The recent deployment of the MOAB against tunnels and caves being used by ISIS fighters in Afghanistan is a perfect example of the right weapon on the right target at the right time.

First, it’s the right weapon.  That massive bomb’s “over-pressure” – its intense shockwave – is ideal for collapsing tunnels and caves.  When the MOAB’s huge pressure wave slams into the ground, everything below it is drastically compressed.

Next, it was dropped on the right target.  Those ISIS tunnels are in an area so remote that few – if any – innocent civilians were at risk, making it the right target for such an immense area-denial weapon.

Finally, it was dropped at the right time.  ISIS is still in the “getting established” phase of its move into Afghanistan.  Among other things, that means ISIS terrorists are still digging tunnels rather than focusing on reinforcing them.   Those tunnels were vulnerable to the level of destruction that only the MOAB can deliver.

Even though only about 20 MOABs were built – and several have been expended in tests prior to their use in Afghanistan – this weapon is easy to make.  Given the right targets in Afghanistan or other low-threat Middle Eastern target environments, the MOAB can remain a viable and devastating weapon against terrorist threats.

That is perhaps why media commentators – self-proclaimed experts who are ignorant of the way air combat works – think the MOAB can be seen as a deterrent against Iran or North Korea.  Certainly, if we could drop a MOAB on a WMD target in either of those countries, its explosive force could prove devastating.  But getting the bomb there – now, that’s the problem.

While the MOAB was the right bomb for Afghanistan, the MOAB cannot realistically intimidate Iran or North Korea, because we have no way of putting it on target in either of those well defended countries.  The MOAB is so incredibly large – more than 30 feet long and weighing in at 21,600 pounds – that it can be carried to its target only by a slow, vulnerable C-130 turbo-prop transport plane.  The bomb is loaded onto the plane on a pallet, like cargo.  Then it is pulled out of the plane by a drogue parachute instead of being dropped from an integral bomb bay.  Once dropped, the pallet and parachute are discarded, and the bomb is guided by GPS to its target.

Current U.S. heavy jet bombers have operational speeds above 600 mph and carry extensive air-defense suites that protect them against both heat-seeking and radar-guided missiles.  In addition, the B-2 Spirit is the stealthiest combat aircraft in existence, allowing it to fly in hostile airspace with few risks.  However, the decidedly un-stealthy MC-130J flies at half that speed and has less sophisticated defenses.  Over well defended Iran or North Korea, it would be a relatively easy target.

In the right low-threat air-combat environment, this modified cargo aircraft is a formidable weapon.  Today’s C-130 is based on a design that originally went into production in 1954.  It’s been updated many times to remain a viable combat-theater air transport and – with modifications – a superb Spec-Ops support aircraft.

The plane used over Afghanistan – the special operations MC-130J – was one of those specially updated adaptations of the most current production version of the venerable C-130 transport.  These Spec-Ops planes were designed to support combat in low-threat combat environments, such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.  However, even in its defensively armed Spec-Ops variant, the C-130 is a relatively slow and vulnerable transport aircraft.  While the Spec-Ops aircraft carry flares and decoys designed to spoof SAM missiles, the MC-130Js remain vulnerable to any sophisticated anti-air systems, and especially to enemy fighter aircraft.

Unlike Afghanistan and Syria, both Iran and North Korea have sophisticated anti-air systems, creating high-threat air-combat environments.  These high-threat zones come complete with reasonably modern jet interceptors and decidedly modern SAM capabilities.  This means that any use of the MC-130J to deploy the MOAB would have to be supported by a massive air assault, known as the “Baghdad Package.”  This kind of shock-and-awe assault is so named because of its similarity to the devastating air assaults targeting Baghdad that began both the Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom air battles.

It would take a major Baghdad Package-level air strike to suppress either North Korea’s or Iran’s air defense capabilities.  High-speed fighters and bombers, supported by Tomahawk cruise missiles, would need to clear a path through enemy fighters and SAM systems long enough for a slow-moving C-130 to reach and destroy its target.  Such an attack would almost certainly be costly in terms of U.S. aircraft losses – as well as in combat aircraft crew members being taken prisoners. 

Despite the superb ability of our combat aircraft, there is no way to penetrate a well defended site without incurring such losses. 

In addition, because both North Korea and Iran callously build their most critical “targets” in or near residential areas, there would be a significant risk of massive “collateral damage” civilian injuries.  Following Vietnam, America has appropriately made avoiding collateral damage a high priority.  We’re supposed to be the “good guys,” and good guys don’t kill innocent women and children.

Bottom line: The MOAB can be the right weapon at the right time, but neither North Korea nor Iran is likely to be the right target for the MOAB’s slow, vulnerable delivery system.  The intimidating threat of the MOAB that news media “experts” have trumpeted is a paper tiger against targets like Iran and North Korea.

If we want to intimidate those countries into giving up their nuclear weapons development, we’ll need to come up with weapon systems that can destroy hardened targets without massive American or enemy casualties.  Whatever that weapon will be, it won’t be the MOAB.

Ned Barnett (ned@barnettmarcom.com) is a military historian, specializing in aviation and naval and ground-target combat technology.  He has appeared as a historian on nine History Channel programs and has written dozens of published articles on mil-tech.  Barnett is currently writing two books: one on surviving a Katrina-level disaster and the other a novel about a war correspondent in the Middle East who becomes the target of a vengeful terrorist.  Barnett is a professional communicator – often supporting conservative causes, businesses and candidates – and is based in Nevada.

The recent deployment of the MOAB against tunnels and caves being used by ISIS fighters in Afghanistan is a perfect example of the right weapon on the right target at the right time.

First, it’s the right weapon.  That massive bomb’s “over-pressure” – its intense shockwave – is ideal for collapsing tunnels and caves.  When the MOAB’s huge pressure wave slams into the ground, everything below it is drastically compressed.

Next, it was dropped on the right target.  Those ISIS tunnels are in an area so remote that few – if any – innocent civilians were at risk, making it the right target for such an immense area-denial weapon.

Finally, it was dropped at the right time.  ISIS is still in the “getting established” phase of its move into Afghanistan.  Among other things, that means ISIS terrorists are still digging tunnels rather than focusing on reinforcing them.   Those tunnels were vulnerable to the level of destruction that only the MOAB can deliver.

Even though only about 20 MOABs were built – and several have been expended in tests prior to their use in Afghanistan – this weapon is easy to make.  Given the right targets in Afghanistan or other low-threat Middle Eastern target environments, the MOAB can remain a viable and devastating weapon against terrorist threats.

That is perhaps why media commentators – self-proclaimed experts who are ignorant of the way air combat works – think the MOAB can be seen as a deterrent against Iran or North Korea.  Certainly, if we could drop a MOAB on a WMD target in either of those countries, its explosive force could prove devastating.  But getting the bomb there – now, that’s the problem.

While the MOAB was the right bomb for Afghanistan, the MOAB cannot realistically intimidate Iran or North Korea, because we have no way of putting it on target in either of those well defended countries.  The MOAB is so incredibly large – more than 30 feet long and weighing in at 21,600 pounds – that it can be carried to its target only by a slow, vulnerable C-130 turbo-prop transport plane.  The bomb is loaded onto the plane on a pallet, like cargo.  Then it is pulled out of the plane by a drogue parachute instead of being dropped from an integral bomb bay.  Once dropped, the pallet and parachute are discarded, and the bomb is guided by GPS to its target.

Current U.S. heavy jet bombers have operational speeds above 600 mph and carry extensive air-defense suites that protect them against both heat-seeking and radar-guided missiles.  In addition, the B-2 Spirit is the stealthiest combat aircraft in existence, allowing it to fly in hostile airspace with few risks.  However, the decidedly un-stealthy MC-130J flies at half that speed and has less sophisticated defenses.  Over well defended Iran or North Korea, it would be a relatively easy target.

In the right low-threat air-combat environment, this modified cargo aircraft is a formidable weapon.  Today’s C-130 is based on a design that originally went into production in 1954.  It’s been updated many times to remain a viable combat-theater air transport and – with modifications – a superb Spec-Ops support aircraft.

The plane used over Afghanistan – the special operations MC-130J – was one of those specially updated adaptations of the most current production version of the venerable C-130 transport.  These Spec-Ops planes were designed to support combat in low-threat combat environments, such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.  However, even in its defensively armed Spec-Ops variant, the C-130 is a relatively slow and vulnerable transport aircraft.  While the Spec-Ops aircraft carry flares and decoys designed to spoof SAM missiles, the MC-130Js remain vulnerable to any sophisticated anti-air systems, and especially to enemy fighter aircraft.

Unlike Afghanistan and Syria, both Iran and North Korea have sophisticated anti-air systems, creating high-threat air-combat environments.  These high-threat zones come complete with reasonably modern jet interceptors and decidedly modern SAM capabilities.  This means that any use of the MC-130J to deploy the MOAB would have to be supported by a massive air assault, known as the “Baghdad Package.”  This kind of shock-and-awe assault is so named because of its similarity to the devastating air assaults targeting Baghdad that began both the Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom air battles.

It would take a major Baghdad Package-level air strike to suppress either North Korea’s or Iran’s air defense capabilities.  High-speed fighters and bombers, supported by Tomahawk cruise missiles, would need to clear a path through enemy fighters and SAM systems long enough for a slow-moving C-130 to reach and destroy its target.  Such an attack would almost certainly be costly in terms of U.S. aircraft losses – as well as in combat aircraft crew members being taken prisoners. 

Despite the superb ability of our combat aircraft, there is no way to penetrate a well defended site without incurring such losses. 

In addition, because both North Korea and Iran callously build their most critical “targets” in or near residential areas, there would be a significant risk of massive “collateral damage” civilian injuries.  Following Vietnam, America has appropriately made avoiding collateral damage a high priority.  We’re supposed to be the “good guys,” and good guys don’t kill innocent women and children.

Bottom line: The MOAB can be the right weapon at the right time, but neither North Korea nor Iran is likely to be the right target for the MOAB’s slow, vulnerable delivery system.  The intimidating threat of the MOAB that news media “experts” have trumpeted is a paper tiger against targets like Iran and North Korea.

If we want to intimidate those countries into giving up their nuclear weapons development, we’ll need to come up with weapon systems that can destroy hardened targets without massive American or enemy casualties.  Whatever that weapon will be, it won’t be the MOAB.

Ned Barnett (ned@barnettmarcom.com) is a military historian, specializing in aviation and naval and ground-target combat technology.  He has appeared as a historian on nine History Channel programs and has written dozens of published articles on mil-tech.  Barnett is currently writing two books: one on surviving a Katrina-level disaster and the other a novel about a war correspondent in the Middle East who becomes the target of a vengeful terrorist.  Barnett is a professional communicator – often supporting conservative causes, businesses and candidates – and is based in Nevada.



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