.

Weapons tests are generally not publicized. But word that the bomb would be tested was released in plenty of time for television cameras to set up just outside Eglin’s perimeter. Although the new bomb could in theory be used against Iraq, Pentagon officials say they believe just the knowledge of its existence will inflict psychological shock on Iraqi forces.

“There is a psychological component to all aspects of warfare,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week when asked about how the bomb might be used.

“The goal is not to have a war,” Rumsfeld said. Barring that, he added, “the goal is to have the capabilities of the coalition so clear and so obvious that there is an enormous disincentive for the Iraqi military to fight.”

One Arab paper that did run an editorial on the bomb was the Egyptian Gazette, the government-owned English-language paper. Samir Ragab, the editor in chief, said the Iraq-U.S. psychological warfare has reached unprecedented heights. Ragab believes that the announcement by the U.S. Air Force that it had successfully tested the biggest conventional bomb, the mother of all bombs, is another part of this psychological warfare.

“Saddam’s soldiers may get a glimpse into the tape,” he said. “The aim is to demoralize the Iraqis and make them feel their defeat is inevitable.”

But Ragab says in his editorial that “the U.S., however massive its military arsenal in the gulf may be, is clearly apprehensive about what lies ahead. Ironically, the U.S. maintains it is capable of emerging triumphant in a matter of days or weeks.”

A cartoon on Page 9 of Egypt’s Al Ahram depicts a cowboy -- used in the paper to represent America -- standing by a massive bomb. The caption reads, “And for Mother’s Day, here is our present to all Iraqi mothers.” Mother’s Day is celebrated Friday in the Arab world.

The bomb, which packs 18,000 pounds of explosives and a satellite-guided global positioning system intended to direct the bomb within 20 feet of its target, is not new in concept. Known as a fuel air explosive, it works on principles first used during the Vietnam War -- spreading, then igniting, a flammable mist that explodes a few feet above the ground and sends destructive shock waves for miles.

Its predecessor, the BLU-82, nicknamed the “daisy cutter,” was first designed to flatten the Vietnam jungle to create landing areas for helicopters. It was also used in Afghanistan.

At about 30 feet long, the MOAB is so huge that it can’t be launched from a B-52 bomber, which flies at speeds of up to 595 mph at altitudes as high as 50,000 feet above sea level.

Instead it must be hauled on a C-130 cargo plane, a massive craft with a wide rear cargo door that flies at just over half the speed of a B-52, and usually at no higher than 25,000 feet.

When the MOAB is dropped, it is rolled out the craft’s rear door on a pallet, then yanked free of the aircraft with a parachute. The pallet and the parachute then separate from the bomb, and the munition and its guidance system drop toward the target.

“This is a peculiar weapon because it has to be dropped out of a C-130, and the C-130s just don’t fly all that high,” said one former Air Force official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The bomb that was tested Tuesday was the only one in the U.S. arsenal, Air Force Secretary James Roche said Thursday night on CNBC. It was designed by the Air Force Research Laboratory, the service’s development arm.

“Now that it has tested well, we’ll start to build more,” Roche said.

Air Force officials would not say how long it will take to produce more of the bombs, nor how much each would cost.

One military analyst with close ties to the Air Force said the service has ordered five more.

“We’re buying tens of thousands of JDAMs, and we’re buying five of these,” said the analyst, referring to the joint direct attack munitions that were the workhorse bombs during the recent fighting in Afghanistan. “That tells you something.”


Schrader reported from Washington and Zayan from Doha, Qatar.