Hype and scepticism prevails over China’s new ‘Mother of all Bombs’

Columnist  | Bhopinder Singh

Opinion, Oped

All global conflicts since the Second World War have necessitated the exclusive deployment of “conventional” weapons.

It is argued that instead of achieving any strategic or even tactical military objective, it perhaps earned US President Donald Trump the political bragging-rights of muscularity. (Photo: File)

The psychology of sovereign power fuels the quest for developing the “big-bigger-biggest” phenomenon in weapons among the most powerful militaries in the world. Even though the operational nuclear weapons and technology have been around since the 1940s, the global non-proliferation treaties and non-use commitments have ensured that the parallel development of “conventional” weaponry that still skirts the various provisions, deterrence and protocols on nuclear weapons usage, continues unabated. While China and India have pledged a “No-First-Use” (NFU) stand on nuclear weapons, the more belligerent states like Pakistan, Israel and North Korea have declined to commit to a “NFU” stand, as a means to posture aggressive-deterrence against perceived enemies. The United States, Russia and Nato retain a “pre-emptive first strike” stance, with various caveats to justify their “defensive intent”, and so far the first and last time such weapons were used were the “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”, by the US in August 1945 against Japan in Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively.

All global conflicts since the Second World War have necessitated the exclusive deployment of “conventional” weapons. The obvious race to develop the most powerful non-nuclear-bomb had led to the famous “Daisy Cutter”, or the BLU-82, in the United States. This 6.8-ton high-intensity monstrosity was extensively airdropped in the conflict zones of Vietnam, the Gulf War and Afghanistan to intimate with “shock-and-awe” tactics, flatten artillery emplacements or clear helicopter landing points in enemy territory. Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) unit in the Gulf War had mistakenly reported back to its headquarters that the US had “nuked Kuwait”, after seeing the impact of these BLU-82s! Later, these BLU-82s were replaced by the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (or MOAB, which earned a more popular moniker “Mother of all Bombs”). This 10-ton extreme weapon of intimidation was first used in combat on an ISIS-Khorasan cave complex in the impregnable Nangarhar province of Afghanistan and led to the killing of 94 ISIS-Khorasan militants.

Not to be outdone, the US’ Cold War rival Russia field-tested its “Aviation Thermobaric Bomb of Increased Power” (ATBIP), or the “Father of all Bombs” (FOAB), in 2007, a thermobaric weapon of smaller physical dimension, but with supposedly deadlier impact — 44 tons of TNT or four times more damaging than the US “MOAB”! Given its destructive capabilities which match those of a smaller/tactical nuclear weapon, without a subsequent radioactive fallout outside of its blast radius — the race to develop the most powerful non-nuclear-bomb has escalated. Recently, the Chinese have joined the club with their own version of the “Mother of all Bombs” — believed to be approximately 6m long and weighing several tons, only one was able to be airlifted and dropped by the H6-K Chinese bomber aircraft. Like the Russian version, the Chinese claims of its destructive abilities cannot be technically verified. The relatively smaller size and lighter weight of the Chinese MOAB gives it the ostensible option to be carried in a bomber aircraft, unlike the American MOAB that requires a transport aircraft to operate the same, given its gargantuan weight and size. The Chinese state-owned conglomerate and arms manufacturer, NORINCO, is behind the Chinese MOAB.

However, unlike the range, speed, accuracy and “undetectable” homing abilities of a missile system — the delivery of these mega bombs are obviously less stealthy and typically usable in situations where the enemy has inadequate air defence systems on the ground or air to counter the dropping of these bombs, such as the dropping in Afghanistan against the ISIS-Khorasan elements. Military analysts are also a lot less enthusiastic about the long-term impact and efficacy of the much-hyped US MOAB strike in Afghanistan, as ISIS militants still dominate that particular area. It is argued that instead of achieving any strategic or even tactical military objective, it perhaps earned US President Donald Trump the political bragging-rights of muscularity. Therefore, while it is yet another feather in the cap of the Chinese arms manufacturing industry, it poses no immediate headache to India’s security calculus, given the air defence and related security systems. However, riding on the back of the recent Chinese belligerence on threatening to blow up American naval ships and taking over Taiwan by force — the latest showcase of Chinese advancement in weaponry via the MOAB, is as much about political posturing as military muscle-flexing.

Besides China’s burgeoning nuclear programme with an estimated arsenal of 260 warheads, it is the recent advancements made in the development of the fifth generation stealth fighter plane “J-20”, aircraft carrier and nuclear submarine building capabilities, Type-55 naval cruisers and the claimed “world’s best anti-ship missile” in CM-302 (Pakistan’s Navy is said to be acquiring the same), that is threatening to alter the regional balance of power. With a Chinese defence budget said to be nearly four times that of India ($175 billion to $45 billion) and galloping away with a eight per cent increase over the previous year, China is “globalising” and modernising, both its armed forces and its manufacturing capabilities. The Chinese are pushing the boundaries of technological advancement by weaponising” artificial intelligence”, which will require a completely separate realm and dedicated counter-measure to negate.

Holding all the investments and commitments towards acquiring “superpower” military capabilities, is the Chinese economic juggernaut that has slowly started developing cracks and has witnessed an unprecedented slowdown. The ongoing trade war with the United States will put additional burden on the struggling Chinese economy and its ability of maintain the momentum in military preparedness. The Chinese benchmark stock index was among the worst performing in 2018, signalling the red-flag for its economic health that could jeopardise the hegemonic instinct and onward march towards fructifying the so-called “Chinese century”. Sabre-rattling and posturing with weapons like the recent MOAB or snarling in the South China Seas or at Taiwan and Japan is one thing, actualising the “bite” and momentum is another thing. China’s military and technology remains essentially untested on the battleground, and like its MOAB, enjoys and suffers from an equal measure of both hype and scepticism.