When we’re doing things right militarily, every tactic aligns with a strategy. A strategy with carefully chosen ends served by intelligently employed ways and means. Depending on the scope of the game afoot, the strategy served may not even be immediately connected to a supporting tactic in time, space, or conventional wisdom. Tactical participants may not and usually do not recognize all of the ends they’re serving.
Case in point: the Air Force’s recent employment of the GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast weapon, or “MOAB” against Khorasan fighters burrowed into caves in Afghanistan. This implement of ultimate American badassery is a tactical choice that makes perfect sense on the surface. Beneath that surface, it makes sense in a number of additional ways.
First, the gratuitous video which has sparked widespread feelings of glee among all but a few wet blanketeers who should be ignored with prejudice.
There are at least three strategic ends served by this airstrike and the publicity that has come with it.
First, it fulfilled its publicly attributed purpose: to neutralize enemies who had burrowed themselves into caves and crafted novel defenses to prevent us flushing them out via conventional means without incurring excessive risk. This is a mission tailor-made for the MOAB, which carries a combination of precision and blast making it uniquely capable of targeting subterranean objectives.
Second, the publicly professed success of this tactic not only rids the world of 36 terrorists who deserved no place in it, but sends the clear message that when you dig yourself into a cave to avoid a stand-up fight, you’re digging a mass grave.
Make no mistake, this message is intended for audiences beyond Afghanistan. Consider that simmering in the background is increasing anxiety that we may need to act against the obviously mad regime in North Korea. It’s a foregone conclusion that warfare along and around the 38th parallel would include dealing with adversaries in burrowed tunnels and natural caves. The North Koreans have often touted pre-made invasion routes dug beneath the DMZ. Now consider that the video footage shared above was released by the US DoD, and required release authorization from a very high level. Clearly, Washington wants to send a message to certain adversaries that it is preparing to prevail in the event they unwisely choose conflict.
Finally, and most ingeniously, the strike represents a field test. This is the answer to the critical thinker’s first inquiry “why now?” After all, we’ve been fighting cave-dwelling terrorists for more than 15 years and we’ve had this weapon in the arsenal all along. There have been times of greater urgency and intensity that would have undoubtedly argued more forcefully for use of the MOAB. It’s happening now because there’s a need somewhere in our larger strategy to make sure it works as advertised – be it the North Korea threat enumerated above or some other eventuality someone is contemplating. If a field test is required, why settle for a dead drop in the Eglin test range when a live test on live enemies — far more valuable — is a ready-made option that serves other strategic purposes?
This isn’t an argument that the often strategically inept US political and defense establishments have suddenly relocated acumen largely neglected since our last credible peer rival dissolved three decades ago. It is an argument that there is sometimes a signal in the noise … a rogue element that gets in some solid strategic punches amid a flurry of mostly wasteful sound and fury. Even a lumbering Leviathan takes a few true steps.
If you’re a MOAB fan, the good and bad news is that you may be seeing a lot more of this weapon in the near future unless something changes.